On the surface, Laura, Twin Peaks, and Singapore Sling, are worlds away from each other One of them is a 40s film noir; one is a cult TV series that had – and has – a huge impact on TV as a medium; and the other is a cinematic oddity that exists somewhere between a European art vision, and the most exploitative of exploitation films.
But even if these three things are stylistically and formally all in different worlds, there’s one incredibly specific, important thread that they all share. The specter of a woman, and the impact that this has on the male figures – all of them detectives – at the heart of the narratives. Each of the three women is defined by the same three things. Their absence; the recurring imagery of their own image in pictographic form; and their name. Each of the women is called Laura and, for a while at least, each of them are dead, or at least presumed to be.
Both Twin Peaks and Singapore Sling find themselves influenced by Otto Preminger’s Laura in ways that – despite the vast differences between all three films – underline the shared space in their obsessions with missing Lauras.
Preminger’s original sees investigator Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigating the alleged murder of the title character, and beginning to fall in love with her while he does. He hears about her exclusively through second-hand sources; the maid that adored her, the man that she almost married. Throughout all of this, an ornate portrait of Laura looms over much of the proceedings; an image that’s ideal for McPherson to project his fantasies about the version of Laura that he’s been told about.
The portrait becomes a representation not just of the woman that Laura was, but also the one that she should have been – the one that McPherson dreamed into being. It’s no wonder that when Laura does return – along with the reveal that she was never dead to begin with – it happens while McPherson is asleep, with her portrait looking down on him like some kind of angel. The ways in which Laura lingers after “death” in Preminger’s film is echoed in the ways that both Lynch and Nikos Nikoladis do in Twin Peaks and Singapore Sling, respectively.
Lynch’s Twin Peaks has taken many forms: cult TV series, nightmarish prequel film, and highly experimental mini-series; but at the heart of it all has been both Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) – the not-quite-girl-next-door whose body is revealed, wrapped in plastic in an iconic opening image – and Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), the eccentric FBI agent who investigates her and who, like McPherson before him, becomes obsessed with her as well as the crime itself. All three times the story of Laura and Cooper has (not quite) come to a close, they’ve found themselves in strange, purgatorial places, still fighting to get out of the shadow of violence and obsession.
Between Laura’s message “I’ll see you again in 25 years” at the end of the original run of the 1990s Twin Peaks TV series, to the screams of her mother in another world 25 years later in Twin Peaks: The Return, Cooper’s constant desire to try and “save” Laura invites along with it a continued cycle of violence. From Evil Cooper/Mr. C making it out of the lodge at the end of Twin Peaks, to the way that the final moments of The Return captures both characters in a new cycle of obsession and violence. It’s maybe the darkest moment in this story – the art horror prequel Fire Walk With Me – that offers the most hope, something that lets both of them break free from their pasts.
Back in the Black Lodge, both Laura and Cooper appear to be receiving some kind of grace, as bright strobe lights begin to overwhelm the frame, and Laura begins to smile and break down in tears – a stark contrast to her monstrous transformation at the end of Twin Peaks – and an angel in the form of Laura seems to appear, as if its coming out of the dead girl’s body.
While Cooper doesn’t fall in love with Laura in the way that McPherson did back in the 40s, the way that each of these men relate to their Lauras is strikingly similar (its clear that Lynch was influenced by Preminger’s noir; taking Hollywood history and making it new and nightmarish has been one of his major preoccupations). Cooper arrives at the town of Twin Peaks to investigate Laura’s murder, only to discover a whole town that seems to be grieving and obsessed with her all at once; an image of her as homecoming queen becomes symbolic of everything she may have represented, even as the investigation reveals a darker side to both Laura herself, and the town of Twin Peaks as a whole.
Both Lynch and Preminger are drawn to not only the obsessive element of these stories, but also the gulf between that obsession and reality; the story of Laura is upended when the title character returns, and McPherson’s projections and expectations of her are challenged, and the ever-changing spectre of Laura Palmer, and her presence in the Black Lodge, constantly forces Cooper to reconsider the ways in which he perceives her.
Through it all, these portraits of both Lauras loom large; capturing not only a version of the women, but also the core of how other people see them – it’s no surprise that the man who painted the portrait of Preminger’s Laura is said to have been in love with her, just like Laura-Palmer-as-homecoming-queen captures that feeling on the cusp of obsession, of wanting more than anything else for the real person to live up to the version you can create in your head by looking at that picture over and over and over again.
And then there’s Singapore Sling, which seemingly takes the themes of both of these films and makes them deliriously, disgustingly explicit. It’s no wonder that the title character is described as a “man who fell in love with a corpse” by the Daughter – in a bizarre, pornographic, incestuous relationship with Mother – who takes him hostage from a car wreck. The eponymous Singapore is, like Lynch and Preminger’s men, trying to find a dead Laura –one that he openly admits to having become obsessed with. Singapore becomes convinced that Daughter is Laura, when in reality, she and Mother killed Laura after taking her on as a maid.
By having a character take on the persona of Laura, Singapore Sling is able to go to the heart of the title character’s obsession. In early narration, he acknowledges the fact that he’s unable to shake off his memories of this girl, even though he’s almost certain that she’s dead. He says that “every time I smell jasmine on a girl, I think of her and start looking for trouble again.” And trouble is what he finds. But the power of the obsession, the way it motivates him – in a way that seems true of Dale Cooper, especially in The Return – draws him towards the corpse of Laura, and her killers.
As with the other films, there’s a large portrait of Laura in the dilapidated mansion that Mother and Daughter perversely cohabit. Whether out of a desperate desire to escape, or simply another dimension of their unsavory sex play, Daughter begins to dress as Laura and tells Singapore Sling that she’s the woman that he’s been looking for. She pretends to be Laura while Mother tries to get Singapore Sling to attack her, and is more than willing to go along with it, saying “do what she says. Hit me, Singapore Sling.”
There’s something cyclical about this; with Daughter, performing as the dead Laura. Even as she says to him “you don’t need to love a corpse,” it becomes evident that this is untrue, and that his Laura, like all the others, seem unable to be saved from the threat of violence, no matter how desperately the men searching for them might obsess over it.
What’s striking about all three of these films is the way in which they relate to violence, that it’s dead women that become magnets for the obsession and love of these men. In Twin Peaks in particular, this violence – both physical and sexual – is deeply gendered as male; not only is the abusive relationship between Leland Palmer and his daughter Laura at the core of Twin Peaks’ murder-mystery, but the (in)famous eighth part of The Return – “gotta light?” – it becomes something deeply primal, like a kind of original sin. This echoes through not only the mythology of Twin Peaks but all of these films about the relationships between obsessive men and the corpses of women. In Singapore Sling, Daughter says to the camera, “I remember the day that Father took my virginity,” while he sits behind her; dead, mummified.
From the birth of the Black Lodge and evil itself in Twin Peaks through to Cooper’s fateful, fated encounter with Carrie Page at the end of The Return, these stories of men and their corpses, by being so rooted in cyclical natures of violence, turn into desperate quests for salvation. The complex, messy nature of the gender politics on display, however – how Singapore Sling moves from victim of violence to something symbolic of it; to the evil mirror the Black Lodge holds up to Cooper and extracts from his soul – mean that this desire to change things, to break cycles, is unable to be separated from the obsessive nature of the men at the center of them. That in trying to save, or reanimate, the corpses that they’ve fallen for, they’re trying to find redemption both for and from themselves.