The Surprising (Other) Reason for the Sunset Boulevard Allusion in Twin Peaks

Why is Billy Wilder’s self-reflexive noir triumph, Sunset Boulevard (1950), the film chosen to serve as what may very well be the catalyst for Cooper’s re-awakening in Twin Peaks: The Return? Aside from the obvious facts (e.g., that in Sunset Boulevard, film director Cecil B. DeMille utters a name shared by a major Twin Peaks character; or that Lynch riffs off Sunset Boulevard in both theme and title in his own Hollywood noir masterpiece, 2001’s Mulholland Drive), Wilder’s tale of a washed-up, silent-era movie star, Norma Desmond (true-to-life silent film phenom Gloria Swanson) and her delusions of a grand return to the screen in 1950 very much channels our own desires for FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper to return in fully realized form to our own screens.

Norma Desmond ready for her closeup, surrounded by photographers and police
The tragically deluded Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is ready for her close up in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950).

First, we should note that the allusion to Sunset Boulevard in Part 15 of The Return is not the first time Lynch and Frost have referenced that film. The name of FBI Special Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) seems to have derives in part from the name Norma Desmond in Wilder’s film, for example, and let’s not forget that the owner of the Double-R Diner is Peggy Lipton’s conveniently named Norma Jennings. Additionally, Season 2 features countless nods to Double Indemnity, Wilder’s 1943 adaptation of James M. Cain’s insurance-fraud crime novel. I’m thinking specifically of the interactions between Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) with insurance man Herbert Neff (Mark Lowenthal)–nodding to the character of sleazy insurance salesman Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) in Wilder’s film. Another Season 2 insurance-scam/murder plot line involving a frame of James Hurley (James Marshall) masterminded (in part) by Evelyn Marsh (Annette McCarthy) also pays direct tribute to Double Indemnity. Given that these two Wilder films are among the greatest films noirs, they do much to help ground Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me, and The Return in solid noir territory.

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Wilder's <em>Double Indemnity</em> (1943).
Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1943).

Second, as has been discussed by the “Bickering Peaks” podcast dedicated to Part 15 of The Return, the film Sunset Boulevard is, in essence, about delusions, or, to push the point even further, false realities to which the mind has allowed itself to fall victim. Given that Hollywood itself is an industry dedicated to the creation of false realities (an idea Lynch critiques to devastating effect in Mulholland Drive), and given that Twin Peaks at large is dedicated to speculations about multiple parallel realities co-existing simultaneously, we should not feel the least surprised to find that the major challenge facing our primary protagonist is to successfully (and finally) emerge from his own interdimensional stupor and come fully back to his own recognized reality. What greater way to echo DougieCoop’s struggle than through an allusion to Sunset Boulevard, the most cynical and pessimistic of all Dream Factory films? Does The Return draw circumstantial parallels between the tragic woman at the center of Sunset Boulevard and the hampered DougieCoop? To an extent, yes, but the comparison is largely limited to the fact that both characters find themselves to be victims of these same false realities.

Cooper with a fork in his hand
DougieCoop (Kyle MacLachlan) is drawn intensely toward a possible re-awakening in Twin Peaks: The Return (Part 15).

A more interesting approach might be to say that both characters find their lives to be heavily influenced and shaped by sound (apropos given that Lynch is renowned for his ominous and expressionistic sound design). Consider, for instance, that Sunset Boulevard‘s tragic anti-heroine, Norma, has been unwillingly absent from movie marquees since the coming of “talkies,” i.e., since the introduction of synchronized sound in feature motion pictures in 1927 with the premiere Warner Bros.’s The Jazz Singer. (In truth, synchronized sound experimentation in motion pictures dates all the way back to Thomas Edison and W.K.L. Dickson’s Experimental Sound Film from 1894, which may be seen/heard here.) If we assume that Sunset Boulevard takes place in 1950 (the year of its release), we can also assume that Norma’s career has been dead for almost 25 years (work with me here, I know the math is a bit squishy, but this is roughly the same amount of time our good

Cooper has been trapped in the Black Lodge, a place where the traditional physics of sound are turned upside-down and inside-out). During the 25-ish years between cinema’s sound revolution and the events of Sunset Boulevard, the 50-year-old Norma Desmond has shacked up in her old Spanish Colonial Revival-era mansion with former director and one-time lover, Max Von Mayerling (real-world silent-film auteur Eric von Stroheim), who now serves merely as her butler and manservant. Into this time capsule stumbles Joe Gillis (heartthrob William Holden), a down-on-his-luck screenwriter for whom Norma soon becomes a kind of cougar-like sugarmommy. She commissions Gillis to rewrite her draft of a screenplay meant as her “return” picture–an adaptation of the biblical account of the voluptuous teenage dancer, Salomé (to be played by Norma herself), and her demand that Herod provide John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Norma plans for the film to have no dialogue (“I can say anything I want with my eyes!”), just as in the old days.

Needless to say, none of this ends well for anyone.

The story of how the coming of sound ruined silent film careers is an old one, captured most memorably in films such as Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and, more recently, in The Artist (2011), the multiple Oscar-winning charmer directed by Michel Hazanavicius that recounts the fall of a silent-era action star (Jean Dujardin, somehow channeling both Kelly and Douglas Fairbanks in one performance) who must face the bitter truth of the new sound era and the threats it poses to his film career (see the trailer here). In each of these two films (both made after Sunset Boulevard), the coming of cinema’s synchronized-sound technologies is seen as both a curse and as an opportunity for self-reinvention. While the characters of Singin’ in the Rain and The Artist struggle through their transitions into a new world, they nevertheless emerge from those trials as fully renewed and wholly themselves, hopeful about their futures and destined for further greatness.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in <em>The Artist </em>(2011), directed by <span class="irc_su" dir="ltr">Michel Hazanavicius</span>.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in The Artist (2011), directed by Michel Hazanavicius.

Sunset Boulevard, however, is not so optimistic. As the first of these high-profile pictures dedicated to examining the effects of sound’s arrival, it casts a dark shadow over the later films and thinks more deeply about the transition’s effects on women. In Norma’s case, these effects seem to have taken the form of a voice considered unsuitable for sound. Might her voice have been too husky, too “masculine” for the kind of beauty she had come to represent in the minds of her studio management and her public? Greta Garbo was able to overcome such hurdles given the exotic/erotic nature of her heavy Swedish accent, but Norma does not appear to have been so lucky. (In an interesting reversal of Norma’s situation, in The Return, DougieCoop is afflicted with a very limited capacity to express himself through dialogue, a disability that limits his progression through the larger web of stories told in the series.) The so-called “sound barrier” that halted careers like Norma’s in the late 1920s also robbed many of their prime years (what the studios considered the temporal period of their “photogenic usefulness”)– idolized commodities in a patriarchal industry bent on the celebration of youthful beauty (again, we see shades here of themes raised in Mulholland Drive). In this way, Sunset Boulevard also becomes a bitter commentary on the painfully temporary nature of stardom and the public’s associated adulation of a performer’s beauty and youth.

Just as Norma’s career falls victim to the shallow demands of a narrow-minded industry in Sunset Boulevard, so, too, did Twin Peaks fall victim to the network executives and the same dollars- and statistics-oriented industry at the end of the show’s second season, after which the series was tragically canceled. Its epic cliffhanger, which left the good Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge and DoppelCoop free to wreak havoc in the real world, became a kind of poster child for halted artistic and narrative potential that begged for resolution and fulfillment. While the foreign-funded feature film, Fire Walk With Me, helped to feed some of that demand, the longing for closure to the issues raised in the finale lingered on for decades. Just as Norma longed for a big-screen comeback (but don’t use that word–she hates it; again, she prefers, fittingly, the term “return”), we, as Twin Peaks fans, similarly, longed for FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper to “come back” (or return, as per the title of the new series) to our own screens. The surprising (other) connection between Sunset Boulevard and Twin Peaks, then, stands as that sense of desire to restore what has long been felt absent–to close that which has heretofore been left dangling, unresolved, and unfulfilled–a feeling that is common to both these works of art.

Written by Doug Cunningham


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  1. Also, Albert references Gene “Singin’ in the Rain” quite colorfully before going into the bar where he meets up with Diane.

  2. I’m with you, Doug.

    Lynch has been exiled from multiplexes by superhero movies – “The art house is dead”, he says. Is not David Lynch so much like Norma and Dale-as-Dougie: a captive to nostalgia, longing for art houses so he can be a filmmaker once again? Alas, he can not change the trends. In this streaming era, American cinemas are not what they used to be.

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