By Lars Trodson
For more than 70 years, people have been looking for Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" diner, and the search has been unsuccessful. There is now more or less agreement that it wasn't a real place. The diner was either a mashup of details from places all over New York, now demolished, or something wholly from Hopper's imagination. “That diner from Edward Hopper’s 'Nighthawks?' It never existed,” read one Gawker headline from 2010. Jeremiah Moss, the founder of the blog “Vanishing New York,” also lamented that the diner probably “never existed.”
Hopper himself was vague, saying that the diner was located in Greenwich Village “where two streets meet.” That hardly pinpoints it. Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” published in 1927 and a favorite of Hopper’s, was cited by Hopper scholar Gail Levin as an inspiration, who also suggests that van Gogh's "Cafe at Night" is a source image due to its muted color palette.
There is, however, a place where a fusion of many of the details in Hopper's painting did exist, but it is located in an unexpected and wholly unheralded place. I believe that these humble origins are precisely why Hopper hid the real inspiration for his painting from the leading critics — and the public — at the time. It would have diminished the work in the eyes of many.
A single shot in the proto-noir “Stranger on the Third Floor” predates Hopper’s painting by two years — it was released on Aug. 16, 1940 (almost 75 years ago to the day) — and contains so many similar details to the painting that once seen side by side it is impossible not to say it is the inspiration for Hopper’s famous diner.
The plot of "Stranger on the Third Floor" is simple and a diner plays an important role. There was a murder at this diner witnessed by a newspaper reporter named Michael Ward (played by John McGuire). Ward begins to reconsider his testimony that put the accused man in jail. As he replays the trial in his head, he stops by the diner where the murder took place as he reﬂects on
what he saw.
As Ward rounds the corner of Jack’s All Night Coffee Pot, as it's named in the movie, he walks down a sidewalk, takes just a few steps. The diner is behind him. Here it is:
It's not exact, of course; no one was ever going to ﬁnd that diner. Like any good artist, Hopper remodeled the place to make it his own.
So we will remove a few details. The black and white image was colorized for the painting (so to speak), and there is a bothersome lamppost on the corner, as well as a ﬁre hydrant (not uncommon in cities at that time). The interior of the diner is more cluttered and the windows are smaller.
There is an “Open All Night” sign in the shape of a coffeepot obscuring the windows Hopper so loved to paint. The canvas canopy in the movie diner makes way for the Phillies cigar ad that runs across the top of the windows in the painting. There is, of course, a reporter in the middle of the frame.
But this is the diner in "Nighthawks:" This is street and the sidewalk in "Nighthawks." The closed building across the street is the empty building in "Nighthawks."
The point of view is almost identical to Hopper’s painting. The spatial aspects of the windows are the same, particularly the back window that faces the street around the corner. The curve and width of the sidewalk is unmistakable, although Hopper made it wider. Hopper copied the diamond-like reﬂections off the windows that dropped onto the concrete sidewalk.
An important detail: The vertical rectangle window in the door in the movie, seen at the extreme right of the frame,
has turned into the vertical rectangular orange door in the back of Hopper's painting:
The curve of the far edge of the wide sidewalk is precisely the same. The width of the empty street behind the reporter is the same width as the street in the painting. The shadowing of the curb on the opposite side of the street is mimicked almost exactly in the painting. There is the door between the two display windows in the shop across the street, which Hopper moved a bit to the left. It is all there.
There's even a soda jerk wearing a paper cap, although he is facing in the wrong direction.
Looked at side by side, it is impossible to not see where Hopper found his image for "Nighthawks."
Of that supposed diner in Greenwich Village, Hopper said: "I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger." (From an interview in 1962.) It turns out this is precisely what he did with the diner he saw in this movie.
The idea that Hopper had seen “Stranger on the Third Floor” is not farfetched. He was known to have found refuge in the movies. "When I don't feel in the mood for painting," he once said, "I go to the movies for a week or more. I go on a regular movie binge." He was a fan of gangster movies.
He must have wandered in the Rialto theater (located on Broadway) in New York to see this modest film sometime in 1940 (it was released in August of that year and is 64 minutes long), directed by Boris Ingster. The film was photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, who photographed several noir masterpieces, including the great "Out of the Past."). Hopper certainly found the lighting schemes in these black and white films — the films that would become known as film noir — exciting and even evocative of his own work.
Artists find inspiration anywhere and anyplace they can, and it doesn't tax the imagination to envision Hopper, as an artist with a keen eye, sitting up in his seat as that diner loomed behind the actor. Hopper could have even returned to this movie many times to study the image. He would have to; this was before video. Hopper was known to have sketched in burlesque houses and movie theaters.
There are other clues that this movie diner is the inspiration for "Nighthawks."
Before the reporter goes around the corner to stand on that wide empty sidewalk, he walks by a window on the other side of the street and inside we can see two men, in fedoras and suits, drinking coffee at the counter. Further in the back, not surprisingly, is a coffee urn. Those detail are banal and commonplace.
But just above the urn, seen here right in front of the brim of the actor's hat, there is an ad for something costing 5 cents.
That number 5, seen above and in the enlargement below, is styled exactly the same way as the number 5 in the Phillies cigar advertisement in Hopper’s painting. I can find no Phillies cigar ad from the 1930s or early 40s with that same stylized number 5. It may exist, but I couldn’t find it.
Now here is an enlargement of the 5 cent Phillies ad in the painting, with the 5 styled almost exactly as a 5 inside the diner found in the film “Stranger on the Third Floor.”
Another clue can be found in the sketches Hopper made as he prepared "Nighthawks."
A sketch Hopper made of the diner, which is nothing more than a few lines, clearly indicates a double door placed in the same place where there is a double door in the diner in "Stranger on the Third Floor" — a detail that did not make it into the final version of the painting.
Another sketch, seen below in the upper left hand panel, shows the smaller, squarer windows that are also seen in the movie. Hopper admitted he "made the restaurant bigger," which included elongating the windows, as the other sketches indicate.
In an article published in The Los Angeles Times in 2013, Carter Foster, the Whitney Museum's curator of drawings who put together the show "Hopper Drawing," which included the above sketches for "Nighthawks," said: "In some of the drawings, you feel like you're moving through a succession of spatial representations that seem like snapshots or film stills. Hopper went to a lot of movies, and I'm sure there was influence both ways." He couldn't have been more right. (Hopper still has a powerful hold on filmmakers today. George Clooney's "The Ides of March," from 2011, is a virtual catalogue of Hopper images.)
When “Nighthawks” appeared, Hopper was 58 years old and one of the most famous of all American painters. He had an original, unique, highly praised style. He obviously painted scenes from life, which no one would question or be confused by. There are tours given in Wellfleet and Truro, Massachusetts, of the houses and structures he painted there.
It was therefore more than just pride of ownership of a painting that must have caused Hopper to evade the real inspiration for "Nighthawks." It’s important to think of what the leading art critics of the time would have thought if they had known where this image was born.
No one had taken an image from a movie and turned it into high art — or no one had admitted to it at that time — especially if the image was from a cheap, amoral B movie that was not even all that well received when it was released. Even Gail Levin's proposition that Hemingway's "The Killers" was a source of inpsiration didn't come until many years after the painting was completed. Such connections are not now considered so unworthy.
But would Daniel Catton Rich, the director of the Museum of Modern Art until 1943, have pronounced the painting "as fine as [Winslow] Homer" if he had known the inspiration was a film called "Stranger on the Third Floor?" I doubt it.
At any rate, the closeness of his painting to that one image from a movie must have made Hopper uncomfortable, and so he made up a diner that existed “where two streets meet.”
It also leads one to wonder why no one went out and took a photo of the diner as it existed in the years immediately following the painting's unveiling — "Nighthawks" was famous almost immediately after it was finished in January 1942. A diner that unique wouldn’t have been hard to find in Greenwich Village. Someone, somewhere, would have photographed it. But that photograph doesn't exist.
But these are just details. What is important is that the power of the image remains, the affection it engenders lasts.
Like any great work of art, the emotion and meaning is personal.
I, for one, never interpreted "Nighthawks" as a picture of isolation and loneliness.
I think it is the opposite of that. I think it is a picture of people seeking comfort and safety in a world that is dark and strange.
This was a painting started in the days immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, and was finished in January 1942. The eyes of the entire world were on America, on the promise of America. No one who was living in this country at the time knew what was in store, and the people who first viewed this painting knew that.
I wonder if they saw four people living in an American city who have gathered together, however loosely, in a familiar space. What did they see in that friendly, warm, and bright diner? A place to drink coffee, have a smoke, and to not feel lonely or scared even if you felt lonely and scared. Would they wonder who the man who has his back to us is — is he a friendly presence, or is he menacing? He's hunched over. He has finished his meal, his empty plate can be seen off to his left, and he appears to be drinking a glass of water. But he has not left just yet. Would you suddenly be wary of strangers?
What would they think Hopper was trying to say to them when they noticed, if they noticed, because no one seems to have noticed, not even today, that the woman is in red, the soda jerk is in white and the man next to the woman is in blue.
Is the diner a metaphor of America? Wide open and vulnerable but, for now, a safe place.
There is a bleak, sinister world just outside the light of this American place. The building across the street looks not so much unlived in as abandoned. Look at the store. All that remains is the cash register. Why are its shelves empty? Why does it look so desolate, decimated, even looted?
Maybe what people saw inside that diner in 1942 was not loneliness. Maybe they saw that even this dark hour of the night, people can find each other.
Maybe what they saw was the idea that we, any of us, can find a moment of solace, even refuge, before we have to go back out into that murderous world around us.
Copyright 2015 Lars Trodson/The Roundtable