Lost in the Movies: Ernie Niles (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #46)

Ernie Niles (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #46)

*A revised entry will be published separately in 2023 for an updated character series (which will be collected here). This is the original entry written before The Return.

The TWIN PEAKS Character Series surveys eighty-two characters from the series Twin Peaks (1990-91) and the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) as well as The Missing Pieces (2014), a collection of deleted scenes from that film. A new character study will appear every weekday morning until the premiere of Showtime's new season of Twin Peaks on May 21, 2017. There will be spoilers for the original series and film.

Ernie is a nervous, lying coward who stumbles into the center of a criminal conspiracy.

Friday, March 10, 1989
Clad in loud plaid and carrying a state-of-the-art early nineties cell phone (the size of a brick), investor Ernie Niles enters the RR Diner to greet its owner Norma Jennings, daughter of his new wife Vivian. Ernie introduces himself to Norma with a grin, handshake, and instant request for coffee (she doesn't look particularly impressed by her new stepdad). Ernie's off in the corner making deals over his phone while mom and daughter chat, and when he returns to the counter he's ready to rush Vivian off to the Great Northern Hotel. He leaves his folded-up newspaper behind with Norma, forgetting that across the front of the sports page he jotted down some notes which reveal what he was really doing on the phone: "$1000 HOUSTON BY 3 POINTS!" That evening, Ernie and Vivian dine at the Great Northern with Norma and her husband Hank. Ernie appears more sullen and quiet, occasionally casting a peeved glance in Hank's direction. Once the women have excused themselves to go to the restroom, Hank chuckles knowingly and Ernie reveals the reason for his discomfort: "You're not gonna tell her, are you? If Vivian found out I'd been inside, she'd drop me flat." Turns out Hank and Ernie spent time in prison together; Ernie, addicted to gambling, stole funds from a Savings and Loan. Hank torments Ernie, who says he's gone clean, by hinting that maybe he'll tell Vivian what's going on. Unless...?

Wednesday, March 15, 1989
Hank and Ernie, dressed in camouflage, burst into the office at One Eyed Jack's, carrying prostitutes on their backs. As the young women leave, and Hank begins aggressively wrestling his irritated companion, Ernie acknowledges lying to his new wife about his trip into the woods (though why she would even accept a hunting excursion in the middle of their honeymoon remains uncertain). Hank has brought his nervous father-in-law to the Canadian bordello to arrange a drug deal with Jean Renault and the corrupt Mountie Preston King. Ernie, as he's wont to do, lies through his teeth about being a big-time player, asserting that he can unload a kilo of cocaine. When Jean directs Ernie to the casino, Ernie tries to say he doesn't gamble anymore but Jean corrects him: "We all gamble here." He's easily convinced.

Thursday, March 16, 1989
Hank and Ernie return to the RR. When Norma asks Ernie, "Catch anything?" he misunderstands the question and murmurs, "I hope not." He quickly corrects himself, making up a story about a big buck, but Norma doesn't look fooled. She tells him that her mother has gone back to Seattle and he should join her. Hank reassures Ernie that this is for the best - it will make it easier to handle the coke deal without any distractions.

Friday, March 17, 1989
Having apparently ignored Norma's not-so-subtle hints to get out of Dodge (or at least out of her restaurant), Ernie is back at the RR munching on chicken. A woman sits across from him in the booth, identifies herself as DEA Agent Denise Bryson and reveals surveillance photos of Ernie meeting with Jean. She tells him he's guilty of a parole violation and if he doesn't cooperate with the DEA investigation, she'll make sure he's locked away for a long time. In FBI Agent Dale Cooper's room at the Great Northern, Denise and Cooper press Ernie for useful information, but he's too busy weaving an elaborate tall tale about how he was tortured, how his family was threatened, how he heroically resisted the criminals' attempts to bring him in. Finally he explains the arrangement, and Denise tells him she's going to pose as the male buyer in a sting.

Saturday, March 18, 1989
Ernie fidgets and begs for mercy as Denise and Cooper pressure him to make the call. Finally he rings One Eyed Jack's and tells Jean he's found his out-of-town buyer. That afternoon, Deputy Hawk Hill attaches a wire to his chest, a task made difficult by Ernie's prodigious sweat (he blames the condition on his experiences in the Korean War, launching into a melodramatic recap before Cooper cuts him off). Sheriff Harry Truman plans the operation and finally Denise arrives disguised as "Dennis." At Dead Dog Farm, a run-down abandoned property where the drug deal has been arranged, Ernie is as nervous as ever, even asking Jean and the Mountie if they can reschedule since Hank is absent. In fact, Ernie is so uncomfortable that he begins to sweat again, damaging the wire until his shirt begins to smoke. When the dealers discover they've been set up they take Ernie and Denise hostage, holding them at gunpoint outside the farm and demanding Cooper reveal himself. He does, stepping out from an overview nearby and offering to trade himself for the two hostages. Jean accepts, and Ernie - having likely bungled his honeymoon, his new marriage, and now this sting - is released.

Characters Ernie interacts with onscreen…

Vivian Niles

Norma Jennings

Hank Jennings

Jean Renault

Mountie King

Denise Bryson

Agent Cooper

Deputy Hawk

Sheriff Truman

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Ernie
Ernie is usually trapped in his own head, not appreciating his surroundings. I would imagine he and Vivian sightsee during their first weekend in Twin Peaks, but he's probably going over bets he's placed or anxiously wondering how Hank is going to blackmail him. To Ernie, Twin Peaks is not just a scenic tourist getaway, it's a dodgy trap set on all sides by ruthless ex-cons and merciless government agents. Hence we split our time between the diner and hotel on the one hand, and the bordello, sheriff's station, and drug den on the other. Twin Peaks the show is a not-especially-serious crime story when Ernie's present, with him playing the classically pathetic figure who can't quite be villainized like the more sinister characters, but certainly isn't one of the heroes (he's the sort of thief or kidnapper you might meet in a Disney film as comic-relief sidekick to the big baddie). In that sense, Ernie is definitely one of the more conventional characters in the series - which isn't to say he's not colorful or cartoonish - and his Twin Peaks/Twin Peaks fits more easily inside genre storytelling.

Ernie’s journey
Ernie does not make a good first impression on Norma or on the audience. If anything, the more wretched he becomes, the more we may enjoy his company (though many don't): there is something entertaining, even sympathetic, about a character hounded by and exacerbating his own flaws rather than one who flaunts them while barely maintaining a thin veneer of respectability. A loser is more likable than a hypocrite. Ernie grows more ridiculous with every passing scene, moving from smug misrepresentation to absurd exaggeration to, finally, flailing, hysterical, compulsive dishonesty. He and his story have never been among my favorite parts of the series, but revisiting the character for this study I was probably more amused than I've ever been by his antics. As I write these "journey" snippets it's hard not to notice that most of these characters are on a downward trajectory - to quote the Log Lady, "Some of them are sad, some funny." Ernie fits this general pattern of the show in a decidedly unserious way, and I'll admit he made me laugh. His arc comes to an abrupt halt in his final scene, as the Mountie holds a gun to his head. We know that he is released in exchange for Cooper but never see him again; having fulfilled his utility to the main plot, the writers rather ruthlessly dispense with him.

Actor: James Booth
Booth made a career of playing characters like Ernie; as Wikipedia notes, "Though considered handsome enough to play leading roles, and versatile enough to play a wide variety of character parts, Booth naturally projected a shifty, wolfish, or unpredictable quality that led inevitably to villainous roles and comedy, usually with a cockney flavour." If you listen closely, you can hear Booth hiding an English accent behind his odd Americanized voice, something the Twin Peaks Podcast (among other fans) has a good deal of fun with. His most famous part is Zulu's Private Henry Hook (a British war hero and, incidentally, an ancestor of Mark E. Smith of The Fall). Booth's portrayal, while celebrated (you can even find collectible figurines featuring a recognizable Booth in iconic poses), has also caused controversy (cited in The Daily Mail). The real Hook's daughter stormed out of the premiere, offended that her father - a teetotaling preacher - had been converted into disobedient drunkard for dramatic purposes and, one suspects, to fit inside Booth's particular wheelhouse. Booth was expected to break into lead roles in the sixties after much acclaimed character work, but instead he stumbled over several flops and personal crises and his acting career stalled. He became a screenwriter in middle age, keeping busy in Hollywood before eventually returning to the stage. (figurine by Brian Smith, representing the film Zulu, 1964)

Episode 15 (German title: "Drive with a Dead Girl")

Episode 17 (German title: "Dispute Between Brothers")

Episode 18 (German title: "Masked Ball")

Episode 19 (German title: "The Black Widow")

*Episode 20 (German title: "Checkmate" - best episode)

Ernie is introduced by writer Scott Frost and also written by Tricia Brock, Barry Pullman, a Harley Peyton/Robert Engels collaboration, and Harley Peyton solo. He is directed by Caleb Deschanel (twice), Tina Rathborne, Duwayne Dunham, and Todd Holland.

Ernie is onscreen for roughly eighteen minutes. He is in nine scenes in five episodes, taking place in just over a week. He's featured the most in episode 15, when he arrives in Twin Peaks. His primary location is the Great Northern and he shares the most screentime with Hank. He is one of the top ten characters of episodes 15 and 20.

Best Scene
Episode 19: As lightning strikes outside, Cooper and Denise try to get Ernie on board with their sting operation, but he's too busy offering a rambling, unsolicited confession full of excuses.

Best Line
“Just so you know a little bit more about me, I've been associated with some of the most prestigious financial institutions in this country. I've laundered massive amounts of money. I've brokered tremendous deals for the Colombian and the Bolivian industries. In other words, I'm wired in, okay. I mean, I'm hard-wired. I'm your man. Definitely, I'm definitely your man.”

Additional Observations

• Bobby Briggs is assigned by Ben Horne to follow Hank Jennings and take surveillance photos. One shows Hank meeting with Ernie, the Mountie, and Jean. Audrey gets these pictures from Bobby and offers them to Cooper, who is being set up by the Mountie. He and Denise are able to use this image to target Ernie as their informant.

• While Ernie is at One Eyed Jack's with Hank, Norma discovers her mother is the food critic who just wrote a bad review of the diner. She tells Vivian off and asks her to get out, not just of the restaurant, but her life. This is one reason Norma is so peeved at Ernie when he returns, and why Vivian isn't there.

• Ernie's reference to a "Savings and Loan" was likely inspired by the Savings and Loan scandals of the late eighties, in which a third of all of those institutions in the U.S. failed largely thanks to financial improprieties. Several politicians (including John McCain) were accused of intervening on behalf of S&L chairmen and President Bush's son Neil was sued for his role in the failure of one S&L (his costs from the lawsuit were paid by Republican donors). Notably, Ernie tells Hank that he met Vivian at a Republican fundraiser.

SHOWTIME: No, Booth is not on the cast list for 2017. He passed away in 2005. Ernie's spot on the show is unusual. As demonstrated by his ranking (above the Log Lady!!!), he has a decent amount of screentime without any real resolution. I imagine his marriage to Vivian won't last much longer - he must be in the news after that sting - and frankly I suspect the hapless Ernie eventually goes back in prison, ending his life either there or in the bungled execution of some criminal enterprise. Then again, he may find a venue for his "talents" in the sleazy backrooms of political fundraising. The character's fate is complicated for other reasons; in Mark Frost's book The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Vivian is written out of Norma's life. Frost creates a new mother figure who bears no resemblance to the one we met onscreen (and who dies years before the events of Twin Peaks). She never divorces Norma's father, hence she never remarries. So the pitiful Ernie may be extinguished once and for all.

Monday: Jacques Renault
Yesterday: Andrew Packard

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