(Obviously, there are spoilers – but the post is so focused on certain details of the movie that it will be incomprehensible to those who have not seen the film. Since I assume anyone who has interest in what follows has seen Lost Highway, I give no summary of its plot, but simply plunge into a few of its intriguing aspects. As usual, for convenience sake, the post title omits the name of one of the writers: his name is Barry Gifford, and though I have not had the fortune to read many of his works, I have read his memoir, Phantom Father, and it is excellent. For quotes, I rely on the original draft script, as well as a transcript of the film – the movie differs often from its draft screenplay.)
Possibly David Lynch’s darkest movie, it is from beginning to end the world of a sociopath: the color palette is greys, browns, yellows that are sickly, greens that are hospitally, a few reds that are always ominous. There is something essential missing in this man, Fred Madison, and there is something essential missing in the colors of the movie. A question I’ve had for a while about Highway is in the post title: why does the movie take the time to establish that the same character, played by Robert Loggia, doing a great job as usual, has two separate and distinct names, Mr. Eddy and Dick Laurent? This man is a brazen, intimidating figure with armed guards; he has no need for the discrete cover of a secret identity, and the movie gives us no hint that one identity is a cover for the other, does not give us any explanation at all – he simply appears to be known by two names without connection to any other. The answer provided on the film’s wikipedia page, is, surprisingly, completely wrong: “Arriving at a cabin in the desert, Alice reveals to Pete that Mr. Eddy is actually a porn producer named Dick Laurent and he forced her to do the films.” There is a flashback (at a much earlier hotel rendezvous, not at the cabin) where she first meets Eddy and she is forced at gunpoint to take off her clothes – but no mention is made of his name. Additionally, there’s no evidence that she’s coerced into making these movies, and this complicity is a crucial point.
I think Lost Highway is a simpler movie than some believe it to be (though that doesn’t detract from its quality), and I think the reason behind the names used for this character is simple as well. Highway, as most concede, is about a man who, after killing his wife, enters a fantasy world where he is now a younger, more virile character, who gets to have sex with a woman who is a double of the wife he could not perform with. It is world of denial and forgetting, where a man is able to deny his responsibility for his wife’s murder by blocking all memories of it, where everyone else is the villain, and he is the victim. If it is enjoyed less than some of Lynch’s other work, it is because there is only one character, Fred Madison, and his double Pete Dayton; his wife is a distant enigma to him, and the characters of the fantasy world are variations on those of his past life, his projections, the people he wants them to be. This, I think, is the reason for the two names, Dick Laurent and Mr. Eddy of this character. Fred Madison, a few days before killing his wife, killed the man he suspected was her lover, and this man is Dick Laurent. Just as Alice Wakefield is a fantasy variation of Renee, Mr. Eddy is such a variation on Laurent.
Before I go into this important point, I’d first just like to clarify what’s a confusing, and deliberately mysterious elemt of the film: the layout of the Madison house.
FRED AND RENEE’S: A MAP
The Madison house is a great background for the first part of the movie, because it seems labyrinthine, a place the characters can get lost in its mysterious corners, though its layout is simple, consistent (no tricks which add or remove rooms), and mapped without difficulty, allowing us to easily place the action at its various points.
Two polar points on the house seem to be presented as the domain of Fred and Renee, respectively, the rehearsal space and the bathroom. We only ever see Fred in the rehearsal room, and when Fred enters the bathroom while Renee removes her make-up, she gives him a hard stare in the mirror until he leaves.
I go through various parts of the first part of the film and give physical context for some action, where such context is ambiguous or where such context might offer additional insight.
The movie opens with Fred in the dark, on his side of the bed, smoking. The curtains, which are operated by an automatic mechanism to open at a specific time in the morning, open, and we now see Fred reflected in the mirror.
He gets up to answer the intercom, then goes down the corridor, so effectively used in this movie, to the living room, to peek out at whoever left the message. He moves from window to window, before reaching the window of the rehearsal space.
A small note: some have speculated that this intercom message, and this whole scene happens the morning of Renee’s murder. I don’t believe this is the case, but I don’t know whether there’s any direct evidence that I could cite to refute this. I should mention, however, that the last time we see Fred and Renee before they enter their house the night of the murder, the car is parked in the street. When Fred looks out this morning, there’s no sign of his own car in the street.
Fred gets his equipment ready for his gig in the rehearsal room, Renee comes out of the hall, Fred walks from the music room to Renee, the living room fireplace in the background:
When he calls the house that night, we see the phones in the living room,
the rehearsal space,
Renee’s side of the bed,
When he comes home from the gig, we see him ascend the stairs, then turn down the corridor to the bedroom. He sees his wife asleep on her side of the bed.
Fred’s dream involves him emerging from the corridor, then turning about in slow motion from the perspective of the fireplace to the stairs – yet I’m never sure if he’s at all times in the same place, or if he is moving through the twists of the corridor, back to the bedroom.
He sees the fireplace burning with a speeded up fire.
He may then turn around to the other side of the room to see smoke ascend from the staircase. This smoke might be thought of as an intruder into the house – always the evil without, never within. Then, we have a further ambiguity, because the camera then travels down the hall, as if it were taking the perspecive of this smoke moving through the corridor, yet we cut back to Fred, turning, either still in the living room, or navigating the twists of this hallway. We then reach the bedroom, and Renee raises her hands in fear.
The morning that the second videotape arrives, Renee goes out to get it. Fred, however, is up already, entering the living room from the direction of his music room.
The second videotape carries an unexpected detail: we would assume that the cameraholder would move from the area of the staircase to the Madisons’ bedroom, but the motion instead is from the rehearsal space, Fred’s domain, across the living room to the corridor.
On the night of the muder, Fred goes inside the house to make sure it’s safe. The phone is ringing. We see Fred move through the corridor.
Then, the camera moves from the phone out into the hall, as if following a spirit that’s been trasmitted from the device into the house. This spirit seemingly meets Fred, who is very scared of it, and a look crosses his face as if he’s been given an order he doesn’t want to follow but is afraid to refuse.
Fred re-enters the house with Renee, Renee takes her makeup off, and gives Fred the already mentioned cold look. Fred moves down the dark corridor.
We have now one of the more ambiguous and, for me at least, most disturbing, moments of the film – Fred appears to be at the end of the corridor which opens into the living room. We do not expect a mirror to be here, yet Fred now encounters his reflection. Perhaps the viewer has misplaced where Fred is in the house, or perhaps this is not a reflection at all: this is Fred meeting his double. This double comes, expectedly, from the direction of Fred’s space, the music room.
Alice calls for her husband, just as she did in Fred’s dream, from the bedroom’s edge of the corridor.
This, however, is not quite a re-play of the dream. There, the fireplace was lit with an accelerated fire. Now, the fireplace is vacant. Fred may have met his double in the earlier sequence; now we see a pair of shadows move across the living room walls, again, from the position of Fred’s space, the music room, towards the corridor.
We now see Fred emerge from the hall, into the bedroom.
The camera pulls back from a bordered darkness – but this is not the hall. It’s the next morning, and this is the Madisons’ television.
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
It is helpful to look at the way Alice Wakefield1 is portrayed before getting to Dick Laurent. Alice belongs to a fantasy world that Fred constructs for himself, one where he hopes to find a happiness that eludes him in his present state. Before reaching this fantasy world, we see Fred often looking upward, as if for some kind of deliverance.
This begins after the cops arrive, Fred looking up while following some mysterious noise, only to see one of the cops near a skylight.
He makes the same gesture on the morning that the last tape is delivered, before he starts watching it.
When in prison, he looks up, but his way is, literally, barred: any salvation is blocked.
Fred looks up from his bed in his prison cell and sees only the light of a lightbulb, a dim fraction of the salving light he looks for. The bulb itself is behind a grill:
He is forced to look up in the prison hospital, in order to take a sedative – a kind of release, a kind of escape, but a brief and shallow one.
He looks again up at the light, then turns to the prison wall, which unfolds like a curtain upon a cabin which returns to its form after its destruction. The same process will take place with Fred: he is now in prison, his life destroyed, yet somehow, impossibly, he will return to life. Out of the cabin appears the Mystery Man; Fred’s deliverance will come, not from god, but this force of malevolence.
Finally, Fred is in his prison cell, and there is a great noise, and a light, much like some divine visitation. Again, Fred looks upward, and this time he is delivered.
Fred is re-born as Pete into this new world, but it is not a fully constructed one. His focus is on sating his lust for the wife who is not quite his wife, Alice, the double of Renee, and other parts are left awry, a telling clue that this is all fantasy.
This shows up most clearly with his parents, who seem sketched in, an afterthought, not quite animated by actual credible life, and sometimes disappearing altogether2.
They sit on a couch, watching a banal, ancient documentary on berry picking:
Later, speaking to Pete about the mysterious circumstances of his disappearance, they sit in their living room, without any light on.
Pete leaves his room to go out, looks around the house to say goodbye, but his parents are gone.
He speaks to Eddy on the phone, his parents standing right there in front of him, and then, suddenly, they disappear.
In this fantasy world, Alice is Renee with all the virtues and vices Fred wants. She is beautiful, and sexually hungry, but, of course, in this world, he is able to satisfy her. She is also deceptive, malicious, wanton, mendacious – he wants these qualities in her as well, as they vindicate Fred’s view of this woman and her murder. The creation of this very fantasy, the very thing he wants, a sexually ravenous lover who will betray him, is the very thing that will destroy the fantasy. He wants this woman to lead him into murder, because it cannot possibly be his fault that he killed anyone, and she must be deceptive, so that even if he did kill her, she had it coming. These very elements lead to the movie’s nightmarish end, where the qualities Fred wants in this woman bring about a murder where he ends up chased by the police. Long before things fall apart, Fred may has a sense that whatever world he dreams up, it will disappoint him. He arrives in his new life, and we see him relaxed in the backyard of his parents’ home, the only scene of bright, rich color in all of Highway. He should be blissfully happy, and yet he gets up, looks over the fence at the neighbouring house, and ponders the life next door.
Just as Fred looks for deliverance in his cell and sees only the false light of the bulb, Fred creates another image of false light in Alice, an incandescent creature with glowing blonde hair. In their second meeting, she is a bright beacon, dressed all in white. We might look at her shoes here as part of this fantasy design as well; we might refer to these heels as ultrahigh, vertiginous, insane, or, doubtlessly how Fred sees them, slutty.
He is drawn to this light, like a moth, and it will end him. We are given this very image in Pete’s room, as the face of Alice twists around the room, and then we cut to the room’s bulb:
Throughout the Pete Dayton sequence, we see images of Renee played again, but skewed, so as to give them a different cast, always of a sinister, malevolent feeme fatale.
A close-up of Renee’s lips when she’s on the phone to the cops:
A close-up of her eyes when watching the tape:
In both images, we see a deeply frightened woman. When the images recur as Alice, they are of a woman rabid with lust, betraying her husband, Mr. Eddy.
We might take this specific contrast even further, by giving the full context of some of these images: a pan over Renee’s face when she’s on the phone to the cops that is mirrored in Alice’s phone call to Pete; one moves from Renee’s mouth to her eyes, the other from Alice’s eyes to her mouth.
We see a shot of Renee, overhead, unsatisfied, after Fred’s failed attempt at sex.
There is a very similar overhead, later, Alice’s face lying in bed, only now she’s asking Pete to help rob her friend:
I’ll set it up for tomorrow night. You’ll meet me at his place at eleven o’clock… Don’t drive there… Take a bus … Make sure no one follows you…His address is easy to remember… It’s 2224 Deep Dell Place… It’s a white stucco job on the south side of the street… I’ll be upstairs with Andy…The back door will be open… That leads into the kitchen – go through the kitchen to the living room – there’s a bar there… At eleven fifteen, I’ll ask Andy to fix me a drink… When he does, you can crack him in the head… Okay?
Of course, there is the contrast of Fred and Renee trying to make love, their lips never touching, and the passionate embrace of Pete and Alice near the end:
Renee is friends with Andy, a skeevy type who Fred does not like at all. On the ride home, Fred asks his wife how they know each other. It involved work at a place called Moke’s:
How’d you meet that asshole, Andy, anyway?
Renee stares out the front window – thinks back.
It was a long time ago…I met him at this place called Moke’s…We…became friends…He told me about a job…
I don’t remember…Anyway, Andy’s okay…
He’s got some fucked up friends.
Pete asks Alice how she got mixed up with her unsavory ring of friends, and the story touches on the same points as Renee’s, but here they fill in the details of what she did at Moke’s, exactly according to Fred’s fantasy of this woman: she is a whore. The job at Moke’s his wife never talked about involved her making pornography, and Alice liked making it.
How’d you get in with these fuckin’ people?
How’d it happen, Alice?
It was a long time ago…I met someone at this place called Moke’s…we became friends. He told me about a job…
No… A job…I didn’t know what. He set up an appointment for me to see a man.
(we have the lengthy scene where she’s forced to strip at gunpoint, we then cut back to Alice and Pete)
Alice’s hand reaches up and strokes Pete’s cheek.
Why didn’t you just leave?
Alice doesn’t say anything. She drops her hand – looks down.
You liked it.
If you want me to go away, I’ll go away.
Alice not only liked making these pornos, she married the man who forced her to take off her clothes with a gun to her head. She’s a woman who respect force, who likes it rough.
Since Fred sees her as a lying, malicious bitch, it should be expected that this woman is happy to set him up for the murder:
We killed him.
You killed him.
They travel to the cabin in Andy’s car, which, for some reason, looks very similar to that of Fred’s.
This is Fred’s:
This is Andy’s:
This car ride involves a series of shots that’s almost an exact mirror of the scene of Fred and Renee driving from the party – both in the shot, close-up of Alice, close-up of Pete; the original ride has both in the shot, close-up of Renee, close-up of Fred, two-shot again. In the original car conversation, Fred assails his wife with a series of suspicious questions about Andy, about Moke’s, questions that exhaust her. The second conversation shows us how Fred sees himself, as Pete, the perpetual victim of this treacherous woman, dragged further and further into this criminal enterprise – he’s very scared, she’s coldly confident.
I quote again the conversation, about Moke’s, in the first car ride.
How’d you meet that asshole, Andy, anyway?
Renee stares out the front window – thinks back.
It was a long time ago…I met him at this place called Moke’s…We…became friends…He told me about a job…
I don’t remember…Anyway, Andy’s okay…
He’s got some fucked up friends.
The conversation in the second car ride:
Where the fuck are we going, Alice? Where the fuck are we going?
We have to go to the desert, baby. The fence I told you about…He’s at his cabin.
Here is a sequence of the images from both car rides, a pairing of almost exact symmetry – the first car ride ends with the two characters in the shot, the second car ride does not:
DICK LAURENT IS DEAD
Only one set of characters refers to Eddy as Dick Laurent, and those are the cops surveilling Pete. The first time takes place when Eddy goes to the garage:
Lou, you recognize that guy?
The identification is made only one other time, at Andy’s murder scene:
Ed… Take a look at this!
Yeah. That’s her all right. That’s Fred Madison’s wife with Dick Laurent.
This, of course, raises the question – how does Fred know that Eddy is also called Dick Laurent, famously saying at the film’s end, “Dick Laurent is dead” when he never hears such information?
Just as the unfaithful wife he cannot satisfy is turned into a vicious femme fatale, Fred turns Renee’s lover into someone else to justify his killing; Dick Laurent becomes the homicidal lunatic Mr. Eddy. We are, however, so engulfed in Fred’s own fantasy world, that we’re unable to even see the distinction between the actual man and created character. Unable to see that when Fred assaults and kidnaps Laurent, then cuts his throat, this man has perhaps no connection to the crime world whatsoever, but whose only transgression is having an affair with Renee.
Following the scene in the Mystery Man’s cabin, we suddenly jump to the “Lost Highway Hotel”, with no explanation as to why Fred has gone there. His wife and Dick Laurent are in room #26, and he takes room #25.
He carries with him the gun Alice gave him, because of course he is never a violent man, only an instrument of others. His wife leaves, and he storms into the room with the gun, knocking Laurent unconscious, then taking him to the desert.
After Fred cuts the man’s throat, he stands over him with his double and helper, the Mystery Man. As Laurent waits for some explanation for why this has happened to him, the Mystery Man hands him a console showing him video playback. Earlier in the film, we had this crucial and well-known exchange between Fred, Renee and the detectives:
AL (to Renee)
Do you own a video camera?
No. Fred hates them.
The Detectives both look at Fred.
I like to remember things my own way.
What do you mean by that?
How I remember them. Not necessarily the way they happened.
The Mystery Man now shows Dick Laurent Fred’s own memories, of how he wanted things to happen, of the man he wants Laurent to be: Mr. Eddy, a sexual pervert, a mobster, a monstrosity.
He kills Dick Laurent, and leaves the body in the desert.
Because Laurent’s body is lost in the desert, Andy has no idea that Laurent is dead. We might also note that during this conversation, the moment after Andy brings up Laurent’s name (“He’s a friend of Dick Laurent, I think”), and Fred repeats it (“Dick Laurent?”), we cut to Renee; what connection does she have with Laurent that we cut to her now? When she joins the conversation, for reasons either deliberate or accidental, Laurent’s name goes unmentioned – as if either Andy or Fred know that she’s having an affair with this man, and don’t want to provoke a reaction by speaking of him as dead.
Andy, who’s the guy on the stairs? Guy in black?
I don’t know his name. He’s a friend of Dick Laurent, I think.
Yeah. I believe so.
But Dick Laurent is dead, isn’t he?
He is? I didn’t think you knew Dick. How do you know he’s dead?
I don’t. I don’t know him.
Dick can’t be dead. Who told you he was dead?
Who, honey? Who’s dead?
Let’s go home.
The killing of Laurent also gives significance to the images of the desert that recur throughout the movie, seemingly for no reason at all – Fred has suppressed his memory of the killing, just as he has managed to forget his killing Renee, yet both rise to the surface. He has visions of Renee’s dead body when he is Pete, in Pete’s room, and the memory of the surrounding desert returns again and again, beginning when Alice comes back to the garage, then again when they have a rendezvous at a hotel.
We also see this memory surface explicitly at another moment: Pete sees the photo of both Renee and Alice together at Andy’s house, and his nose starts to bleed. He rushes to the upstairs bathroom, and he’s suddenly in the hall of the hotel. There’s room #25 where he lay in wait, and there’s room #26, the very room where we see Renee and Laurent in bed. When he opens that door, he sees his wife, a nasty, sarcastic vixen, having sex, betraying him.
During the killing of Laurent, though we see Fred as Fred, I think he still thinks of himself as Pete: the man who does these murderous deeds is always someone else, not him, not Fred, who’s somehow gotten blamed for these killings. We note the almost magical quality of Pete’s clothes: though Fred and Pete are men of very different height and bulk, somehow Pete’s clothes fit Fred without difficulty. We note also what the Mystery Man yells at Fred, that Alice is Renee, as if this name would be unfamiliar to him. The Mystery Man demands of this man his name. Though we see him as Fred, this is a man still playing a part.
FRED / PETE
Alice who? Her name is Renee. If she told you her name is Alice, she’s lying. And your name? What the fuck is your name?!
There is now a cut back to the detectives at Andy’s mansion, who discover Pete Dayton’s prints all round the murder scene. Conveniently, they connect this killing to that of Renee: Fred isn’t guilty of that murder, it was always Pete Dayton who was the guilty one.
Hey, Al, look at this.
(a shot of the framed picture of Laurent, Andy, and Renee together)
It’s her, all right. Fred Madison’s wife … with Dick Laurent and Mr. Dent-head over there.
We’ve got Pete Dayton’s prints all over this place.
You know what I think?
What’s that, Ed?
There’s no such thing as a bad coincidence.
So, we have Pete who somehow is the villain all along, and Fred is blameless. Pete is the one who killed Renee, Andy, and Laurent. Fred kills Laurent, leaves him in the desert, yet he imagines himself as Pete doing this, Pete delivering the message to Fred that Laurent is dead. Pete is a stranger, Fred does not know this man, yet somehow he is also his servant, doing his bidding, killing this man he wanted dead, and then delivering the news.
The cryptic opening shot of Fred at the beginning, smoking in the dark, is him in the dawn after he has actually killed Laurent. He has entirely blocked out what he has done, and yet he somehow feels what he has done. The knowledge of his wife’s betrayal and his part in the death cast a shadow on him, and his expression is grim. In this movie of doubles and reflections, where we find it difficult to distinguish between what is Fred’s life and his fantasy world, this opening shot of Fred staring into the camera is actually a shot of his reflection in the bedroom mirror.
The bedroom mirror is clearly seen in this shot:
I will raise one last possibility, of which there is little evidence, but I find tantalizing nonetheless. Though we never see this, I think Fred somehow knew someone like Pete in passing, and decided to try to set him up for the murder of his wife and Laurent, just as Pete ends up fingered as the actual killer by the detectives, at Andy’s mansion. I think Fred paid a hoodlum like Pete some money, then gave him access to his house, either by leaving a door unlocked or providing him some keys, so that he could come in at night and film the outside and inside, then send the videotapes to his address. A mysterious request: but Fred will be pay this man a lot of money for this task, no questions asked. All in order to put the suspicion on this young man for the murder of Renee. Whether Pete stumbled onto the murder as it took place when shooting the last videotape, or whether Fred imagines this last videotape, I have no answer. Again, I have no evidence of this, except one moment, which might give indirect support.
This is a movie with various intricate visual connections, the shots of Renee linked to the shots of Alice. After the killing of Laurent, the Mystery Man whispers something in the ear of Fred, which might be instructions on what to do next. We then move to a close-up of Fred’s eyes. There is, I think, only one other moment where we have a close-up of Fred’s eyes, and that is when they receive the first videotape. I detect in him a different feeling here than in Renee, as if he has been expecting the videotapes to arrive. We have a possible veiled reference to this in the draft script, after they watch the second videotape. My bolds:
Fred and Renee stare at the snowy TV picture. After a few moments of silence, Renee gets up and switches off the set. She is visibly shaken, trembling. She stares fearfully at Fred who seems less disturbed.
Again, as I said, we only have one other close-up of Fred’s eyes, and that’s while they watch the tape. Here are the close-ups of Fred after the Mystery Man whispers to him, and then when he watches the tape with his wife:
Renee’s eyes show fear. Perhaps Fred’s show something else: a sense of a plan slowly going into effect, a plan both known and unknown, the memory there and the memory suppressed, of his criminal acts, and the blood he’s shed.
ADDENDUM: THE KILLERS INSIDE ME
Within this movie are two men, one a suspected killer, the other a man who killed many. The Mystery Man was played by Robert Blake, an actor who appeared to have had a blessed start in life as a child actor in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and as a regular on “The Little Rascals”. This blessed life was nothing of the kind. As related in “To Die For”, by the always excellent David Grann, he was beaten and resented by a father who would later kill himself. His “Rascals” co-stars would die in barfights, commit suicide, or become addicted to drugs. Blake would exile himself from his family and become a heroin addict, selling drugs to keep his habit going. He would get three comebacks, once as a young killer in the movie In Cold Blood, once as the star of Baretta, and a final one as the malevolent riddle in Highway. His comebacks would always end in bitterness, and his last would be finished with his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, shot to death in a restaurant. Bakley was a troubled woman who hadn’t been allowed to wash as a child because her grandmother feared running water. She grew up obsessed with the ideal of fame and wanting to marry someone famous, first setting her sights on Jerry Lee Lewis, then on Blake. After her death, a quickie biography was rushed out, a Hollywood scandal tour bus would stop at the place of her last meal, and Hustler published some old nude photographs. This is what she always wanted, her sister would say; “This is what she died for.” Blake would be indicted, found not guilty of the murder, though believed by many to be the killer. His role in Highway is haunting and brilliant work, and at the time of this writing, his last.
In Slavoj Zizek’s “Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway”, an analysis of great repute which I find flawed and over-complicated, Zizek identifies the Mr. Eddy figure as a paradoxical law-making jouisseur, a paternal authority who also looks on the world as a carnal feast, there for his unrestrained enjoyment. I disagree: Mr. Eddy is entirely an agent of chaos, and his passion for proper driving etiquette is not evidence of lawgiver authority, but a tic whose aberrance throws the rest of him into absurd contrast, the agent of chaos who doesn’t see himself as such. A similar example might be Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs, who insists on proper tipping before heading out to rob a bank.
That I don’t think this label applies to Mr. Eddy, however, does not mean I think it doesn’t exist. I believe it does apply to someone in Lost Highway, though not to any character, but to one of the cast members: Louis Eppolito, who played Ed, one of the two detectives who visit Fred and Renee.
Louis Eppolito’s grandfather was Diamond Louie, a man who stole diamonds, fenced goods, and ran prostitutes. He was friends with Lucky Luciano, and three of his sons would join organized crime. The debonair Freddy the Sheik would become a Gambino underboss, Jimmy the Clam became a hitman, and Ralph, Fat the Gangster, was a mafia soldier. Fat the Gangster, a man who hated rats and cops, was Louis’s father. He killed a nightclub owner, he beat his son, and, when a priest slapped his son for causing a disturbance, he sucker punched the priest. When Louis Eppolito went to school, FBI agents investigating his father’s heroin trade would tail him. Joe Profaci, a distinguished mafia eminence, told the son to be like his dad: “You got to grow up and have a lot of honor like your father.” Follow his footsteps, counseled Profaci. “If you want to grow up right, grow up like your daddy.” Louis Eppolito became a cop. In one class, a diagram of the Gambino crime family was used as a teaching aid. Look, said a fellow student to Eppolito, this guy’s got the same name as you, and the fellow student pointed to the diagram node that was Louis Eppolito’s father.
The cops of Lost Highway are Mutt and Jeff pairings, and Eppolito was half of a Mutt and Jeff pairing as well. He was boisterous and physical, a doo wop lover, a former Mr. Universe before his bulk turned to fat. His first partner was Steve Caracappa, a thin, quiet man who wore tailored black suits, pearl tie tacks, and a gold nugget pinkie ring with the NYPD logo. He would go on to be considered one of the best detectives in the department and an expert in organized crime. His cold, always watchful eyes gave him his name: the Prince of Darkness. When Eppolito and Caracappa arrested a member of a gang that was robbing dance clubs, Eppolito dunked the man’s head in a bucket filled with a mixture of hot water and ammonia. When one husband beat his wife, Eppolito didn’t arrest the husband but instead came back to the scene wearing a ski mask and beat the man with a lead pipe. Abused women, according to Eppolito, were an easy source of sex: “Every time we went on a call where a husband smacked his wife, I went back that night and smacked it to her, too. Battered wives were the most vulnerable.” After nearly choking one man to death, he had an affair with the man’s wife, a woman with a gorgeous body who fell a little too hard for the detective: “She was a cop’s dream — until she’d cry and tell me how much she loved me. I knew deep down there was no way in the world I’d consider throwing a ring on this one’s finger.”
Eppolito would describe all these events in his book, Mafia Cop: The Story of an Honest Cop, a memoir which related many fascinating stories from his career, while leaving a few out. Though it was an intriguing story, he did not mention the time jewelry went missing from the scene of a homicide that Eppolito and Caracappa were investigating. When a man was arrested in his office by Caracappa, the arrestee would allege that money and office property were gone; another man would be arrested and handcuffed, then find three hundred he had with him missing. A DEA informant told the government that Eppolito dealt drugs. Another informant would allege that Caracappa and a second detective unknown to the informant had offered to show her a copy of a homicide report in return for ten thousand dollars. All these stories went untold, and received no disciplinary actions or censure. All cops, especially busy cops, received complaints – but these complaints seemed out of proportion with the amount of arrests Eppolito and Caracappa were making, and without the usual motivations. You could understand the self-interest of an arrestee lodging a complaint, but why would two separate confidential informants allege that cops they didn’t know were dealing drugs and selling confidential reports?
Mafia Cop closed with the incident that brought Eppolito’s career as a detective to a close. In 1984, after mob boss Carlos Gambino’s nephew was arrested in a drug deal, his house was searched and a confidential NYPD file related to the investigation of Gambino’s nephew was found on the premises. In order to obtain fingerprints from the document, it was placed in a bell jar, and photographed after it was fumed with a corrosive chemical – the chemical would destroy the document shortly after the photographs were taken. The fingerprints were obtained, and they matched Louis Eppolito’s. This was the last, most explosive accusation leveled yet against Eppolito while he was still a cop. The detective was suspended, then transferred to another unit, before retiring in 1990. As said, this was the last, most explosive accusation made towards Eppolito while he was still a cop.
Four years after Eppolito’s retirement, a Luchese underboss named Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso became a federal informant. He confirmed what another mob turncoat, Pete Chiodo, had already revealed: the mob had a source inside the NYPD which gave them access to any and all intelligence they wanted – federal, state, local, anything. They called this source “the crystal ball”. Chiodo was not close enough to this source to reveal who they were, but Casso could. The crystal ball was not one man, but two, and their names were Steve Caracappa and Louis Eppolito.
Casso was a frightening and deadly man. He had helped many people to their death, and these two detectives had sometimes helped out as well. When Jimmy Bishop, a Luchese associate and head of a painters union, a man who knew enough to do a lot of damage to the Lucheses, became a confidential informant, it was a secret known only to the police department’s Organized Crime Investigation Division. After he began his co-operation with the police, Bishop was shot several times outside his mistress’s house. James Heidel, truck hijacker, Luchese associate, and member of an ace robbery crew known as the Bypass Gang (they could bypass just about any alarm), was another confidential informant. Among many other things, Heidel revealed to his police contact that Luchese underboss Anthony Casso had a source inside the police who shared crucial information, but he didn’t know the name of the detective. A few months later, Heidel had just finished a game of handball and was gong to his car when a man walked up and pulled out a gun. Heidel turned and ran into some on-coming traffic when this man and others started to shoot. Shot several times, Heidel managed to jump onto a passing motorcycle, before being shot again multiple times and then falling off, dead. The Times, the next day: “Another Man Slain in Mob-Style Killing.” It was the eighties, and such daylight murders were happening all the time. A few days later, the crystal ball passed on to Casso a recording that Heidel had made while wearing a wire, proof of his betrayal.
When Casso associate Burton Kapan was involved in a scheme to steal treasury bills and sell them overseas, one person involved in the scheme pocketed money that he should have handed over. This person, Israel Greenwald, had no connections with organized crime and no knowledge that the bills were stolen. The FBI, having caught on to the scheme, convinced him to co-operate and wear a wire. Shortly after, on his way to work, he was pulled over by two police officers who told him he was a suspect in a hit-and-run investigation and needed to appear in a line-up. He was never seen alive again, and more than a decade later his bones were found in the dirt under a parking garage. When an attempt was made on Anthony Casso’s life, he was given the confidential NYPD report on his own attempted murder. The report identified the chief suspect as Jimmy Hydell, head of a mafia crew. Kaplan would later explain that the detectives accepted no payment for handing over this report:
Q: What did Casso ask you?
A: What do I owe them for this? I told him the story that they wouldn’t take no money because someone tried to hurt him, and he shook his head, he said, Boy, that’s really nice of them. They must be pretty good guys.
Jimmy Hydell would be arrested, handcuffed, and disarmed by two cops, who dropped him off in front of a Toys ‘R’ Us, where the detectives taped up Hydell’s legs and stuck a handkerchief in his mouth, before putting him in the trunk of the car of Frank Santora, another Casso associate. Hydell was taken to the basement of a house in Bergen Beach, where he was tortured by Casso and others for several hours. Hydell knew he would die, and pleaded with Casso that his body be left somewhere it could be found, so his mother could collect the life insurance. Casso assured the man he would do so, then shot him multiple times. To this day, Hydell’s body has never been found.
When Casso made these revelations, Eppolito and Caracappa were retired cops living opposite each other in Las Vegas. Eppolito made some money as a bodyguard, and some acting in films such as Goodfellas, State of Grace, Predator 2, and as “Al the Guard” in Switch. He would write the screenplay for Turn of Faith, a movie about a hero cop who is best friends with a mob killer and a priest. The world it depicts is one that is unremittingly cutthroat and profane. The cop beats a man in an alley and gives the mob killer tips on upcoming investigations; the priest says things like, “Get your fucking hands off me, fuckface.” He was hired to write a comedy about a homeless bag lady; he entered talks with LaToya Jackson’s ex-husband, Jack Gordon, about writing Jack Gordon’s autobiography. After Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish were convicted of killing casino magnate Ted Binion, Eppolito formed a one-man committee, “Citizens to Ensure Justice Is Done”, which bought a full-page ad in a Vegas paper declaring Murphy’s innocence, all in the hopes of getting a screenplay deal out of the woman, which would, of course, tell her side of the story.
This was Eppolito’s post-detective career: acting on the fringes of movies by great directors such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and David Lynch, while writing scripts that were never bought or produced. Jayne McCormick, a former call girl, mortgaged her house to pay him to write a screenplay based on her unpublished autobiography. McCormick saw Reese Witherspoon as a good choice to play the lead, but Eppolito preferred Angelina Jolie. When Eppolito sent over the finished script to McCormick, she was appalled. It was filled with misspellings, typos, and grammatical errors. Eppolito shushed her: a good screenplay didn’t need proper spelling. I Never Met a Stranger: The Jane McCormick Story traced the life of an escort from her difficult beginnings to her time as a rat pack consort. The movie opened with a thuggish man trying to convince his girlfriend to become a prostitute. “It’s gonna be a piece of cake,” the boyfriend said to someone played by either Reese Witherspoon or Angelina Jolie, “Besides, with a body like you have, he’ll cum in two minutes and it will be all over.” Eppolito told McCormick he always wrote a cameo for himself in his scripts, just like Alfred Hitchcock. That’s why Stranger had a scene where a fat man took a prostitute to his hotel room, but passed out before he could have sex. McCormick would end up going bankrupt paying Eppolito for his work. When she called the ex-cop to cuss him out, he would get angry back. “Don’t call me when you’ve been drinking,” he would reply, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
The other movie he was trying to get made was Murder in Youngstown, a crime film set in the notorious Ohio city, and Eppolito was having more success with this project. He had come across an eager and well-connected investor in Steve Corso, a mob connected accountant. Corso wanted to get into the movie business, and he was also looking to score drugs and girls for some friends coming to Vegas for the weekend. Eppolito assured Corso that he could provide him some great movie investment opportunities, and that he and his son, a local dealer, could help him out with the other stuff. Corso had led an interesting life. He had come out of working-class Hackensack, gone to school at New York University, then Cornell, then joined a white shoe accounting firm that had offices all the way from Los Angeles to Switzerland. He lived in the wealthy neighbourhood of Greenwich, Connecticut, and he took frequent trips to Vegas. But his life was even more interesting than that. He gambled often in Vegas, and he often lost. He owed over half a million to various casinos. This was in addition to past debts, for which he’d stolen over five million from the white shoe accountants to pay. These thefts had caused the FBI to raid his firm. Corso went on the lam, then cut a deal. He would be a confidential agent for the bureau, and act the part of a mob accountant. That was why he was wearing a wire at the meeting with Louis Eppolito. And when Eppolito entered the restaurant where a follow-up meet was scheduled, that was why four agents pushed the ex-cop against a wall, handcuffed him, and announced he was under arrest.
William Oldham had been working towards this moment for years. He had quested after the crystal ball since he was with the Major Case squad, the very place Steve Caracappa had worked, when the series of confidential informants were killed with almost unearthly prescience. Caracappa worked across from Oldham, in the Organized Crime Homicide Unit (OCHU), where he had literally written the book on mafia death in New York City – an index of every mob killing in the city; if a homicide detective wanted to see how a victim fit into the larger structure of the mob, they would consult Caracappa’s book. Caracappa had fought for the creation of the OCHU, it was disbanded after he left, and Oldham had always been haunted by a horrible thought: that Caracappa had wanted to establish the OCHU to make his intelligence work for the mafia easier. The arrest of Caracappa and Eppolito was one important moment; the other was the co-operation of Burton Kaplan.
Kaplan had been a Navy codebreaker during World War II, a man so good at breaking japanese codes that he was offered a job at the new born National Security Agency. He went back to Brooklyn instead, and became an appliance salesman. A gambling habit he’d had since he was thirteen meant he needed more money than a legitimate job could give him, and he soon became a top notch fence in stolen goods, a successful marijuana dealer, and an associate of Anthony Casso. In his seventies and near blind, he was convicted on drug charges that meant he would probably die in prison. Oldham would meet him there, with the offer of a deal: there are two guys we are interested in, and you know which two guys. Kaplan chose his words carefully: “With all due respect, and I do respect you guys because my father-in-law was a cop, I got nothing to say.” Kaplan didn’t need to explain why he wouldn’t co-operate, but he did: “I took an oath.” Oldham lost it. “They took a fucking oath,” said Oldham. “I was a cop for twenty-five years. I was in Major Case with one of those guys. I know what a fucking oath is about. If every cop in New York City was like these two, no one could walk the streets.” Kaplan got up to leave. Oldham had one more thing to say, his voice now without anger. “Burt, you’re giving up your grandson.” Oldham, again: “You’re going to die in jail without ever touching him. You’re choosing the fat guy and the skinny guy over your only grandson’s chance to know his grandfather.” Some shadow of hate fell over Kaplan’s face. He avoided looking at Oldham for the few seconds left in the meeting. But he wrote down the name of his lawyer on a legal pad, and passed it to the detective.
Caracappa and Eppolito were indicted on eight counts of murder, as well as kidnapping conspiracy, witness tampering, bribery, money laundering, and drug trafficking. Kaplan’s testimony would be crucial in their eventual conviction. The following was given on his first day of this testimony, and said without any emotion at all:
Q: Did you have a business relationship with Mr. Eppolito and Mr. Caracappa?
Q: Can you please tell the jury what the nature of that business relationship was?
A: They were detectives on the New York Police Department who brought me information about wiretaps, phone taps, informants, ongoing investigations, and imminent arrests and murders. They did murders and kidnapping for us.
Q: What did you do for them in exchange for this?
A: I paid them.
When the crystal ball was at the height of its powers, John Gotti had demonstrated his invulnerability in beating yet another murder conviction. By the time of the Caracappa-Eppolito trial, his Ravenite social club was a shoe store. Tony Café, the head of the Bonanno family, once one of the five powerful mafia families in the city, had five hundred dollars lifted from his pocket by a woman. Café was upset about that. He was upset about a lot of things. He had two broken toes from diabetes, he’d been hit with a bookmaking charge, and if he was convicted, he’d lose his social security and veterans’ benefits. His co-defendants had four bypass surgeries among them, and they all needed afternoon naps. When they were arraigned, a federal agent was worried that one of the defendants would escape by running out the back door. Run out?, asked the incredulous judge, this man can hardly walk. What’s the worst thing that happened to the mafia, Café was asked. “Gotti”, he says.
Caracappa and Eppolito would be found guilty on all counts. Eppolito would take off his jacket, his belt, his tie, and his gold chain after the verdict. He was a cop, and he knew the procedure: you hand over valuables, and anything that can be used to hang yourself. A few days later, during the hearing where the cops were sentenced to prison for life, there was a ruckus. In 1988, Eppolito had walked off his beat into a Brooklyn deli, took a soda from the refrigerator, drank it, and was about to leave when a counter worker gave him a hard stare. “You got a problem with me?” asked Eppolito. “You didn’t pay for the soda.” said the counter worker. Eppolito threw some money down. Two days later, he came back and arrested the counter worker, Barry Gibbs, for the murder of a prostitute. Gibbs would be convicted, and serve close to twenty years, before the key eyewitness would reveal that Eppolito had threatened to arrest the eyewitness’s mother for drug possession, drugs that Eppolito would plant on her, unless he named Gibbs as the killer.
“Remember me?” Gibbs would yell from the gallery. “Remember, Mr. Eppolito?” The attention of the court, Eppolito, everyone, fixed briefly on this man. “Do you remember what you did to me? Barry Gibbs! Do you remember? I had a family, too. You remember what you did to my family? You don’t remember what you did to my family and to me? Remember what you did to me? Me! Do you remember?” The judge ordered that Gibbs be removed from the court for causing a disturbance.
The preceding, however fantastic, is real. It is taken, with mild re-arrangements, from The Brotherhoods by Guy Lawson and William Oldham; the Kaplan transcripts, the paragraph on Tony Café, and Eppolito’s conduct after the verdict are taken from The Good Rat by Jimmy Breslin. Both books present different facets of the Caracappa-Eppolito case, and both are excellent.
1 In the original script, Alice’s last name is Wyatt; though it may be a coincidence, the context of the surrounding plot makes me immediately think of the Nathaniel Hawthorne story that shares Alice’s last name.
There, a man has the mad urge to leave his house and happy marriage in order to observe his wife over a period of two decades, a nearby neighbour in heavy disguise. It is a story of analysis of the mind of this man, rather than events, and nothing that takes place in Highway is borrowed from this story. The only thing they share is this obsession of a husband observing his wife when he is absent, though of course in Highway a husband does not simply observe his wife, but re-creates her as he wants her to be.
In describing Wakefield’s condition, his in-between state after he retreats to this role of voyeur, we may have an apt description of Fred’s state of mind in creating his fantasty life:
The singularity of his situation must have so moulded him to himself, that, considered in regard to his fellow-creatures and the business of life, he could not be said to possess his right mind. He had contrived, or rather he had happened, to dissever himself from the world–to vanish–to give up his place and privileges with living men, without being admitted among the dead. The life of a hermit is nowise parallel to his. He was in the bustle of the city, as of old; but the crowd swept by and saw him not; he was, we may figuratively say, always beside his wife and at his hearth, yet must never feel the warmth of the one nor the affection of the other. It was Wakefield’s unprecedented fate to retain his original share of human sympathies, and to be still involved in human interests, while he had lost his reciprocal influence on them.
This section, the penultimate moment before Wakefield returns to the wife he abandoned decades earlier, is perhaps apt as well:
He ascends the steps–heavily!–for twenty years have stiffened his legs since he came down–but he knows it not. Stay, Wakefield! Would you go to the sole home that is left you? Then step into your grave!
As is this, the story’s end:
He has left us much food for thought, a portion of which shall lend its wisdom to a moral, and be shaped into a figure. Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.
2 This idea is taken ever further in the original screenplay. The parents are not simply phantom characters, but malevolent spirits who are party to the illusion that Fred has created for himself, but also laugh at his foolishness: this illusion will eventually destroy him. The characters they are most similar to are the elderly couple at the beginning of Mulholland Drive who cackle with glee at the nightmare that this actress has created for herself.
A relevant excerpt of the same scene in the film where Pete walks about the house and finds his parents strangely gone:
Pete is sitting perched unsteadily on the very edge of his bed. He HEARS a succession of highly-amplified SOUNDS at intervals with eerie stretches of silence: CRICKETS in fractured cadence a distant TELEVISION – a FLY buzzing slowly in the room a MOTH’S wings beating against light bulbs in the ceiling fixture – the washing of DISHES.
Pete’s reaction to these sounds is one of petrified confusion. Underlying these sounds is a kind of unearthly, steady DRONE.
Pete gets up off the bed, unsteadily. He moves toward his bedroom door. As he moves the amplified SOUNDS shift.
He can hear laughter. The laughter seems to be LOUD, but at the same time coming from people who are trying to contain the laughter – to hide it.
Pete opens his door and peers out.
Pete’s POV down the hall toward the living room – his mother and father have stopped laughing and are turned with guilty smiles in his direction. They are smoking a joint, passing it back and forth. They are not looking directly at him. They seem to be looking, but not seeing.
Pete’s parents POV down the hall toward Pete’s room. There is no one there – just an empty hallway.
Pete’s parents continue to stare, but then turn away toward each other – they start to laugh quietly again.
Pete’s Pov – the hallway and the living room – there is no one in the living room. It’s empty.
INT. DAYTON HOUSE – PETE’S BEDROOM – NIGHT
Pete turns from the hallway and comes back in his room – unsettled and confused.
He can hear laughter coming from the living room.
(All images copyright October Films, CiBy 2000, Asymmetrical Productions, and associated producers.)