While 90s groundbreaking television series Twin Peaks doesn’t exactly fit the normal conception of Noir cinema, it certainly has a number of noir elements, despite the northwest small town setting: we might call it noir-west small town, given how little time is spent in the series establishing that no matter how dark the woods are at the edges of the town of Twin Peaks, it’s no match for the hearts of the people who live there. For the neophyte, Twin Peaks chronicles the investigation into the murder of Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen, whose dead body is found at the edge of a lake, naked and wrapped in plastic. The show was one part soap opera, one part crime story, and one part writer-Mark-Frost-mysticism plus director-David-Lynch-weird. Take The X-Files, Lost, and Desperate Housewives, mix well, and wrap in an enigma, and you’re getting close to the town limits of Twin Peaks.
Most people think “hardboiled” when they think Noir cinema. Yet French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified five elements of noir cinema in their work, A Panorama of Film Noir. Among those elements were oneiric (dream-like) and strange. And Twin Peaks was certainly strange and dreamlike, not leastwise due to the prophetic dream-visions of Agent Dale Cooper, the FBI agent sent to investigate Laura Palmer’s murder: dreams that included dialogue spoken backwards, a dancing-dwarf, and a giant hiding in the body of frail old bellhop.
Cooper is the other reason we might miss the noir of Twin Peaks. He’s no gumshoe. He’s more Cary Grant than Humphrey Bogart, and despite Grant being a Hitchcock favorite, we all think Bogie when we imagine the quintessential noir hero. Cooper lacks the requisite cynicism of a hardboiled private eye or victim of circumstance. He’s a white knight with a finely tuned palate for coffee and cherry pie. When femme fatale Audrey Horne as played by 90s bombshell Sherilyn Fenn is found in Cooper’s bed, he sends her on her way with both his dignity and her virginity intact. Cooper is a character beyond corruption, especially if you’re like me, refusing to acknowledge any episode beyond season two’s “Arbitrary Law,” when Laura’s killer is finally discovered.
Cooper’s goodness is the contrast to what goes on behind closed doors in Twin Peaks. Borde and Chaumeton identified cruelty and eroticism as further elements of noir cinema, and both abound in the dark corners of Twin Peaks. Again, we might dismiss the adultery, avarice, and addictions of this picturesque small town, because noir cinema is usually set in overtly urban spaces. Yet Twin Peaks has its bars, and across the lake in the morally bankrupt wilds of Canada, a bordello. The plots and machinations of the power players in Twin Peaks are petty compared to the crime lords of Chicago, but they end in murder, arson, and blackmail all the same.
Yet despite the clear polemic of Cooper’s goodness vs. the evil in Twin Peaks, the series never makes a hard and fast judgment of these northwest deadly sins. Even when the killer is revealed as being the most monstrous of all suspects, Cooper and his compatriots find themselves musing on the nature of evil, unable to draw any final, damning conclusion. They, as the audience, are both horrified by the murderer’s actions, and sympathetic to the killer’s remorse, realizing their role as pawns of darker powers. In this, we find the ambivalence of Borde and Chaumeton’s schema. As with most Noir cinema, the darkness we see onscreen is one we recognize within ourselves.
This was likely a key to Twin Peaks’ success: the unabashed goodness of Special Agent Dale Cooper echoing the optimism and conservatism of the ’80s, a stranger in the strange land of domestic violence and dark sexuality we became so very aware of as North Americans in the ’90s: the perfect soap opera/crime story to mirror the changing zeitgeist from Pretty in Pink to Reality Bites. Twin Peaks is a liminal space, after all, a borderland between good and evil, light and darkness, beauty and horror. The elements of film noir are all there, lurking behind that cup of damn fine coffee, and that lovely cherry pie.
Mike Perschon is a hypercreative scholar, musician, writer, and artist, a doctoral student at the University of Alberta, and on the English faculty at Grant MacEwan University.