Blue Velvet has plenty of the makings of noir: a sultry and dangerous atmosphere, big city fear, femme fatale (Dorothy Vallens/Isabella Rossellini), an intrepid detective working outside the police force (Jeffrey Beaumont/Kyle MacLachlan), and, of course, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a psychopath akin to the best of late-period classic American noirs.
By stirring the pot a bit Lynch moves these ingredients closer to something like revisionist noir or satire. The detective and his love interest Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) are more characters from a Nicholas Ray or John Hughes film than anything hard-boiled; the color scheme pushes the pastel-suburbs so far from the darkly saturated nighttime city as to be nearly comical that the two coexist; even Hopper’s Booth takes the psycho-sexual penchants of the worst of Richard Widmark or Ralph Meeker to new extremes.
Blue Velvet’s centerpiece trope is The Slow Club, a dim, sensual venue (perfect for a cold Heineken), where woman-in-trouble Dorothy Vallens sings her signature Blue Velvet against a red curtain, framed by hazy blue neon lights, and in a tight-hugging black dress.
The irony of these scenes is that the shot/reverse-shot sequence makes it look as though The Slow Club is actually two distinctly different settings. When Lynch frames on Jeffrey and Sandy in the audience, the deeper focus, earth toned palette (aside from, of course, Sandy’s bright pick sweater), cheap beer bottles and blue-collar clientele all feel more at home in a corner dive and not the erotic world of Dorothy Vallens’ performance. The clear dichotomy is a masterly, thematic decision, allowing Lynch to further separate the two worlds at work in his film.
The Slow Club recalls similar spaces in classic noirs Gilda (Vidor, 1946) and The Killers (Siodmak, 1946). In the former, Rita Hayworth plays the title character. Her famous number “Put the Blame on Mame” is particularly more active than Vallens’ in Lynch’s film, but cements her desirability and sex-symbol status.
In Robert Siodmak’s film, Ava Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale to Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” Andreson (in Lancaster’s first film role). While no singer, Collins is still immediately associated with a musical club that signifies danger. Her rendezvous with insurance investigator Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) at the Green Cat Lounge is a set-up that ultimately leads to a bloody climax.
Both Gilda and The Killers, alongside other noirs from the era, not only equate their femme fatales with danger and sexuality, but also with a literal siren-esque quality, coaxing their respective leading men to doom with song.
Dorothy Vallens not only fits the mold, but she also plays into the hands of noir-telegraphing: it’s rare in the noir canon that the innocent female character is the one on the microphone, in the club, or dancing in the slinky dress (can you imagine Maxine Cooper enticing Ralph Meeker with a sexy number in Kiss Me Deadly? She might want to, but that would put her on the wrong track).
As Dorothy sings, Jeffrey gets hooked and Frank Booth cries into a piece of blue velvet fabric on the far side of the crowd. Like in Gilda and The Killers, The Slow Club is a space for set-up and peril; it’s a world in and of itself that solidifies characters intentions before they’re explicitly stated, based largely on noir history.
- Neal Dhand