Thinking about the power of images I thought it would be a good idea recovering an article Philip French wrote some years ago on The Observer about one of my favourite painters, Edward Hopper, and his relationship with cinema. So, there it goes, with a selection of images to illustrate Mr. French's words:
From Nighthawks to the shadows of film noir
Since the cinema's earliest days, film-makers have been turning to graphic artists for inspiration, most famously reflected perhaps in the phrase 'Rembrandt lighting', a term used by Cecil B. De Mille to bamboozle an impressionable producer about some peculiarly shadowy scenes. But arguably the most influential artist of our time has been Edward Hopper. Born in 1882, Hopper was 13 when the first images were projected on to a screen, 21 when The Great Train Robbery was shown around the world, and in his late forties when the 'talkies' arrived. He died in his Washington Square studio in 1967, just before the opening of Bonnie and Clyde.
Hopper loved the movies. 'When I don't feel in the mood for painting,' he said, 'I go to the movies for a week or more. I go on a regular movie binge.' The cinema returned the compliment by turning to him for stylistic inspiration, and film noir became his great love and the area of his chief influence. He created a world of loneliness, isolation and quiet anguish that we call Hopperesque.
Hopper's mentor, Robert Henri, a creator of the realist 'Ashcan School', encouraged him to go out to theatres and movie houses in order to observe the community at play. Instead, Hopper recorded the isolation of individual spectators waiting for the curtain to go up or the lights to go down. Glued to the screen or the proscenium arch, they turn in on themselves in a succession of unforgettable works. Hopper's etching entitled The Balcony or The Movies came early on, depicting two isolated figures looking down on an unseen screen. His masterpiece, New York Movie (1939), of an usherette standing beneath a wall light to the side of a palatial, darkened auditorium, is the greatest painting of any cinema interior.
German expressionism impinged on Hopper early on, during his sojourn in Paris. His 1921 etching Night Shadows looks like a storyboard sketch for a high-angle shot in a Fritz Lang movie. But what really influenced him were the movies shot on the backlots of Hollywood's great studios in the Thirties and Forties. Like the films of Hollywood's Golden Era, his paintings are about 'the city', a heightened abstract notion rather than any particular metropolis. Voyeurism has been an unavoidable condition of urban living and moviegoing, and Hopper's pictures spy on people in uncurtained rooms. They are epiphanic moments in someone else's life, stills from a movie we can't quite remember.
Hopper once earned his living designing covers and illustrations for pulp magazines that forced him to condense a story or book into a single image. According to his biographer, Gail Levin, he was inspired to paint his most famous picture, Nighthawks (1942), after reading Ernest Hemingway's story The Killers, in which two hitmen arrive at a small-town diner to murder a burnt-out prizefighter for some undisclosed offence. In the classic 1946 movie version, Robert Siodmak, German-born master of the film noir, recreates Hopper's painting in black and white. The film used two typical Hopper loci for the ex-boxer's squalid lodging and humble workplace, ie the dark room in a hotel or boarding house where a single person broods, and the desolate roadside filling station as in Gas and Four Lane Road.
A couple of years later, Abraham Polonsky, the soon-to-be blacklisted left-wing writer, was making his first movie, the noir classic, Force of Evil (1948). After three days shooting on New York locations, Polonsky took one of Hollywood's great cinematographers, George Barnes, to an exhibition of Hopper paintings and said: 'That's what I want this picture to look like', and indeed it did. Barnes went back to Hollywood and shot Samson and Delilah and The Greatest Show on Earth for De Mille.
After this, Hopper's influence became, consciously or unconsciously, pervasive. Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) was a crucial point where the sinister verticality of Hopper's mansard-roofed house in his first acclaimed painting House by the Railside (1925), was combined with the unprepossessing horizontality of his numerous paintings of motels. Not surprisingly Hopper has been a major influence on the road movie. This same image of the isolated mansard-topped mansion had been used by George Stevens in Giant and was later drawn on by Terrence Malick for Days of Heaven. Much earlier, that same house had inspired Charles Addams as the residence of his cartoon family.
Hopper's greatest contribution to film noir was his way of rendering in colour those dark shadows, that contrast between light and dark. Among the first to study this was James Wong Howe, one of Hollywood's finest directors of photography. As colour came to dominate in mainstream American cinema and the quality of film stock became increasingly sophisticated, Howe brought this knowledge to bear, not on a thriller, but on the 1955 screen version of William Inge's Pulitzer play, Picnic. Almost every other shot of the film's small Kansas town looks like a detail from a Hopper painting, reflecting the pathos of its inhabitants' quietly desperate lives.
As Hopper's reputation has grown, allusions to his work have inevitably become consciously referential homages. Director Walter Hill, working with cinematographer Philip Lathrop, draws on his paintings in Hard Times (set in New Orleans during the Depression) and The Driver (a noir thriller set in an unnamed city with equally anonymous characters). Lathrop had earlier been inspired by Hopper while working with John Boorman on Point Blank (1967); he later collaborated with Wim Wenders on Hammett (1982), a movie infused by Hopper's work.
Norman Mailer, an admirer of Hopper, preceded his only mainstream movie, Tough Guys Don't Dance, with a montage of Hopper houses and lighthouses on the New England coast. Numerous cinematographers - Gordon Willis (responsible for the Godfather trilogy and most of Woody Allen's pictures), Michael Chapman, John Bailey, László Kovács - have also been in thrall to Hopper. The great British production designer Ken Adam scrupulously reproduced Hopper's Nighthawks and New York Movie when transposing Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven (1981) from prewar Britain to the American Midwest during the Depression.
In The End of Violence (1997), Wim Wenders made his audience gasp by his Californian evocation of Nighthawks. More recently, another European director working in the States, Sam Mendes, for his period thriller Road to Perdition, turned to Hopper both for the film's dark interiors and the forlorn look of America in the Depression. In the final sequence, that arched, seductively innocent, apparently unoccupied house by the lake is inspired by the artist's paintings of seaside and lakeside houses. It's pure Hopper.