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Inscrutable melancholy – Edward Hopper in genre film

I don’t know about art“, the saying goes, “but I know what I like.” Well, I grew up with two art teachers for parents, both of whom painted for pleasure and the occasional sale, and you can’t hang around that sort of environment without something rubbing off. So, I know a bit, and while I’ve ‘oohed’ at my share of old masters and rolled my eyes at the latest dumpster divings from Tracy Emin, what I like, more than anything else, is the work of Edward Hopper.

Born in 1882, Hopper was an exponent of the American realist school, a style of painting that reflected huge changes sweeping through the early 20th century USA; economic upheaval, growth of the industry, a vast influx to cities of low-skilled labor from the rural heartland and overseas. American realist painters captured scenes from the packed metropoles that spoke of fatigue, alienation, and aching loneliness despite being surrounded by multitudes.

Hopper himself claimed not to represent any particular school and rendered many extraordinary landscapes and rural scenes in addition to his famous records of New York. Hopper’s use of lighting, composition, and color is remarkably cinematic, which is why his work has been catnip to filmmakers for decades. Not to mention spellbinding to a cheesy genre junkie like me.

To pick out every Hopper-inspired shot in film is impossible, and a task for someone much smarter and more knowledgeable than I. The influence of his work on film noir alone is probably worthy of a book by itself. As a noir neophyte (yes, I need to get on that soon), I’m definitely unqualified for such an exploration. But even for a fan whose tastes skew more towards the sprained than the straight, Hopper’s influence is visible everywhere.

Some of the most blatant lifts from Hopper are seen in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who is damn near a genre by himself. Saboteur (1942) features an early scene at the ranch of a nefarious foreign agent, the house bearing resemblance to the 1925 watercolor Ranch House, Santa Fe. In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the Newtons’ house and the town of Santa Rosa owe much to Hopper’s works Haskell’s House (1924) Hodgkin’s House (1928) and Houses on a Hill (1928).

Hopper’s house paintings are mesmerizing. Often rendered in the bright midday sun, with pleasant green gardens and picket fences, on the surface they might seem inviting. But the light striking the windows turns them into mirrors, with any gaps in the panes revealing only shadows. The occupants, indeed any people, are nowhere to be seen, leading the viewer to draw their own (perhaps sinister) conclusions as to what’s happening inside. Hitchcock embraces this in Shadow of a Doubt, with smiling, murderous Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) hiding his true nature within the warmth of the Newton family home.

Fascinatingly, a couple of years after the film’s release Hopper painted another iconic dwelling, Rooms for Tourists (1945), which bears a remarkable resemblance to the house in the film. Hopper liked to paint from inside his car, at a remove from the subject: he spent so much time near the real house in Cape Cod that the residents became suspicious. Almost a thriller setup in itself.

The most famous reference to a Hopper house in any film is Psycho (1960). House by the Railroad (1925) depicts a lonely old manse in the middle of nowhere. Again, light reflecting off the windows hides the interior, with only shadows visible inside, but more than that the doorway is obscured in darkness by a columned balcony. Visitors to the house may just find someone (or thing) lurking in those shadows. Whether it’s the home of Norman and Norma Bates, the Marsdon mansion in Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979) or even the comedy alternative, the dilapidated mansion in Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989), House by the Railroad casts a long shadow over horror cinema.

Nowhere though is Hopper’s influence on Hitchcock more prevalent than Rear Window (1954). The main character is literally forced to watch his surroundings voyeuristically through, well, his neighbors’ windows. Confined to a wheelchair, L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) whiles away the hours spying on the locals through binoculars, not unlike Hopper in his car. The artist’s nighttime cityscapes differ from the shadowy houses of Massachusetts by bathing the inhabitants with light, but the subjects are often only partially seen, stolen glances at people unaware they are being watched.

In Rear Window, the attractive dancer christened ‘Miss Torso’ by Jeff bears a resemblance to the woman half-glimpsed in Night Windows (1928) down to the color of her underwear. Other shots echo city scenes like Room in New York (1932) and Apartment Houses (1923). Hitchcock devotee Brian De Palma might not have borrowed the look, but the spirit of those works is in full effect in Body Double (1984).

Another successor to Hitchcock, Dario Argento, regularly explores similar themes of voyeurism and distance. L’uccello dalle piume di Cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970) may not look like a Hopper painting, but the most famous scene has the protagonist literally gazing through glass at a half-seen (and misunderstood) tableau. A virtuoso sequence in Tenebre (Tenebrae, 1982) finds Argento’s camera following two women from outside their house, inviting us viewers to peer in through the windows as they are stalked by the killer.

When it comes to on-the-nose references, Argento’s Profondo Rosso (Deep Red, 1975) takes the biscotti This is another plot which hinges on something half-seen through an apartment window, but the vantage point from which the nominal hero (David Hemmings) observes this is a literal recreation of Hopper’s most famous painting. Nighthawks, completed in January 1942, is regarded as the ultimate representation of Hopper’s themes. Though he insisted his work had no deeper meaning, the artist did admit of this one that  “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

Nighthawks depicts a diner after dark. Inside is a man, shoulders slumped, and a couple: apparently together, though they don’t appear to be enjoying one another’s company. The soda jerk behind the counter doesn’t seem very interested in any of them. The light spilling out through the wraparound window, breathtakingly rendered by the artist, is not comforting. In fact, it only highlights how lonely the otherwise-deserted block is. In Deep Red, the ‘Blue Bar’ where Marcus (Hemmings) meets his tortured friend Marco (Gabriele Lavia) right before witnessing the fateful murder of Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril) is a literal recreation of Nighthawks, down to the lonely street and listless patrons.

Mind you, not every Hopper reference involves urban ennui and naked girls getting stabbed: in the 1990s animated version of Ben Edlund’s The Tick, the superheroes protecting The City (The Tick, Arthur, Die Fledermaus, Sewer Urchin, American Maid and the rest) pass the time between crime-solving at a very familiar corner establishment named Ben’s Diner.

Nighthawks saw its light reflected far into the future. The ‘future noir’ aesthetic created by Blade Runner (1982) was heavily influenced by Hopper’s work. Director Ridley Scott used Nighthawks as reference material for his art department to indicate the mood he wanted. Indeed, what is future-noir if not Hopper’s cityscape bathed in neon? Everyone from Charles Band to multi-million dollar Netflix shows like Mute and Altered Carbon (both 2018) have been perpetuating the Bladerunner look ever since. Naturally, I love all of the above, as well as the weird, morphing Hopper-on-LSD cityscapes of Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998). And if you left, say, City Roofs (1932) or Office in a Small City (1953) in a damp room until they went moldy, they’d be green enough to resemble shots from The Matrix (1999). NB do not leave priceless modern art in a damp room to go moldy.

What started out as a piece on Hopper’s influence on genre has so far covered a lot of fairly mainstream cinema, and I’m about to make it worse. Todd Haynes is an unapologetic lover of the painter and references him repeatedly, never more so than in 2015’s Carol. I’d previously (and subsequently, as it turns out) been fairly ambivalent to Haynes’ work, but his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt (1952) floored me. On the surface a gay love story set against 1950s New York, much of the film examines male attitudes to women.

Opening on a man, not a particularly significant character, interrupting a conversation of (as we learn) huge significance between two women, Therese (Rooney Mara) and the eponymous socialite Carol (Cate Blanchett), the film then unfolds by unpacking that scene. We learn how the women came to be there, the toxic effects of male privilege on their relationship, and the giant emotional stakes that a random guy cheerfully inserted himself into. On first viewing I found the film to be a devastating invitation to examine my own privilege (though it manages this without ever being preachy).

Highsmith, of course, is best known as a writer of thrillers, with none other than Hitchcock adapting her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950, film 1951). Carol certainly isn’t that, though there are moments of high drama. But since the film is set over Christmas and New Year, and this is supposed to be an article on genre cinema, I feel justified including it as a Christmas movie. I’ve taken to watching every December, anyway.

And oh my, it is just dripping with Hopper, as well as the pictures of New York photographer Saul Leiter (who, if you look at his work, might be channeling the earlier artist). Characters are constantly being shot under glass – through windows, from outside of cars looking in – and the color scheme could have been lifted right out of a Taschen book (in fact it very likely was). The film shot in Cincinnati to capture the kind of red brick street ambiance of old New York seen in Early Sunday Morning (1930).

Many of Carol’s most pivotal scenes take place over lunch or dinner tables, a subject Hopper returned to often. Therese and Carol’s fateful interrupted conversation owes much in its design to Automat (1927). This painting features a lone woman sitting in a diner at night and is one of the best examples of the inscrutable melancholy that characterizes Hopper’s subjects. The opening scene of the film may show the two women together, but the angle is such that Carol is the only one facing camera in a similar pose to the woman in the painting. As the audience learns, at that moment she may be at her loneliest point in the entire story. Automat is echoed again later, when Carol, alone this time, pens a heartbreaking letter at the counter of some roadside stop.

Elsewhere, Carol and Therese’s first real connection is over lunch at an upscale diner, and while this also brings Automat to mind, Chop Suey (1929) feels like another touchpoint. Later Therese and Carol find themselves in yet another diner, a dark and cream room with a large window behind the darkly-attired blonde woman who is reading something, while her companion, dark-haired and dressed in red, watches. One of the artist’s later paintings, Chair Car (1965), might be set on a train rather than a restaurant but the figures, the colors, even the actions are the same.

Embarking on a cathartic road trip, the two women stop in various hotels, echoing Western Motel (1957) and some of Hopper’s nudes, most notably Hotel Room (1931) and Morning in the City (1944). Towards the end of the film, Therese is at a party, engaged in conversation with people she doesn’t really want to talk to, the scene captured from a distance through the open windows of a friend’s apartment, and that’s where we came in, more or less. For me, Carol stands as the closest one can get to actually being in a Hopper painting, at least without going to The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and sleeping in their physical recreation of the Western Motel room.

While this is not even close to an exhaustive examination (and here’s another you might like to seek out, a little monster flick which uses the artist’s Cape Cod paintings as inspiration, you may have heard of it, Jaws (1975)), it should be clear how gloriously cinematic Edward Hopper’s work is. Even more so if one’s taste veers towards the sinister, and such viewers may very well get a kick out of his paintings.

The final word, or rather image, should go to Hopper himself. New York Movie (1939) depicts a cinema, the audience seen from behind, watching a barely-glimpsed film (perhaps the recent Hitchcock hit The Lady Vanishes (1938)). But the eye is drawn to the usherette on the right of the painting. She’s distracted, not watching the film that she’s probably seen numerous times already.

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas's path was laid out when his grandparents allowed him to stay up late watching Hammer horror films on TV. Already a Star Wars nut, he hit puberty at the exact moment pre-cert home video arrived in the UK. It was all downhill from the day an uncomprehending babysitter left him alone with a copy of Deathstalker; he's still rendered helpless at the thought of Lana Clarkson waving a wooden broadsword. Dave's love of weird films eventually led him to the BFI, where he's a Patron and regular supporter; find him in the bar after screenings loudly decrying the lack of a Bruno Mattei season. An occasional film reviewer and podcaster, he's guested on The Fiasco Brothers Watch a Movie, BERGCAST (the all-Quatermass podcast) and the BMovieCast, and contributed reviews to Teleport-City.com. Dave's wrote 'Hammer Films: Back From the Dead' for the MovieWiz Academy, part of a series of "where to start with…" ebooks available for Kindle. Dave dreams of giving up work to follow his true passion; dividing his vast DVD collection into increasingly pedantic sections. He lives in Hertfordshire, England with his wife, cats and collection of hideous shirts.

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