In the short story “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, the protagonist, Peyton Farquar is taken to be killed by the Yankees because he was thought to be a Rebel spy. In this story, Peyton escapes his fate after he is hung over the bridge and makes his way “home” to his family. The reader actually believes that the man has escaped his fate by removing the noose from his neck and swimming to safety, then running from bullets being hurled at him by the yanks. In the end, we find Peyton is dead and swinging on the Owl Creek Bridge. He had in fact not escaped, it was the moments before death, however small that appeared to make him think he had escaped his fate. So too, do we find Fred Madison as the protagonist in “Lost Highway” in the 1997 neo noir film by David Lynch.
Elements of the film noir genre are imposed upon this movie that details terror, sex, lust and betrayal in a dark and evil world. Madison morphs into a young man named Pete Dayton who finds himself entrapped in the mind and world of convicted wife killer Madison. Use of convoluted images and confusing scenes offer a deeply disturbing world of Madison and a terrifying “devil” man played by Robert Blake. Robert Loggia plays Mr. Eddy, a mean, tough Mafioso man, and Patricia Arquette plays both Renee and Alice, the femme fatale of the piece who lures men into her seeming trap by powerful lust and sexual tension.
Themes of death, fear and paranoia fill the film as does an ending that offers us the psychological twist.: Who am I? Fred Madison morphs into the character of Pete which makes no sense to the viewer and to the character himself. Pete is “different” his girlfriend tells him, and yet he has no idea what happened when he appears in another place, not knowing how he got there or what is wrong. The supernatural feeling of the movie starts at the party Fred attends with his wife and a meeting with the ugly man (Blake) and a strange telephone call and ends with Fred talking to a young guy who says strange things to him, similar to what Blake character has said to Fred Madison.
Although this is a very esoteric movie, one begins to ask oneself where one person stops and another one begins. The publicist of the film likened the identity shift to a psychological fugue state, a rare disorder that is characterized by a type of reversible amnesia that attacks the memories and personality of a person who has it and can cause a subject to take on a new identity. This would explain how Fred becomes the younger Pete, although does not explain how he would be let out of jail, as the person does not take on a whole new look! But this is a movie, so we are asked to stretch our limitations!
The narrative is a cryptic look at psychological existentialism and the way people view reality and ghostly existence. Many people have tried to describe this film in reviews, but fall short of examining the interconnectedness of life and the way we look at reality. Although the film is full or eroticism and violence, there appears to be a thread running through it that examines the human condition in its worst case scenario. We are often lead down a primrose path and expect that things are as we think they are, until we realize that we have been deceived and that life is not what we expected it to be. In the case of Pete, he becomes a willing pawn in a relationship that only serves his mistress and no himself, and yet he gives himself over to it because of his lust. Fred is set up in the killing of his wife, or is he? In a seemingly loveless marriage and dreary home life, the only thing he seems happy doing is playing his sax.
Once again, as in other existential films we find the use of the doppelganger, much like the writer EA Poe does in his macabre works of fiction. David Lynch is well known for his persistent use of surrealism, keeping the viewer guessing at all times as to where the narrative is heading, especially when the characters take a turn from their individual identities in the two parts of the films. The curious thing is that we do have something oddly familiar in the female characters and their contrasting hot and cold sexuality on screen. Something familiar is going on with the women, and oddly enough we see the contrast from their nail polish coloring to their 1940’s hairstyles and love of high heel shoes. We can see the nails turn from dark to white in the movie as well as the hair coloring of the women.There is also a German character in a number of scenes and the use of German expressionism is evident in the choice of lighting, mise en scene and music used with him and the “Mystery Man” who employ a disturbing kind of other-worldy evil in his film scenes. We see the contrast of light and dark repeatedly in this film and it is done in such a way as to make it obvious to the viewer.
Here is an explanation that appears to nail the doppelganger idea and also the concept of the “other” in the film: “the first half of Lost Highwayis so brooding and mysterious. It pushes up against the limits of what can be seen and said. So much is hinted at, and so little is shown. Even the event upon which the whole film turns, Fred’s apparent murder of Renee, does not take place on screen. We see what comes before, and what comes after. But we do not–cannot–see the act itself. It is missing from the body of the film, just as it is missing from Fred’s own consciousness. The murder drives the story, but it stands apart from the story. It is like an intrusion from another world” (Shaviro). This representation, which is much like the convention of Greek Theater, has the action take place off screen, and is meant to leave the viewer uncertain as to whether this actually occurred, or was another piece of the plot puzzle. Later, we see Renee in a photograph at the home of Alice. She and Mr. Eddy, and the German man and Alice are in the picture, although it is Alice that Mr. Eddy brings to the garage with him and the German man appears to be flirting with Renee at the previous party. The characters appear to be extensions of each other, similar, one and the same, doppelgangers as it were.
Showing two sides of every character, director Lynch makes certain that no character appears on the screen with their opposite counterpart. The story instead takes place as a cycle, where every action has a reaction in the film, but not in a linear way. Sometimes an action can take place in the latter half of the film whose reaction appears in the first half. And, the detectives depicted in the movie act like buffoons appearing not to be able to find their way out of a paper bag. They seemingly interact with the seamier side of life, but one would not know it by the way they interact with the Fred and Renee at the beginning of the film, nor the way they handle keeping an eye on Pete.
Shaviro, Steve. Stranded in the Jungle. Paradoxa Magazine. 1998