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The influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” on the career of David Lynch

David Lynch is one of the few directors of the past fifty years whose cinematic influences are almost non-existent within his actual work. This is not to say that Lynch is not a cinephile, much to the contrary. There’s breadcrumbs placed throughout his work that signal a deep affection for cinema. Laura Palmer is named after the 1944 film, Laura. In Twin Peaks, Lynch gleefully named FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole after a character from Sunset Blvd (1950). He has talked openly about his love for Federico Fellini and in his newest book, Room to Dream, his wife at the time admits that they were in the Cinema rather frequently during the 1960s. One can sense that David Lynch is drawn towards film noir with its dusky skies and midnight troubles. That genre is all over his work, but not to the point where you could say David Lynch was influenced by Jacques Tourneur, Howard Hawks or Fritz Lang, but in the shades of their work in genre. He never gravitates toward a specific director or film. His influences are closer to painters like Francis Bacon. It would likely even be more honest to say David Lynch is a painter who sometimes makes surrealist movies. He is otherwise a near total enigma. He’s merely David Lynch.  

After recently revisiting Alfred Hitchcock’s, Psycho (1960), I began to think that maybe this is a movie that David Lynch was influenced by and there are a handful of key moments in particular that struck me as adjacent to images that would show up later in the cinema of David Lynch. One can consider that maybe the loosest connection between David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock is their approach at plotting in terms of conspiracy theories, gender, and mystery. Alfred Hitchcock is famous for his “wrong man” movies which see an everyday hero thrown into a situation of extraordinary circumstances, frequently pitting him against spies and government agencies or criminals. North by Northwest (1958) and The 39 Steps (1939) are two examples and in The Wrong Man (1956) he takes the title literally and brings it to its natural endpoint. David Lynch, on the other hand is known for the trope of “the woman in trouble”. This is true of Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-1992, 2017), Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Inland Empire (2006). The Woman in Trouble arc usually shows a woman suffering at the hands of some masculine evil, sometimes metaphysical, completely at odds with her own actions. Sometimes bad things just happen. Lynch, like Hitchcock, also seems to have a thing or two about blondes. In addition to these smaller coincidences and looser narrative ties they share another similarity: the door that shouldn’t have been opened. For Alfred Hitchcock, this was never achieved to greater effect than in Psycho.   

Seeing something you weren’t supposed to witness, or opening up a door that leads you down a rabbit hole into hell is central in Psycho and in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. In Psycho, a handful of people fall prey to the rising swamp that is the Bates Motel. On the surface Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, who is a total ball of nerves and never better) seems like a normal enough guy. He’s nice, hospitable and open, but he’s also lonely, pathetic, almost like someone you’d pity. Norman’s a guy you’d try to make feel better, but in reality he’s a deeply traumatized individual battling a psychotic cocktail of exaggerated horrific factors like transsexuality, oedipal lust and trauma. Marion Crane (Vivian Leigh) never stood a chance, but she only rolled into Norman’s life to get out of the rain. She’d die for making that paranoid precaution on the dusky, drenched highways of the west coast. As audience members we feel for her, and we’re just as trapped as she is. As soon as we see that monolithic house and the ghostly feminine silhouette in the window we’ve stepped into territory that is decidedly unsafe, and things only get worse from there. Marion found her way into hell. Lynch was good at leading us into that direction too.  

In Blue Velvet, Jefferey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan) finds his own worst nightmare in the presence of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Jefferey doesn’t know any better, he’s just a teenager, a voyeur, coming from a good-hearted place to help Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini), but still finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun he never intended. After finding a severed ear he becomes overwhelmed with an urge to investigate. Jefferey ends up in an apartment closet of a young woman’s apartment, witnessing something he wasn’t supposed to. I get the feeling we weren’t supposed to either. We’re both voyeurs, in the cinematic sense, the movies are always about looking, but rarely does a movie ever make you feel bad at taking a peek. These two films do. Norma Bates looks at Marion Crane as she’s showering. Jefferey looks as Dorothy wields a knife against Frank Booth only for him to become violent with her and collapse into the hissing howls of a pained word he’d repeat frequently: “Mommy”. This is fucked up. We don’t know where we’re going, and wherever it is, it isn’t good. Jefferey’s an audience surrogate and when Frank finds him we’re whisked away too. A brand new world of mundane strangeness, unnerving the senses. Ants under the rock, an unravelling underworld. Down the rabbit hole of our own worst anxieties for having looked. We’re fragile, the threat of violence leaning closer and closer into the young body of Beaumont and us as an audience. It’s suffocating, but then, it’s exasperating to be left with Norman too.  

Twin Peaks is all about opening up a door that should have stayed locked, but in this case Lynch was tearing open the heart of small-town America. In that show Laura Palmer is found, wrapped in plastic, on a muggy morning in the pacific north west. It’s perfect for fishing; not finding dead bodies, but there she is, beautiful, tranquil, gone. What’s her story? The wrapped in plastic image has become one of Lynch’s strongest, both culturally and thematically in his own work. Laura’s story is more complex than the fashion in which she was discovered. The plastic has persisted, but she wasn’t the first girl to be treated in such a way. Norman buries Marion Crane in a plastic shower curtain, carried off in the same way Laura was. I’d be hesitant to argue that David Lynch imprinted on the image of the woman wrapped in plastic in Psycho, but the image is startlingly similar to the death image of Laura. The similarities are only amplified in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) when Laura’s murderer has struck again, and is loading his latest victim into the back of a station wagon for removal. Norman does the same with Marion’s body, only thirty years earlier.  

Lynch could have gotten these ideas anywhere, but there’s a point to be made about Psycho’s twisted puzzle-box of layered terror appealing to David Lynch on an unconscious aesthetic level. As is, Psycho is one of the great American horror films, and has become iconic to such a degree it would be impossible not to be influenced by Hitchcock’s images and mood. Lynch certainly was, and while I’d argue his cinema remains at a distance when trying to piece together the key factors of his influences as a director, it does make sense that a film as mammoth as Psycho found its way into his brain. Like it has with just about all of us.  

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