The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Dark Knight
Get Smart
Short Takes
DVD Playback
Lost Highway
ASC Close-Up
Lost Highway (1997)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Universal Spotlight Series, $19.98

“There’s no such thing as a bad coincidence,” opines a detective in filmmaker David Lynch’s beguiling mystery Lost Highway. The role of coincidence is a constant in this layered nightscape of parallel lives that spins its sinister, neo-noir narrative exhilaratingly out of control. When sedate Los Angeles musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) receives a message on his intercom that “Dick Laurent is dead,” he shuffles to the window to see who might have buzzed him with this meaningless information. But no one is there.

The next morning, his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), a brooding siren who evokes Maya Deren and Bettie Page, finds an envelope on the front step that contains a videotape. When the couple plays it, they see footage that surveys the front of their home. They receive more tapes, each revealing more intimate footage, until the final tape arrives, showing Fred in the couple’s bedroom surrounded by a sea of blood and pieces of Renee’s body. With no memory of the crime, Fred is charged with the murder of his wife and then incarcerated.

A few days later, when the guards check his cell, they discover that Fred has become a different person, auto mechanic Peter Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who has no idea how he ended up in prison and is subsequently released by baffled officials. Spooked, Peter heads to the garage, where one of his regular clients, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), has come to see him. Unbeknownst to Peter, detectives are watching him and recognize Eddy as the dangerous crime boss Dick Laurent. When Eddy’s girlfriend, Alice (Patricia Arquette), returns to the garage on her own, she and Peter begin a torrid affair. Not surprisingly, Alice is bad news for Peter and he soon finds himself trying to avoid the wrath of Eddy/Laurent. What’s worse, there is a frightening, mercurial man (Robert Blake) lurking in the shadows who seems to know that Peter is really Fred.

Evoking much of the sensibility of Lynch’s eerie, fascinating first feature, Eraserhead (1977), Lost Highway has a distinctly nontraditional approach to storytelling. Working with co-screenwriter Barry Gifford, with whom he had collaborated on for Wild at Heart (1990), Lynch fashioned this occasionally obtuse but always engaging noir-flavored nightmare. To bring it to the screen, he tapped director of photography Peter Deming, ASC, with whom he had worked on the TV projects On the Air and Hotel Room.

In the March ’97 issue of American Cinematographer, Deming spoke of Lynch’s affection for many layers of darkness in images and said that on Lost Highway, the director wanted to go as dark as possible, with a specific interest in browns, yellows and reds. Deming noted Lynch’s love of darkness was the picture’s biggest challenge: “I know what David likes; if he had it his way, everything would be a little underexposed and murky, which is murder for me,” the cinematographer said. The result of Deming’s creative effort gives Lost Highway an incredibly diverse and rich visual texture that is one of the film’s biggest assets. Lynch and Deming’s successful collaboration continued with commercials and the 2001 feature Mulholland Dr.

Lost Highway has finally surfaced on DVD in the United States, courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. A terribly cropped version of the film was released on VHS in 1997, with a solid letterboxed laserdisc presentation also released that same year. But for the past decade, the only DVD version has been a pale import. The long wait has proven worthwhile, as the image quality of this DVD is exceptionally clean, well detailed and faithful to the look of the prints. Deming’s incandescent work has been deftly reproduced with very strong primaries that never bleed. There’s a remarkable lack of pixellation and distortion in the incredibly varied grades of black on display. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is vibrant and complex and gives a surround system a rigorous workout.

This DVD’s only drawback is its lack of supplements. Lynch has openly acknowledged that he dislikes analyzing his films, but he has contributed interviews to the DVDs of some of his other pictures, and it’s a shame that wasn’t the case here. He is a unique, visionary artist whose work continues to be an asset and a challenge to contemporary American film culture. This presentation of Lost Highway vividly brings the gifted filmmaker’s intense, hallucinatory imagery to gleaming life on home screens.  

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