Henry Hill and Laura Palmer

Philip Horne

One of the strongest and strangest moments in David Lynch’s unsettling TV serial Twin Peaks, part of the dream of wholesome investigating agent Dale Cooper, comes when he is kissed full on the mouth by the figure of Laura Palmer, who was a ‘wild girl’ but is now dead and whose murderer he has come to town to detect. The story exerts its spell over television viewers through a combination of gruesome invention, deadpan quirkiness and hyperbolic intensity characteristic of Lynch (in Eraserhead, for instance, and this year’s Wild at Heart): but also through the tracing of sinister secret networks within the placid small-town community, the revelation not just of illicit sex but of drug-dealing and ritual murder underlying the ordinary goodness of pie and coffee. The deathly kiss Cooper receives in his nightmare from a girl ‘filled with secrets’ could stand for the ghoulishly thrilling intercourse between the lawful and the wild, for the impulse to get down to human nature’s bottom line.

In Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1985), the clean-cut but obsessive hero Jeffrey (played like Cooper by the wonderful Kyle McLachlan), hooked by the snipped-off human ear he finds in a field, exemplifies this curiosity which, in fiction, so often impels the innocent to look into the criminal underworld. His nice blonde girlfriend Sandy wishes he wouldn’t, but, as he says, ‘I’m seeing something that was always hidden. I’m involved in a mystery.’

In Blue Velvet, the desire to penetrate the hidden specially connects with the adolescent’s need to get beyond the cosy but cramping fictions of childhood to the realities of the grown-up world. Jeffrey is stirred into inquisitive action by the life-threatening illness of his father, which challenges him to grow up by initiating himself in the mysteries of his home town. He spies on the troubled chanteuse Dorothy as she is sexually abused by a terrifying visitor with a mother complex; he then himself gets disturbingly caught up with her (she makes him hit her during sex); and he falls into the hands of the swaggering evil abuser Frank, whose punchline, before Jeffrey is horribly beaten, is: ‘You’re like me.’ That Jeffrey has struck Dorothy makes this plausible: we see him later weep with remorse at the memory, and it gives him something to expiate at the climax, in which he measures up to Frank.

Blue Velvet is gothic, then, the film noir kind of gothic: the watcher of criminal mysteries, as in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, has to become involved and to undergo an ordeal before the crime can be detected and punished. The protagonist’s prurient-looking interest brings with it a shadow of guilty identification – but is also instrumental in detecting evil deeds and ensuring justice is done. In these films the neighbourhood watcher is warned and justified. Sandy tells Jeffrey, ‘I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert’: there is a serious ambiguity to be unpicked. Early in the action the agonised Jeffrey asks, in Lynch’s favourite kitschy tone: ‘Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?’ The answers come partly from within, from a recognition and rejection of human alikeness between watcher and villain.

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[*] GoodFellas by Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, edited with an introduction by David Thompson, Faber, 137 pp., £5.99, 19 November, 0 571 16265 7. Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi, Corgi, 288 pp., £2.95, 1987, 0 552 13094 X.