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Home >> BMTimes >> Movie Personalities
Sunday, October 23, 2016  Don't Miss Next BM Times Article! Subscribe

The painter and his films: Edward Hopper's influence on film noir

Cinema has always been beholden to its progenitive arts: literature and painting. Since the infancy of the film industry, film-makers have looked to graphic artists for inspiration; take for instance the much celebrated association of Luis Bunuel with Salvador Dali. Film makers also tend to audibly acknowledge their debt to their chosen gurus.

This proclivity was most famously documented in the case of Cecil B. De Mille, who used the phrase 'Rembrandt lighting' in an attempt to con a gullible producer into believing that certain bizarre shadowy sequences were of high aesthetic value. More recently, Martin Scorcese is said to have instructed his cinematographer to employ "Rembrandt lighting" for The Gangs of New York.

Edward Hopper was among the most influential painters of the last century. Born in 1882, Hopper was 13 when the first moving images were projected on to a screen, 21 when The Great Train Robbery was shown around the world.

He was in his late forties when the 'talkies' arrived and He died in his Washington Square studio in 1967, immediately before the release of Arthur Penn's ground breaking 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." Hopper's love was passionately returned by successive generations of filmmakers who turned to his moody highlights and the palpable loneliness of his painted figures for stylistic inspiration.

Gifted directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Wim Wenders and Terence Malick, sought to incorporate Hopper's painterly perception of urban isolation into their oeuvre.

Hopper had a particular affinity with the great noir films of the forties. This was also the genre upon which his influence is mainly felt. His canvases mirror a world of unspeaking anguish, the small print of modern urban existence that is also articulated in Noir classics.

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 recognised and recorded the isolation of individual spectators, increasingly alienated from the community, as they waited for the curtain to go up or the lights to go down.

In a succession of haunting canvases, the individual members of Hopper's community seem to turn in on themselves, even as their line of vision seems to be fixed on the screen or the proscenium arch.

Hopper's etching entitled The Balcony or The Movies, which depicts two isolated figures looking down on an unseen screen, came early on. His masterpiece, New York Movie (1939), in which an usherette stands beneath a wall light to the side of a palatial, darkened auditorium, is the greatest painting of any cinema interior.

German expressionism, too, had an indelible impact Hopper during his early sojourn in Paris. His 1921 Etching Night Shadows looks like a storyboard sketch for a high-angle shot for a Fritz Lang film.

Of greater influence were the movies shot on the back lots of Hollywood's great studios in the Thirties and Forties. Indeed, Hopper's paintings often look inexplicably familiar, as though they were stills from a film we might have seen.

Much like the films of Hollywood's Golden Era, Hopper's paintings are about 'the city'. They chart the nuances of an enhanced, or reflected abstraction, rather than the specificity of a recognisable American metropolis.

In the thirties and forties, Hollywood was making it evident that voyeurism is an inevitable feature of urban living. Hopper's paintings send out the same message. They are epiphanies, but the human transfigurations are not recorded within an open space.

The moments of epiphany are reached by spying, in the manner of Hitchcock's camera, through the open curtains of a neighbour's apartment.

Hopper once earned his

Sumana Dey
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