June 5, 2015

TWO OF A KIND (1951)

Please pardon the infrequent posting here at Where Danger Lives. Following the release of Film Noir 101, I've just begun work on a follow-up book for Fantagraphics. This new book will be out in 2016 and will also be a large-format collection of mid-century images—though I can’t say more just yet! As ever, thanks for visiting and reading! 



Talk about a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Two of a Kind, released by Columbia in 1951, is a perfect example of how a Hollywood ending can derail a promising noir. The premise is enticing: three grifters try to work an inheritance scam on an elderly California couple. They plan to pass off a fellow con-artist as the couple’s long-lost son and claim a huge inheritance when the aged millionaires finally kick over. The cast is rock-solid, and includes noir icons Edmond O’Brien and Lizabeth Scott, as well as President Woodrow Wilson himself, Alexander Knox. 

Two of a Kind moves with verve and is characterized by tough talk and slick Burnett Guffey photography. It establishes itself as a noir early on, with a wonderfully memorable scene involving the two leads, a car door, and some great banter. Two of a Kind also foreshadows doom in half a dozen different ways, including a slew of references to the game of craps, yet in the end it fails to deliver on its dark promises — instead wrapping up like an MGM musical, where boy and girl hop into a ragtop and ride off into the setting Pacific sun, leaving the audience jilted and angry.

The opening finds Brandy (Lizabeth Scott), searching for a man she’s never met, a very specific kind of a man who fits the requirements that she and her accomplice Vincent (Alexander Knox) require to orchestrate a swindle of gigantic proportions. It seems that many years ago, a wealthy California couple, the McIntyres, lost their son during a trip to Chicago. Mrs. McIntyre had a dizzy spell and cracked her head on the sidewalk outside Marshall Fields. When she woke up her toddler son was gone. She wasn’t without hope though — the tip of little fellow’s left little finger is missing, making him easy to recognize. Yet despite this unusual telltale, after more than three decades the McIntyres have never been able to locate their son.

The McIntyre family attorney, who turns out to be none other than Brandy’s partner Vincent, has long been in charge of the search for the boy. And it’s Vincent who first sees the opportunity to make a grab at the McIntyre family millions; he and Brandy just need to find the right man to play the part of the prodigal son: white male, early thirties, from the Chicagoland area, raised in an orphanage, and finally: willing to pare his pinky for a big payoff. Enter Mike ‘Lefty’ Farrell (Edmond O’Brien).


Throughout film history there have been countless scenes when a character loses some limb or another, and most such films exploit the suspense-filled moments before the axe falls, the knife slashes, or the chainsaw rattles to life. In this case the exchange between Brandy and Mike leading up to the “ouch” is just as compelling. The scene occurs early on, just after Brandy discovers Mike drearily checking cards at an L.A. bingo joint. In a brief sequence of impressive narrative economy, Brandy manages to catch Mike’s eye, test his mettle against a hired thug, get him arrested and bailed out, clue him in on the potential scam, and convince him to put his little finger in the path of a car door. Considering the pair just met, Mike seems too eager to go along with her plan. It’s a weak point in the story that relies on the seductive power of the femme fatale to make believable — after all, how many men will maim themselves for a woman they’ve just met? It’s a hard pill to swallow, and Liz Scott isn’t the girl to help it go down any easier. Scott was certainly a wonderful actress — she could outperform most fifties crime pic ingénues with her eyes alone, but she lacked that Rita-esque brand of raw sexuality necessary to close this deal. 

Nevertheless the sequence is Two of a Kind’s best — though it’s the doom and gloom dialogue which brings the whole thing off. The outcome is never in doubt; we know the finger has to come off for the story to move forward, but the film carves out mucho character development before the big moment. Brandi pulls up to a shadowy curb, the emergency hospital quietly looming a block ahead. She cuts to the chase: “It has to look like an accident — you walk in with a smashed finger and tell them you caught it in a car door.” “And how does it really get smashed?” Mike asks, to which she deadpans, “In a car door.” Brandi leans across Mike’s chest and pushes open his door, while he eyes her warily for the first time. She removes the lipstick from her handbag and paints an aiming line on his little finger before announcing, “You’d better have a cigarette.” Still gregarious, Mike asks, “Who gets to make with the door?” To which Brandy’s curt “I do” not only establishes her clear control of the situation but also that Mike (like other noir protagonists) is in way over his head. Her final admonition, “Look the other way” comes just a second before she crushes his finger. The scene is certainly the most noirish in the film, particularly in how it parallels Mike’s predicament with that of a man about to be executed. The cigarette, the turning of the head, the willing submission, and finally, the moment’s sexually-charged, emasculating violence are quintessentially noirish, and ensure that Two of a Kind would be much better-remembered if only it didn’t shoot itself in the foot so soon after chopping off Mike’s finger.

But the stakes are so low! One of the reasons the car door scene resonates is because it’s the only exciting moment in the movie — and all it involves is a busted up little finger! The film is otherwise light on crime, and the inheritance scheme fails miserably. No one gets killed, and when the plan is unraveled Mr. McIntyre doesn’t even press charges, even knowing that Vincent secretly hoped to kill him in order to get rich even quicker. McIntyre simply demands that the larcenous lawyer close up shop and leave town, while he actually invites the repentant Mike to perpetuate the ruse for the sake of the forlorn Mrs. McIntyre’s newfound happiness. As a matter of fact, the stakes are so low that everyone would likely have been better off if the hustle had succeeded: The McIntyres would have lived out their final years in the happy knowledge that their son had returned, while the already-rich Vincent and Brandi would have just gotten richer and Mike would have endured a guilty inheritance. Considering that the McIntyres had no other potential heirs, perhaps the only real losers would have been the charitable organizations that would have otherwise inherited the funds.

Yet if a deeper reading is made, an important question comes to mind, though it’s one that potentially destroys the film, or at least makes it awfully difficult to like: What about the McIntyre’s real son? It’s not that viewers would expect this lost child to joyously reappear after thirty years to throw a monkey wrench into Brandy and Mike’s plans (though that may have made for an interesting twist). Postwar audiences were as aware as any of the potential for horror in the world, and the details of the Lindbergh case still lingered in the public mind, as would the circumstances of the Wineville Chicken Murders (known to contemporary audiences thanks to Clint Eastwood’s Changeling) and many other newswire scandals of the period. In giving Two of a Kind such a happy denouement, fate can’t mete out the justice required by the noir universe. Sometimes the happy ending is an important part of the noir journey, as in the redemption-oriented Tomorrow is Another Day. Yet here Vincent, Brandy, and Mike contrive a terrible crime: they casually and unremorsefully attempt to cash in on the grief and hope of a decent family that has lost its only child, in all likelihood to a horrible death. The film trades justice for romance, and no two stars, even O’Brien and Scott, possess screen chemistry sufficient for us to forgive a crime that involves preying on the heart of a bereaved mother. We are left to wonder how the title, Two of a Kind, is intended to represent Brandy and Mike, though in some dark, accidental way conjures thoughts of Mike and that vanished little boy, a plot device of so little consequence to the film that he’s denied even the human dignity of a name.

Two of a Kind (1951)
stripe
Director: Henry Levin
Producer: William Dozier
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Screenplay: James Edward Grant, James Gunn and Lawrence Kimble
Starring: Edmond O’Brien and Lizabeth Scott
Released by: Columbia Pictures Corporation
Running Time: 75 minutes

February 17, 2015

OUT OF THE STORM (1948)


In order to understand how important typecasting was in classic Hollywood, how it could make or break a movie — even a cheap B picture with a twelve-day shooting schedule — look no further than Republic’s 1944 crime programmer Out of the Storm, starring Jimmy Lydon. Lydon gained fame playing comic strip teenager Henry Aldrich nine times for Paramount Pictures throughout the war years. After the fighting ended he signed a contract with Republic Pictures (which he jokingly referred to as Repulsive Pictures!) and made several low rent crime films, the most notable of which was Edgar Ulmer’s Strange Illusion (1945). From time to time Lydon appeared in supporting roles in major studio productions, including a pleasantly funny turn alongside Elizabeth Taylor in the 1947 William Powell hit Life with Father, and, believe it or not, as Ingrid Bergman’s little brother in Victor Fleming’s 1948 colossus, Joan of Arc. Lydon enjoyed a lengthy acting career in Hollywood films and on television before transitioning into a significant role as a producer. He even did a stretch as vice-president of the Screen Actors Guild. As of this writing he’s approaching 92 and living happily in California with his wife of 62 years.

In Out of the Storm, set during the war, he is perfectly cast as Donald Lewis, a clerk at west coast naval yard. Amidst the tumult of the never-ending stream of tankers, freighters, and liberty ships sliding into the Pacific, Donald spends his days in the relative calm of the payroll office, endorsing checks for the yard’s ten thousand workers. It’s Christmastime as the movie opens, and Donald has just taken possession of $125,000 in folding money, when a crew led by Stubbins (familiar hood Marc Lawrence) hurries up the stairs and into the payroll loft. Stubbins shoots the guard, beats another man unconscious, and then forces Donald to grab stacks of bills from the safe. After the gang flees Donald telephones security, but before they arrive he gapingly realizes that the crooks overlooked the $100,000 intended for the workers’ Christmas bonuses and made off with significantly less: the $25,000 in fives and tens meant for check cashing. Donald hesitates for just a moment, and then hides the money. He returns later, in the dead of night, and smuggles it home. The remainder of the movie vacillates between the predictable and the surprising as Donald tries hard to hang onto the loot before eventually coming around — though Out of the Storm pleases even when it treads this familiar ground.

Let’s momentarily imagine the challenge faced by Out of the Storm’s producers, needing to fill the lead. Here we have a fairly straightforward morality tale about a war worker who steals, albeit passively (everything about Donald is passive), and most importantly, whose crime becomes the catalyst for his coming of age. We need an actor who can sell two key characteristics: the audience must be able to understand his motivation to steal, and in time they must be able to forgive him. The movie never explicitly tells us why Donald isn’t in the service, though there are two possibilities: he could have received a 2-B deferment from service as an employee of the war industry, or his designation could have been the dreaded 4-F: “registrant is not acceptable for military service.” The casting of Jimmy Lydon, neither a tough guy nor a dreamboat, makes it clear exactly which weak-kneed designation the filmmakers wanted us to assume, and it shows us why the casting process is vital.

What kind of a guy would take this money? What kind of guy would end up in the payroll office in the first place? Donald lacks the physical strength required to man either a rivet gun or a machine gun. And he’s bitter about it. Here’s a kid with guilt. The movie’s opening narration, in which he resignedly laments his situation over stock footage of the smoking wreckage of Pearl Harbor, and then over images of countless ships under construction during the big buildup of 1942, is a self-pitying diatribe about how some young men “went to the fighting lines [and] some went to the assembly lines.” Donald feels left out of both groups, resenting not just the servicemen overseas, but also the blue-collar workers who make more money than he does:

“Seemed like everybody in the yard was making money. Everybody else was really building something, really doing something. But me? I got stuck in the payroll department with a lot of adding machines and file records and a salary of $40 a week. How far can you make that go?”

And yet Donald is still a good boy — he mails a chunk of his meager earnings home to his mother and struggles by on the rest. We get the impression that all would be well if only he could strap on a uniform and get in the fight like everybody else. All of his simmering guilt is cleverly ratcheted up by the presence of his girlfriend and coworker Ginny (Lois Collier, sort of a poor man’s Gail Russell). Ginny’s a real doll, and entirely out of Donald’s league. They’ve been together for nearly a year, after bumping into each other during lunch. Here's how it needles: it’s a mismatched relationship only made possible by the war, and Donald knows it. He constantly uses his small salary as an excuse not to get married, but we suspect that he really believes he doesn’t deserve such a great girl in the first place. Ginny, for her part, is strangely desperate to get hitched, Donald’s finances be damned. (It’s terribly easy to imagine a dead Marine on Guadalcanal with her picture in his breast pocket.)

At any rate, the film excellently establishes Donald’s angst at being left out of the fighting and his disappointment at not landing an appropriately butch spot in the war effort, and then being saddled with a devoted girlfriend whom he doesn’t feel he deserves. Such a character could easily come across as a weasel. We’d hate Donald if we didn’t think his heart was in the right place, if he didn’t so obviously love his mother, if he hadn’t fretted and called the guards after the theft, and if he wasn’t just a dumb, jealous, understandably immature kid. But we do like him, and we also feel sorry for him. We understand, just as he does, that Captain America is just a comic strip character and that there wasn’t a place on the front lines for every weak-kneed kid who wanted to get in. Perhaps the movie’s best, most transformative moment comes near then end, when Ginny looks Donald in the eye and calls him a coward, and the sting of the remark compels him to finally understand something that all of us ultimately have to come to grips with: that life ain’t fair, and that not getting all the things we want isn’t an excuse to act out.

Out of the Storm presented a complex casting problem that, in this instance, the filmmakers solved perfectly. Jimmy Lydon is nearly flawless as one of the countless fellows left to grapple with self-worth while fighting the war from home. He successfully spins the confused, frustrated angst of youth into the moral ambiguity and misguided choices that lie deep within the tangled heart of film noir.

Out of the Storm (1948)
Directed by R.G. Springsteen
Screenplay by John K. Butler
Story by Gordon Rigby
Starring Jimmy Lydon, Lois Collier, and Marc Lawrence
Cinematography by John MacBurnie
Released by Republic Pictures
Running Time: 61 minutes


October 18, 2014

The 30 GREATEST ALFRED HITCHCOCK MOVIE POSTERS! (Spoiler: VERTIGO finishes second!)

At long last, a new countdown — a one-shot!

Here are the thirty best US (or British) one-sheets for the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Given that Hitch directed more than sixty features I had hoped that this would be at least a fifty-poster countdown. But alas, many of the posters for his early efforts in his home country are not to be found, and somewhat surprisingly, many of the available posters are designed particularly well! In the end I decided to rank thirty posters, and if my goal was to showcase solid design work I might have been better off showing just twenty. However, in the end I decided the more images the better!  

For those of you new to the site, feel free to read my design thoughts or just check out the images! As for the rules I set for myself, here’s the straight dope: 1) The posters shown here are ranked based solely on their design merits; this is not a ranking of the films themselves. 2) I only rank American (and in this case, British) one-sheet posters. No other formats, or posters from non-English-speaking countries are considered (apples and oranges, you know?) 3) I evaluate using several criteria, primarily the communicative effectiveness of the design. Posters are meant to sell tickets; aesthetics are often secondary to this goal. This is sometimes difficult for those outside of design and advertising to grasp because they’ve never really thought about it, but when relevant I discuss below. 4) Finally, although any such list is subjective, my qualifications as a design evaluator aren’t too shabby. I am a university graphic design professor with twenty years experience, my personal design work has been recognized with more than 300 national level awards, and my book, Film Noir 101 – The 101 Best Film NoirPosters of the 1940s and 1950s was just published by Fantagraphics Books. Go get a copy! 

If you'd like to review my other countdowns, here are the links: 

Enjoy the countdown and feel free to comment, you mugs!




30. TORN CURTAIN (1966)
This isn’t an awful poster, but it certainly lacks the sense of hierarchy found in better designs. I wanted to open with it (even though I do so at the expense of Strangers on a Train) because it illustrates the problem often found in posters for prestige productions from big directors and major stars: contractual obligations requiring that star’s names appear above the title and in a certain size, color, or position relative to one another. Such constraints often limited the designer’s ability to make the poster that the film really deserved, and in other posts I’ve argued that this is one of the primary reasons why B movie posters are often superior to their big-budget counterparts. In Torn Curtain, we can easily isolate the image area (photograph/hand/knife) and imagine that if were bigger and the surrounding names smaller, we’d likely have a better poster. Of course a studio executive could argue that names in two-inch letters sells tickets, but we know now that ticket buyers recognize and respond better to images than they do printed names. As it is, this design sacrifices the film’s title at the altar of star power.




29. MARNIE (1964)
On that note, the poster for Marnie offers only a smidgeon of improvement over Torn Curtain, and in fact they both share pasted-together quality. I prefer this design, even though it lacks concept, because the typography is more interesting and the sense of organization missing from Torn Curtain is more present here. Besides, who doesn’t love a good “sex mystery”?




28. SABOTEUR (1942)
Better type in this example, but diminished greatly by a weak illustration at the top and too-small photographs at the bottom. I sure wish some of that white space could have been put to better use. Graphic designers, get a load of the typeface used for Hitchcock’s name — is this the inspiration for Émigré’s iconic 1990s typeface Modula?




27. TO CATCH A THIEF (1963)
Wasted potential. This could have been an all-time classic film poster, but the ridiculous white box touting Grant and Kelly shoves the illustration so far to the left of the composition that Grant’s head is at risk of falling out of the design. Get my drift about big star names wrecking a poster? Let’s push that box to the right border and steal some of that unused space for the sake of giving the cat burglar some breathing room, or better yet, lose the box altogether and make the type white. The bottom half of this poster is redemptive, but it can’t save poor Grace from looking decapitated! 




26. FAMILY PLOT (1976)
The design here is too busy, but its organization is light years ahead of the poster for Torn Curtain. And rather than shouting at us with big letters as the poster for Marnie does, Family Plot lets its imagery do the talking. The use of photomontage and circular halftone screens is novel for the 1970s, but putting Hitch’s head inside a crystal ball is silly and verges on self-parody. I also find the “you must see it twice!” tagline mildly insulting—the typestyle hurts the design, and I’ll happily decide for myself whether or not this is worth a second viewing.




25. THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956)
James Stewart makes his first appearance in the countdown, framed in red alongside Doris Day. Solid organization and subtle layering land this one here, though again we see that big star names usually hurt more than they help. I’m fond of the title typography: it recedes into the picture plane and leads the viewer’s eye back to the star’s faces. Here’s a neat design trick at work too: the designer chose to make the title blue, drawing needed attention to it in an otherwise overwhelmingly red composition. The sense of pictorial depth is also enhanced by the use of figures in small, medium, and large sizes, and in how Stewart’s head overlaps his red rectangle, while Day’s rests beneath hers.




24. UNDER CAPRICORN (1949)
Tell me if you think I’m crazy, but I wonder if Bergman and Cotton are cobbled together from separate still photographs, possibly even those taken for other films? I can’t get past their hands — something’s not quite right about how his lays on her hair and cheek, and how hers are clasped around his back. I also wonder if the red box containing the title typography is situated to cover an area where the photos couldn’t be properly matched? It’s a trivial concern, but if true I applaud the designer for a job well done!
At any rate, the Warner’s house style, with its generous white borders, allows for the silhouette of the figures to give the composition an unusually organic feel, while also suggesting the shape of the human heart. I find the blue “glow,” as well as the sheer number of differing typestyles to be distracting, but it’s all saved by the small script introducing the cast: “Strange things happen to…” How fantastic and original is that?




23. LIFEBOAT (1940)
A lively poster with an effective zigzag composition. The artist had a tall order to fill with so many faces to paint, but leaving out extraordinary actor Canada Lee was a crime for the ages — I guess his name at the end of the cast list will have to do. Most 1940s Fox posters are distinctively illustrated, but this one appears to have a watercolor quality unusual for the studio — note the ink wash quality of the area underneath William Bendix.
Plenty of depth here with the cast set against the stormy backdrop, but note also how Bendix’s head overlaps and obscures the “L” in Lifeboat. As odd as it sounds now, that was a risk on the part of the artist, one you won’t often find realized in posters of this vintage. Pet peeve: Hitchcock’s name appears twice; once is enough! 




22. STAGE FRIGHT (1950)
This one’s easy: let’s swap the typographic block from the bottom of the poster with the one from the top. Once we do that, the boxed portraits of Wilding and Todd can go to bottom of the design where they belong, and Dietrich and Wyman can be given the prominence that they deserve. The mystery novel style illustration here is terrific!
The old-timers here at Where Danger Lives will tell you that I’m a sucker for the Warner Bros. house poster style. (See the sci-fi countdown.) As with Under Capricorn, it’s a testament to Hitchcock’s prestige as a director that Jack Warner allowed the designer to use full-color — it didn’t happen every day.




21. THE BIRDS (1944)
The L-shaped frame from The Man Who Knew Too Much appears here again, though with more success this time around. The designer had to include a great deal of text, as well as an image of the director himself, his likeness now iconic in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The frame allowed the artist to organize the information into rectangles of varying degrees of importance, the largest of which contains the illustration of the attacking birds and the title typography. By placing the director’s shoulder behind the white box, it effectively pushes the illustration forward in space, even though the two areas don’t touch.
I’d score this one higher if the birds themselves were larger and a bit more frightening. But then again, the same point could be made about the film itself.




20. THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934)
First of all, forgive the shoddy image; this is an exceptionally rare poster and we have to work with what we can get. This poster revolves around an iconic image of the nefarious Peter Lorre as the scarred kidnapper of Banks and Best’s daughter Nova Pilbeam. There is little conceptual thinking evident in the image, other than cashing in on Lorre’s burgeoning fame in a classic, completely hand-rendered stone-lithograph.




19. THE 39 STEPS (1935)
An improvement on the previous entry, this is another hand-rendered stone lithograph from Hitch’s pre-Hollywood period. Given the rather spectacular auction prices associated with this poster ($18,000 in 2011), its beauty is undeniable. Yet I find the image at the bottom of the composition to be far more compelling than the larger than life (but painfully reserved) glamour shots at the top. Swap them and I’d move this up a dozen spaces in the rankings. But what a great film!




18. SUSPICION (1941)
As I mentioned in the introduction, beauty isn’t the designer’s goal as often as consumers think it is. Kick that around for a second. Generic packaging is created to look inexpensive — it isn’t as if the manufacturer lacks the budget to pay for a more attractive design! Such packages look the way they do in order to communicate non-verbally with the intended consumers: those shoppers who are on a tight budget and only wish to quickly locate the cheapest can of peas on the shelf. Surely horror movie posters aren’t often meant to be beautiful, nor are those for comedies. Yet the poster for 1941’s Suspicion is clearly meant to be beautiful…and glamorous…and melodramatic…and entirely about its two glittering stars. In this case the approach is appropriate (and appropriateness is what matters in design), and the artist was entirely successful. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to wring my hands over the sizing of credits: if only Grant and Fontaine’s images could be 20% larger, and their names 20% smaller…




17. NOTORIOUS (1946)
One of filmdom’s most famous posters, I ranked Notorious just ahead of Suspicion, though the two posters are somewhat similar and consequently make for interesting comparisons. Looking just at the depiction of the stars, Suspicion wins hands down. No one would describe Notorious as light fare, though Bergman’s image suggests an altogether more playful romance than what Hitchcock actually serves up. For his part Grant seems lifeless and disengaged, while Claude Rains suffers the Edward G. Robinson movie poster treatment — too famous not to be pictured, but floating disembodied in some forgotten corner of the design. Regardless, the positives here can’t be ignored. The proportion of image to typography is better than in Suspicion, and the added conceptual element of the large silhouetted key pushes this poster slightly ahead.




16. THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955)
A little romance, a little murder, lots of fun. For the OCD life of me I can’t figure out why “Paramount Presents” has to be carelessly pushed off-center for the sake of a single leaf, but this is otherwise an excellent piece of work. The reverse “C” of the image frames the title beautifully, and none of the other logos, snipes, or inset photos feels forced or out of place. As a culture we tend to value illustrated images rather than photographic ones, and this poster appears to be something of a hybrid between the two. I’m not sure that it wouldn’t have been more successful had it been entirely illustrated, but it works well enough as it is, and remains one the more unusual posters in the Hitchcock canon.




15. SABOTAGE (1936)
Sabotage was released in England in late 1936, and it debuted a month or so later in the US under the title The Woman Alone, though history rightly remembers the film under its British title. The stone lithograph poster is lovely, and sports the best such image of star Sylvia Sydney. Two things I’d change about it though: first, I’d make the silhouetted image of Sydney’s attacker much more about the hands than the head. Shrink the head, makes the hands larger and more menacing! Second, let’s place all of the text on a diagonal, or none of it — you can’t have it both ways.




14. SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943)
I was critical of the type alignment on the previous entry, and here we see how consistently arranged type can rescue a potentially mediocre design from the scrap heap. The designer’s choice to place the type over top of Cotton’s looming shadow is a risk that pays off modestly here, creating ample negative space at the top of the poster that forces the viewer to deal with the conceptual value of that long, long shadow. The “X” relationship formed by title type and the shadow activates the design and quietly reinforces the notion that the lovely Teresa Wright’s comfortable suburban world is about to be turned on its ear. I can’t help but feel that the colors are bland throughout this poster, but especially in the dirty dishwater of the background.




13. THE LADY VANISHES (1938)
Not a poser that I’ve ever loved, but it’s a rare animal that succeeds on typography alone. I’m pushing The Lady Vanishes up in the countdown primarily for the risk-taking involved with letting the typography do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting. I’ve always appreciated hand-drawn posters (I started off as a printmaker, and I’ve done my share of stone lithos!) and I pay a lot of attention to the human nuances found in designs that weren’t created with the robotic, often stale precision of a computer. Take a look at the alignment of the typography at the bottom of the design — nothing is quite where it should be. One black line bisects the poster in half, yet neither the word “with,” nor any of the ensuing text, is properly centered. In contemporary student work this would result in massive grade reductions, but in a vintage, hand-rendered poster it only adds to the charm. 




12. I CONFESS (1953)
Not a great deal to say here, which is fitting for a poster that dedicates a typographic block to having been filmed in Canada. Intriguing (if only vaguely recognizable) images of Clift and Baxter in a poster dominated by strong title typography, though I sure wish the designer would have made up his mind about the exclamation point — either include it or don’t, but no half-measures please. Notice how that various taglines attempt to lure viewers with words such as “sin” and “shame.” In an era when film and television were engaged in a pitched battle for America’s leisure time, film posters grew louder and increasingly more salacious in order to with the fight.




11. FRENZY (1972)
The designer here was clearly paying his respects to Saul Bass and Vertigo, but whether that’s a positive or a negative in your book the poster is a winner. The image itself brings to mind John Whitney’s spirals used in Vertigo, though the addition of the necktie wins points for originality rather than mere appropriation. It’s even fair to say that there are way too many things happening typographically, but at least the proportions have been reigned in enough to let the image carry the day. (By the way, if anyone knows the typeface at the top, leave a comment. I’m wondering if it’s some variation on Cooper Black?)




10. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
Remember, this is a ranking of posters, and not the films themselves — I love North by Northwest as much as the next guy. Besides, this is a pretty darn good poster as well! Excellent typography, and I adore the organizing device of the imperfect rectangles. I wish the design was a bit more assertive though; is Grant falling forward away from Saint’s silly gunshot, or is he falling backwards down the rabbit hole? Furthermore, I wish it had more “pop” — meaning that the white background is bland, and that the poster would reach out and grab viewers a bit better if the designer had chosen a more vibrant background. Why shoot yourself in the foot? 
Interestingly, several sources assert that Saul Bass designed this poster, though more reliable evidence says this isn’t the case. (If anyone can offer the final word, chime in.) In fact, I see a few uncomfortable similarities with Bass’s design from the previous year for Vertigo that diminishes this poster in my esteem.




9. THE WRONG MAN (1956)
I wonder how long designer Bill Gold searched for just the right car mirror to do what he wanted with this design. The search paid off, because The Wrong Man’s poster gets big points for originality, even if in the end it might be a victim of it’s own novelty. Similar to dust jackets but unlike most other forms of graphic design, a poster must be successful from multiple vantage points. It has to work equally well from a few feet away and from across the street. This design is just fine up close — it probably was adapted to trade magazine advertisements with very few changes — but I’m afraid that from further away, caught in the corner of one’s eye from the sidewalk on the other side of the street, there isn’t enough “pop” here to entice a viewer to brave traffic in order to find out what the poster is all about. Regardless, the originality lands it squarely in the top ten.




8. ROPE (1948)
The best image of James Stewart on a Hitchcock poster. I don’t have a great deal to say about the positives here that hasn’t been echoed in previous entries, though I appreciate the noirish quality of the cityscape and those red clouds.




7. REBECCA (1940)
Oh, that eyebrow. Rebecca was easily my mother’s favorite Hitchcock picture, and it may be mine as well. It was one of the more quotable films of my childhood (thanks primarily to Mrs. Van Hopper), and I’m confident I’ve viewed it more than a hundred times — so I’m glad it made it onto my final list.
This is a poster that broods. It’s tense, nervous. In spite of what appears at first glance to be a typically banal postwar design with romantic overtones, there’s a thorough depth of thought going on here that rewards those familiar with the material. Fontaine and Olivier appear as husband and wife, but surely they aren’t…together, both staring intently at something outside the frame. The title slashes through the design in scarlet letters, connecting the unhappy couple to the title character herself (!), unseen in the film yet stalking the lower corner of the design and looming over the doomed mansion, Manderley (or is that Hill House, Eleanor Lance?). The designer worked successfully within the studio-mandated parameters that the typography be situated on a gigantic book jacket, in order to capitalize on the popularity of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. Finally, direct your eyes to the upper left hand corner, that turbulent space full of dark energy and gothic foreboding. In spite of its emptiness it’s one of the most vital areas in the design. What a carefully considered, velvety, delicious poster. 




6. REAR WINDOW (1954)
I wanted very much to rank this poster third, but it’s failure to “tell the truth” bothers me — take a gander in those windows and if you’ve seen the film enough times you’ll understand what I mean. That being said, I’m also a bit troubled by the implication of violence in the center window. Is it a spoiler given that part of the allure of this film is our initial uncertainty at what exactly happened across the courtyard after Stewart dozed off? Regardless, this is a winning design that at least on a superficial level represents its film very well. The Stewart image is great, but I wonder if the designer missed an opportunity to be brilliant here? What if we were to take the image of Stewart and blow it up to the full height of the poster, and then use the lenses of his binoculars to reflect the dramas being played out across the way? Grace looks fine, and I understand that she has to be included in the poster, but I’d also argue that this works better without her. Notice also that the building is a drawn-over film still — see the ghost of the doggie-basket hanging between the two windows at the very top?




5. SECRET AGENT (1936)
The best of the 1930s Hitchcock stone lithographs, this one surpasses that of the British The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps in nearly every way. Color, composition, typography, drama, movement — this is thoughtful, controlled image making. For me, the skill involved here is evident, and not just in the draftsmanship. I love the big, beautiful title typography. It speaks to viewers of the poster, “I’m here; read me and move on. I’m simply designed so as not to distract you from the illustration below.” The designer uses the type to frame the image, which is subtle and provocative. Look at those facial expressions. This picture says a thousand words. One question: who’s holding that knife?




4. SPELLBOUND (1945)
Better?
This is a wonderful poster, but also one of the most maddening (see what I did there?) in this or any other countdown. In 1945 Bergman was the main attraction; Peck had only appeared in three features, one of which was the barely seen Days of Glory. The Keys of the Kingdom ensured his place on the A list, but at the time Bergman was still the bigger star. Given the issue of the pecking order, it’s easy to understand just how masterfully executed the image is. It’s all at once startling, moving, and frightening, while satisfying the marketing demands of the studio. Spellbound is not a noir, yet it’s poster is easily more unsettling than that of practically any classic film noir.
But as I mentioned above, the poster is maddening. With such a show-stopping, once-in-a-lifetime piece of artwork in hand, why divide the space in half and waste all that space on (especially) banal typography? I realize that we’ve covered this territory before and that the type is sized to satisfy Selznick’s requirements, but what a shame. This could have been one of the great film posters of all time, and perhaps the definitive movie paper image of Ingrid Bergman, but instead it just finishes fourth among all of Hitchcock’s films. Not too bad, but oh, what it could have been…




3. PSYCHO (1960)
I purchase vintage movie posters at auction on practically a weekly basis, and so I’m consequently browsing though hundreds of images of posters for sale. The years bracketing 1960, when Psycho hit theaters, represented a drab period in Hollywood advertising design. This bold thing must have really stood out among the plethora of early sixties movie paper (in fact, one graphic design writer claims that viewers would have associated the design with those for pornographic films), when so many one-sheets featured delicate illustrations set against bland white backgrounds. One might argue that like the poster for 1956’s The Killing, this poster is two or three decades before its time. In its style, execution, and incredible graphic boldness, it more closely resembles the brightly colored posters of the 1980s and early 90s than it does its late 50s and early 60s counterparts.
Whereas the more old-fashioned Spellbound poster was divided in half, failing to enhance its powerhouse image, the Psycho poster is divided vertically into thirds, with type and image juxtaposed so that the visual tension is increased exponentially. There’s so much unifying rhythm in the arrangement of the words and pictures, yet the designer uses color and shape to control our eye movement, while the fractured diagonals suggest the underlying sexuality (look at that penetrating “V”) of the story and make for marvelous visual surprises. Here is a poster where design and problem solving trump virtuosity of draftsmanship. It relies on photography rather than illustration, but still surpasses (and not by a small margin) the posters behind it in the countdown. It’s a veritable art school lesson in the sense that it proves a poster artist doesn’t have to be able to draw or paint so long as he or she can think critically and understands the fundamental principles of good design.




2. VERTIGO (1958)
In the 2012 iteration of Sign and Sound’s venerable poll, critics named Vertigo the greatest film of all time, toppling longtime champ Citizen Kane. Its poster is the centerpiece of the sacred triptych of Saul Bass film movie paper design. Flanked by his equally impressive one-sheets for The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder, this is arguably the most famous film poster of all time. It’s a marvelous and exquisite; nevertheless I haven’t awarded it the top spot. Certainly you might disagree with me, and I won’t quibble with you if you do, but hear me out first.
Before that, the design professor in me wants to give Saul Bass his due. He’s possibly the most famous and influential designer since Toulouse-Latrec, Mucha, or Cassandre. His name is canonical, one learned early on in art school, along with those of Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, Herb Lubalin, Bradbury Thompson, Alexy Brodovitch, Massimo Vignelli, and others. Most of you reading this are here for your interest in film and posters, but Bass was a complete designer; his corporate identity designs are every bit as good as his film posters and title sequences — maybe even better. Even if Bass had never worked for the movie industry, the logo designs shown here would have ensured his place in the graphic design lexicon. No other designer, except maybe for Rand, was as brilliantly versatile.
Back to the poster. When I teach magazine design, it’s important that students learn to draw a parallel between their cover artwork and that of the first spread of the primary feature article. With the Vertigo poster, Bass has done the cinematic equivalent, connecting his poster artwork not only to the overarching concept of the film, but to his title sequence as well. To use contemporary jargon, Bass created a brand identity for the film, a practice in which he was well versed. In addition to the one-sheet, Bass also adapted his design to majority of other poster formats offered in Vertigo’s press book, as well as numerous magazine advertisements. And while this was a mildly revolutionary approach to film marketing in the late 50s, it’s also partly the reason why I’m relegating this poster to second place: as good as it is, it was derived from the title sequence, yet (naturally) fails to match it. How could it? Bass’s Vertigo titles are universally acclaimed as a landmark moment in movie history. In choosing to align his poster design with those titles, he set himself with a nearly impossible task. The poster is wonderful, but it’s a pale echo of the titles, and it failed to accomplish its primary task of ensuring an audience in an era when that was a poster’s chief responsibility. On a personal level, I’ve never loved how cobbled-together Bass’s falling figures feel when placed against artist John Whitney’s electronic spirals. There’s an uncomfortable visual disconnect happening there that no one likes to talk about.
Interestingly, and as you already know, upon its release Vertigo didn’t perform as expected at the box office or with critics, and Bass’s illustrative designs were considered by the bosses at Paramount to be too ‘artsy’ to properly attract ticket buyers. A more traditional set of posters and ads featuring romantic shots of the two stars in San Francisco settings were hastily thrown together and made available to exhibitors, but ticket sales remained stagnant. It’s also interesting to note that Bass’s designs were seldom adapted when Vertigo was released overseas, and were often ignored when new posters were created for rereleases. Recognizing Vertigo’s skyrocketing renown throughout the decades, and the span of time itself, it nearly impossible for us to imagine how 1958 audiences responded to its advertising campaign. I could have easily acceded to popular expectation and given this poster the top spot, but I’m choosing a different direction and instead shining my spotlight on, perhaps, the greatest movie poster designer who ever lived.




1. DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954)
An astonishing poster, one of the most underrated in movie history, and not surprisingly from Warner Bros., the studio which reliably cranked out top notch movie paper, especially during the 1950s. The graphic designer at work here is Bill Gold, who you may not have heard of before, though you’ve seen his work — and once you’ve read his poster resumé it becomes clear that he takes a backseat to no one — not even Saul Bass.
Here are a few highlights form Gold’s amazingly long career at the top: Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Big Sleep, A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden, Mister Roberts, Moby Dick, The Searchers, A Face in the Crowd, and Giant. Believe it or not the list goes on: For Your Eyes Only (those legs!), A Clockwork Orange, Bullitt, Cool Hand Luke, Bonnie and Clyde, Dirty Harry, Funny Girl, The Sting, Alien, and Unforgiven. Just so we’re clear on this, the man who made the poster for 1942’s Casablanca and five other Best Picture winners is still alive and working at age 93, having created more than 2,000 movie posters. He designed the poster for 2011’s J. Edgar!
Let’s circle back to his poster for Dial M for Murder. It’s a risky, daringly designed thing, and every aspect of the finished product is rewarding. I’ve noted throughout the countdown how the studio’s need to treat stars’ names in large type is usually detrimental. This poster proves my point. It’s plain to see here how unnecessary it would have been to plaster Kelly and Milland’s names across the top of the poster in 144-point type. In fact, this poster is such a dramatic powerhouse that it isn’t necessary that we recognize the two stars at all! By obscuring their famous faces, Gold forces the viewer to confront the raw, violent sexuality of his illustration. It’s a potent image, but it also manages to titillate without giving away the plot or the circumstances of this confrontation, which might be amorous, or might be nefarious — purchase a ticket and find out for yourself! The female’s hand is starkly lit against the vivid red background — giving us the attention-grabbing focal point that so many other film posters lack. This is a uniquely Hichcock-ian image, boiling over with suspense and mystery.
            And look at that typography! The vertical (phallic!) alignment of the title typography perfectly balances the horizontal illustration, and for once we have a midcentury designer who knows how to choose typefaces. This one boasts a consistency of typeface, with its condensed sans-serif letterforms, that is seldom found in other posters of the era. If you’ve read some of my previous entries you know just what I’m talking about. This typographic consistency, as well as the use of color and the manner in which the dangling phone connects (no pun intended!) the bottom of the composition to the top make this one of the most cohesive, pleasing film poster designs I’ve ever seen. Mr. Gold, my hat’s off to you.

See you next time! Thanks for Reading!