Lost in the Movies: Deputy Cliff Howard (TWIN PEAKS Character Series Bonus #21)

Deputy Cliff Howard (TWIN PEAKS Character Series Bonus #21)

The TWIN PEAKS Character Series surveys one hundred ten characters from the series Twin Peaks (1990-91 on ABC and 2017 on Showtime as The Return), the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and The Missing Pieces (2014), a collection of deleted scenes from that film. The series will be rebooted in 2023 to reflect the third season (and patrons will have immediate access to each entry a month before it goes public), but this entry will remain intact. There will be spoilers.

Cliff takes peculiar delight in being a jerk, but unfortunately for him he's not a very effective bully: his nose gets yanked, his boss is beaten up in front of him, and finally he's executed by a couple stoned teenagers.

Friday, February 12, 1988
Deputy Cliff saunters out of his office - in the suspiciously home-like Deer Meadow sheriff's station - to mock the FBI agent waiting for a meeting. "Take a seat," he snickers, "because it's gonna be a while." Neither he nor the receptionist can contain their giggles. Agent Chet Desmond resolves the situation by grabbing Cliff's nose and squeezing hard, dragging and dumping the hapless buffoon into a chair before strolling into the sheriff's office. Cliff wanders in to see Sheriff Cable a few minutes later, but is sent away, returning only when the FBI agent has gone outside. Cliff and Cable give each other a look: trouble has arrived in the form of federal authority.

Saturday, February 13, 1988
Cliff, arms folded, stands behind Cable as he refuses to allow the FBI agents to transport a body from their morgue. When Cable cracks a punning joke about a phone "ring," Cliff snorts and snickers. Then he follows his boss outside to watch him beat up the interloper. Instead, Cliff and the receptionist are horrified to see Chet rain down blow after blow on the bloodied sheriff, eventually punching him out and chasing the two witnesses away with a threatening gesture. Cliff's macho rivalry with the agent ends in utter humiliation.

Tuesday, February 21, 1989
A year later, Cliff arrives in the woods near the Packard Saw Mill in Twin Peaks with a packet of what appears to be cocaine. The meeting with two teenage drug dealers has been arranged by local criminal Jacques Renault. The teenage girl, obviously drunk or stoned (or both), gazes in awe at Cliff's product and he grins: "Like that, little girl?" Without missing a beat, he drops the packet and starts to pull a gun from his waist before the teenage boy beats him to the draw. Cliff is shot once and yells in pain. The boy shoots again, knocking Cliff to the ground. As he crawls away, one more shot: BAM! to the back of the head... Cliff's brains explode all over the forest floor. The panicked teenagers kneel down next to his corpse, checking the gory remains of his skull and desperately shoving dirt over the body in an attempt to hide their victim.

Characters Cliff interacts with onscreen…

Chet Desmond & Sam Stanley

Sheriff Cable

Laura Palmer

Bobby Briggs (his killer)

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Cliff
Cliff is one of the few characters in Fire Walk With Me to appear in both Deer Meadow and Twin Peaks, forming our only bridge between the two totally different universes of the movie. (The only other characters to visit both towns are Cooper, who only makes it to Twin Peaks in the series, and Laura and Leland, whose Deer Meadow flashbacks are contained in the latter half of the film.) In fact, some viewers don't even recognize Cliff when he shows up for the drug deal. Thus, in a way, Cliff impresses upon us the stark differences between the Teresa Banks investigation and the last week of Laura Palmer, even while subtly reminding us of the connection between these dual narratives (the first time David Lynch dipped his toes in what would become a favorite technique). Even more than Cable, Cliff underscores the corruption and venality of Deer Meadow, revealing that its law enforcement isn't just rude but criminal. If Cable is Truman's doppelganger, then Cliff and the giggling, snooty receptionist are the Bizarro Andy and Lucy - a deputy who goes out of his way to be an asshole replaces a deputy almost childlike in his gentle demeanor. Cliff's scenes are over-the-top and ridiculous, but in a very different way than the series. Fire Walk With Me's comedy is more dry than the show's, and it feels stranger somehow. The quality of the music, the design of the set (which really was a house converted into a shabby station) combine with the weird comic beats of the performance to set us adrift in a slightly disorienting way. Cliff plays his part in this off-kilter vibe; this plus his violent death make his rather one-dimensional character feel much richer than he has any right to be.

Cliff’s journey
Cliff's Deer Meadow arc is a clear-cut decline, much like Cable's. He doesn't even have the dignity of standing up for himself - Cliff's beatdown arrives by proxy as he watches the sheriff get pummelled, and he himself is spooked by one minor flinch. When he shows up again, he's cocky but his fall is even quicker and more final. That last scene also serves as a retrospective game-changer (confirming hints provided in Chet's Lil analysis - more on that in his entry). Cliff's involvement with the cocaine trade - and willingness to murder a high school student - suggests that Cliff's (and Cable's) dislike for the "J. Edgars" may not be purely territorial. They were probably worried about their own operations being uncovered, especially if Teresa was the customer her employer suggests. In fact, Cliff's deadly drug deal calls back beyond the beginning of the movie, bending chronology in similar fashion to Teresa. In the pilot, James tells Donna that Laura said Bobby killed a guy. If we look at the internal timeline of the story, this comment comes after we've already met the victim, making it the last reference to Cliff in the narrative. In the course of Twin Peaks' actual production, however, that mysterious line plants the earliest seed for Cliff - one of many ways Fire Walk With Me gives form to the pilot's suggestive abstractions. (I've just now gone back to add a line to Teresa's "journey" entry too, extending this idea.)

Actor: Rick Aiello
Aiello, the son of Danny, was everywhere around the time of Twin Peaks, usually as either cop or criminal (how appropriate that Fire Walk With Me allows him to play both in one character). He and Miguel Sandoval were NYPD partners in two different Spike Lee joints, Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever. He was also a regular cast member of Dellaventura, a short lived series starring his dad, and played the hitman Ray-Ray D'Abaldo in a couple episodes of The Sopranos. (film pictured: Do the Right Thing, 1989)

Never appeared on the TV series

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (feature film)

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces (collection of deleted scenes from the film)

Introduced as a vague concept (the man Bobby killed) in the pilot by David Lynch and Mark Frost, Cliff's actual character was written by Lynch and Robert Engels for the film (and his personality aligns very well with Engels' penchant for arch goofiness). He is only directed by Lynch.

Cliff is onscreen for roughly nine minutes (including his presence for the fight scene, when he's often out of frame). He is in in four scenes in Fire Walk With Me/The Missing Pieces taking place over the course of a year. His primary location is the Deer Meadow sheriff's station. He shares the most screentime with Chet.

Best Scene
Fire Walk With Me: Cliff's passive-aggressive provocations inspire Chet to attack his nose.

Best Line
“Why don't you have some coffee, go ahead. It was fresh about two days ago.” (bursts into irrepressible laughter)

Additional Observations

• Chet violently twisting Cliff's nose is a nice reversal of Cooper playfully pinching Truman's nose in episode 2 of the series (kudos to whoever pointed this out first - I don't think I noticed it on my own).

• In The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, Jennifer Lynch creates an alternate scenario (and victim) for Bobby's kill although it also involves a drug deal and self-defense (and Laura as a witness, making it strange that James says "Bobby told her" in the pilot). I'll save that quotation for Bobby's entry.

• The script includes additional material (not in The Missing Pieces, and probably never shot) linking Cliff to Fat Trout Trailer Park (where he lives) and Teresa. He follows the wounded lady into Teresa's trailer and continues to taunt Chet, who asks him where he was the night Teresa was killed. Cliff says he was partying, and Carl Rodd makes the suggestive claim, "Maybe if you did a little less partyin' that little girl would still be alive." (The implication is that he was distracted from doing his job, but knowing what we know there's more to it.) Chet intimidates Cliff once again, causing him to slip on the steps. After Cliff has driven away, Agent Sam Stanley asks Chet if he suspects Cliff killed Teresa. "He's not the murderer," responds Chet. "But he's a bozo." "Yes," Stanley says, in one of the worst deleted lines (although Kiefer Sutherland probably could have pulled it off), "he is like a clown."

• When Chet returns to the trailer park in the evening, he asks about Cliff's trailer as well as Teresa's. As I mentioned in Cable's entry, there is speculation that maybe Cliff killed Chet as vengeance or to cover his tracks.

• While trying to bury Cliff, Laura bursts into giggles and starts taunting Bobby in nonsensical fashion: "Bobby, you killed Mike!" A distraught, addled Bobby begins to wonder if she's right: "Is this Mike?" Although we don't hear much more about him in Fire Walk With Me, Cliff's storyline does continue after his death in The Missing Pieces. The morning after the shooting, Bobby talks with Laura in a high school hallway and gets angry when she continues to tease him. "I killed a guy," he impresses upon her. Clearly he's shaken by this event. Later, testing the "cocaine" Bobby realizes that Cliff played one last trick on him - the product is actually baby laxative (a callback to the series' Dead Dog Farm subplot, where the criminal gang cut their coke with laxative). Bobby delivers the bad news to Laura when she visits him a couple nights later. Disgusted, she sneers, "What is the world coming to when you kill a guy for baby laxative?"

Update 2018: This entry was written in 2017, before the third season, and did not need to be revised as Cliff did not re-appear. Only the description/intro at the top and the ranking were updated. Since the criteria for inclusion was changed (originally three scenes with dialogue, now ten minutes of screentime), he retroactively became a "bonus entry" rather than part of the full rankings. In the original character series, Cliff was ranked #56, between the Waiter and the Mountie.

SHOWTIME: No, Aiello is not on the cast list for 2017. Cliff is dead but it's possible his character's influence on Twin Peaks will linger. Many fans are hoping that Bobby has reformed in adulthood, joining the sheriff's department. Will the killing from his past come back to haunt him?

Next (active on Monday, January 16, 2023 at 8am): Heidi

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(When the series resumes publicly, all new or revised entries will be published at least a month in advance for patrons.)

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