1986 / 2.35 : 1 / 120 Min.
Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern
Cinematography by Frederick Elmes
Directed by David Lynch
Voyeurs come in all shapes and sizes, from wallflowers like Russ Meyer’s Immoral Mr. Teas to the handsome but lethal pin-up artist of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom – all of them slackers compared to Jeff Jeffries, the sleepless shutterbug played by James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
A house-bound photo-journalist obsessed with the strange behavior of his reclusive neighbor, Jeffries stops at nothing in his compulsive pursuit. This being a Hitchcock film, what drives Jeff’s curiosity is a mix of fear and desire that in the end implicates everyone, including the audience.
Jeffries’s boyish smile disguised his darker inclinations – a notion Mel Brooks had in mind when he christened David Lynch “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” – an apt characterization of the director as well as the young hero of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, an offbeat noir about coming of age in a Bizarro-world Peyton Place.
This being a Lynch film there is fear, desire and plenty more – including (according to the deadpan synopsis in the AFI catalog) “Amputation, Brothels, Ears, Innocence, Masochism, Nightclubs, Sadism and Singers”- as Zero Mostel once proclaimed, “Something for everybody!”
As tradition would have it, the peeping Tom detective of Lynch’s film is a “Jeff” too – Jeffrey Beaumont, a fresh-faced college kid returned to his hometown of Lumberton to tend for his bedridden father. Kyle MacLachlan was 27 years old when he took the part but he looks 17 and acts younger.
An adolescent on the prowl is someone just itching for trouble and Jeffrey is as itchy and aimless as his Hitchcockian namesake. But his curiosity isn’t quite focused yet – that changes when he stumbles over a colony of ants feasting on a severed ear. Lumberton is a sunny throwback to simpler times – ice cream shops and juke boxes – but when it’s dark, it’s pretty damn dark.
That gruesome turn of events reignites Jeffrey’s childhood crush on a detective’s daughter, a bright-eyed debutante named Sandy who plays the prom queen to Jeff’s teen idol – that is until he gets an eyeful of a mysterious chanteuse named Dorothy Vallens. Sandy is played by Laura Dern and Dorothy is played by the darkly ravishing Isabella Rossellini – the good witch and bad witch of high maintenance girlfriends.
Dorothy appears nightly at The Slow Club, a truck stop reincarnation of Von Sternberg’s Blue Angel. Bathed in, what else, neon-blue, the smoky cabaret is as schizophrenic as Lumberton itself, catering to Weimer Republic nostalgists and good-old-boys alike (the all-purpose cinematography – part Sirkian melodrama, part Disneyland, is by Lynch’s longtime partner-in-crime, Frederick Elmes.)
Dorothy seems to have just one song in her repertoire, Bobby Vinton’s 1963 chart topper Blue Velvet. They don’t call it the Slow Club for nothing – Dorothy makes the song last, stretching out Vinton’s perky white bread rhythms to a tortoise-like crawl (closer, in fact, to the languorous Tony Bennett original from 1951.) The somnambulant performance is so intriguing, Jeffrey decides to break into her home.
In keeping with all best laid plans, the amateur sleuth finds himself trapped in Dorothy’s closet – claustrophobic to be sure but with a good vantage point of the parlor, a dimly lit tomb resembling the waiting room of an upscale torture chamber. And he can definitely see Dorothy herself as she undresses – her nonchalant striptease and Angelo Badalamenti’s apocalyptic mood music quickens the pulse. Then Frank Booth arrives and our hearts stop.
Played by legendary Hollywood bad boy Dennis Hopper (“Listen David, I know we’ve never met, but believe me – I am Frank Booth.”), Booth is a fire-breathing psycho clad in the uniform of a dandified gangster – striped shirt, bolo tie and leather jacket. After gently sniffing his bourbon he orders Dorothy to spread her legs and brings out a gas mask.
The horrific spectacle explains Dorothy’s narcotized performance at the nightclub – she’s not drugged, she’s shellshocked. In a bit of Kabuki Theater by way of Krafft-Ebing, Frank and Dorothy recreate a well-rehearsed but volatile cat and mouse game – they know their lines to the T and woe to Dorothy if she misses a cue – which, inevitably, she does.
33 years after the film’s release the shock is no less visceral when the whining monster abruptly punches his leading lady – “Don’t you fucking look at me!” Even more alarming is Dorothy’s reaction – a look of pure pleasure, she falls away like a rag doll and just for a moment seems to float on air. She does everything but thank him.
Ever the white knight, Jeffrey succumbs to Dorothy’s vulnerability and compliant sex appeal – and he pays the price. Frank kidnaps him for a tour of Lumberton at night with stops at a roadhouse dive (“Fuck Heineken! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”) and a low rent bordello managed by Ben, the pimp from another planet played by Dean Stockwell who entertains us all with a bizarrely appropriate bit of Roy Orbison Karaoke – In Dreams.
Lynch is in his element in these scenes – you can feel his happiness in bringing to life Diane Arbus’ most perverse daydreams – especially Ben’s threadbare whorehouse and Dorothy’s apartment, a Technicolor update of Henry Spencer’s decrepit walk-up in Eraserhead (Jack Nance has a small role as one of Frank’s toadies.)
Blue Velvet’s story is only part of the equation – all of Lynch’s peculiarities, obsessions and private jokes are on display – the mordant humor of the body-less ear (lifted from Gogol’s The Nose?) along with his naturally voyeuristic camera that slow-zooms directly into any available orifice (ears, mouths, bullet wounds). All of it is steeped in Lynch and the late Alan Splet’s extraordinary sound design, mood-swinging between ethereal ambient rumbles and horrifying animal noises
Jeffrey’s joyride and ours comes to an end, the mystery that bonds Dorothy, Frank and the ear – a thinly wrapped enigma if ever there was one – is solved. So Lynch makes sure to wrap the film with another riddle – perched in the window of Jeffrey’s kitchen is a mechanical robin with a flesh and blood bug squirming in its beak – a good illustration of Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads” and a good summary of Lynch’s worldview.
How often do art movies engage and enrage the proletariat while creating pop culture firestorms? In The New York Times Janet Maslin pronounced Blue Velvet “… an instant cult classic… There’s no mistaking the exhilarating fact that it’s one of a kind.“ In the Village Voice J. Hoberman described it as “… rich… imaginatively cast and wonderfully acted…”
The solidly middle-western critic Roger Elbert had a different reaction, portraying Lynch as “sadistic” (this from a man who wrote a scene with a woman sucking a gun barrel until her brains are blown out). One audience member wrote on their preview card: “David Lynch should be shot.”
For those reasons and more, Lynch’s film has turned into a perennial for not just revival houses but that more common outlet for unconventional fare, home video. After dragging their heels Criterion has finally stepped into the breach with this fine new presentation on Blu ray.
Their Blu Velvet features a beautiful, gossamer transfer of Elmes’ photography and a voluminous selection of supplements. The movie is, as Hoberman says, “so rich” that no one version will ever be considered the final word – but Criterion’s effort will more than suffice for now.
Here’s the rundown of extras via Criterion’s site:
New 4K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray, both supervised by director David Lynch
Alternate original 2.0 surround soundtrack
The Lost Footage, fifty-three minutes of deleted scenes and alternate takes assembled by Lynch
“Blue Velvet” Revisited, a feature-length meditation on the making of the movie by Peter Braatz, filmed on-set during the production
Mysteries of Love, a seventy-minute documentary from 2002 on the making of the film
Interview from 2017 with composer Angelo Badalamenti
It’s a Strange World: The Filming of “Blue Velvet,” a 2019 documentary featuring interviews with crew members and visits to the shooting locations
Lynch reading from Room to Dream, a 2018 book he coauthored with Kristine McKenna
PLUS: Excerpts by McKenna from Room to Dream
Here’s Josh Olson on the Lynch classic: