Monday, November 23, 2009

Hitchcock's Most Hopperesque Film: "Psycho"

Edward Hopper, The City, 1927

Psycho's opening montage of Phoenix, Arizona, suggests that, like the Hopper painting above, behind these blank, silent walls and windows, a myriad lives are being played out.

Norman Bates: psychosexual predator, nice guy with a bad habit, or just a sad case? No matter how good or how evil Alfred Hitchcock's characters seem to be, his films rarely pronounce absolute judgment on them. We, the viewers, are left to decide.

Like the name of his TV series suggests, Hitchcock simply presents.

This is the intersection where Hitchcock and Edward Hopper meet. Like Hitch, Hopper shows. He never tells. We don’t really know what his human subjects are thinking, and we aren’t told how to think about them. They just are.

Hopper’s subjects are humans, being.

For that reason, we are able to lean into his paintings and project our conclusions onto them; we enter into a sort of dialogue with his subjects and with the artist himself. Hitchcock invites that same kind of engagement.

As I've shown in recent blog posts, Edward Hopper's influence on film was profound. Both Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, acknowledged their indebtedness to the artist in the making of Psycho. For that reason, I feel that Psycho might be Hitchcock's most Hopperesque film.

House by the Railroad, 1925

Hopper biographer Gail Levin revealed that “as true film aficionados,” Edward and his wife, Jo, “were delighted to learn that Alfred Hitchcock credited the idea for the house in his film Psycho to looking at House by the Railroad.” This Victorian house is skinny, awkward, self-conscious, not quite comfortable in its own skin. Ashamed of its nakedness in this barren landscape. While the painting was a model for the Bates house, maybe it also reflects Norman's own state of mind.

Psycho, 1960

The obvious architectural similarities are easy to spot. But so what? Clearly, Hitchcock saw more than just that in the painting. For instance, as evidenced by the railroad tracks running in front of it, Hopper’s house has been left behind by progress, just as the Bates estate has been bypassed by the new Interstate Highway, courtesy of President Eisenhower. (Check out my very first Alfred Hitchcock Geek post, which elaborates on that subject.)

Hopper also provided inspiration for the development of Norman Bates. Said Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano, “I told [Anthony Perkins] that I felt that Norman Bates, if he were a painting, would be painted by Hopper, and he agreed. So we had that kind of discussion, writer and actor, about the character. He had an incredible grasp on Norman Bates and the situation that he was in. I think Tony Perkins must have known what it was like to be trapped.”

Which pictures could he have had in mind? I've come up with a few ideas. Maybe you have others.

When Hopper included people in his paintings, they are almost always alone, clamped into their "private traps," as Norman would describe them.

In this shot, we are allowed to peer in on Norman, to see him alone in his house, his private trap. The claustrophic framing and apprehensive aloneness could have been inspired by just about any painting by Hopper.

Room in Brooklyn (1932). Excuse me, but am I the only person here who thinks that the image of Mrs. Bates, alone in her rocking chair, sitting in a window of the Bates Mansion, might owe some of its mood to Room in Brooklyn? The ennui of the scene evokes Norman's own boredom, as a man isolated, solitary and trapped in a world not of his choosing, looking out on a maddeningly unchanging landscape.

Other scenes in Psycho strike me as Hopperesque.

Our eyes are drawn to the letter the woman holds in New York Office (1962). Could Hopper have been inspired by scenes in which Marion contemplates the $40,000?
At Mr. Lowry's office.

Unpacking at the Bates Motel.

Another very important area where Hitch and Hopper are alike is with regard to how they treat voyeurism. (Take a look at my November 14 post for a comparison of Hopper’s part in Hitch's voyeurs’ manifesto, Rear Window.) As the director told Francois Truffaut about the opening scene of Psycho, it “allows the viewer to become a Peeping Tom.” Any viewer who stops to gaze at a Hopper is implicated in the act of peeping as well. The same can be said of a Hitchcock movie. We become secret sharers with those artists, who provide images for out mutual, prurient satisfaction.

Norman pulls aside a print of The Rape of Lucretia to take a gander at Marion (bird pun intended).

We are complicit with Norman in the act of peeping. How so? In this scene, we know that Marion is taking her clothes off. Our first reaction to Norman when we see him pull aside the picture is to chide him for being so naughty. Our second response is to wish he would move so we can see what he’s seeing. Hitch obliges us with this subjective shot:

Another aspect of Hopper’s paintings, not often talked about, is the air of expectancy. His figures aren’t as much posed, as they are poised. He captures them in the moment between ennui and action. This, I feel, is what makes them so compelling and dramatic. We are drawn in because his paintings are so full of potential energy.

Cape Cod Morning (1950)
Hopper's painting makes me think of Norman looking up from his reading to see a car -- will it turn in to his driveway or keep going?

For more examples of Hopper's influence on Hitch, follow these links:Edward Hopper and Rear Window.
Edward Hopper and Shadow of a Doubt.
For posts about Hitchcock and other artists, check out my Greatest Hits page.

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Verity said...

Awesome post!! I forgot how much I love Hopper.

Joel Gunz said...

Thanks, Verity!

knowingviews said...

Yeah! Great post! I only watched The Coen Brothers Barton Fink for the first time the other day and felt, the whole colour schemes and use of lighting evoked Hopper too so its strange to see this influence again here.

Joel Gunz said...

Hey Simon -

Wouldn't you know, I haven't seen Barton Fink yet! That (I hope) will be remedied this weekend.

Maya said...

Wonderful post. I knew Hitchcock had used the House by the Railroad, but I never thought about all of the other connections you made. Great comparative stills. Excellent insight.

Joel Gunz said...

Hi Maya -

Thanks for noticing! BTW, did you know you're not too far from Hitchcock's house? He and Alma lived not far from Santa Cruz.

Luke Bears said...

Your blog is outstanding!!!

Joel Gunz said...

Thanks for stopping by, Luke!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insights. I was trying to identify the paintings in the film and came across your remarkable piece. Thx, from CVG