December 31, 2010


Welcome back! With this post we’ve reached the halfway point in the countdown, which is particularly exciting considering that from here on out the images only get better!

I hope one and all are having a relaxing holiday — happy new year! Posters 60 – 51 are on the menu for today, and there are a few interesting similarities this week, particularly in how many white posters we have — six or seven of them! There are also two posters with Jack Palance and another pair with Dana Andrews, as well as one big slap in the face (or is it “on” the face? Where’s Carlin when you need him?)

60. Ride the Pink Horse
Long has Ride the Pink Horse held a place in my heart as the greatest film noir title of all time (along with Kiss the Blood Off My Hands), and I love the poster just as much. For my money this is the best image of Robert Montgomery on a film poster, and any image whatsoever of the divine Wanda Hendrix is welcome anytime. It’s a bizarre poster to say the least: a “Hotel Stack” collage illustration scheme, some highly incongruous and suspect typography, a bizarre cartoon-style scene at the bottom, and a shade of green that brings poison gas to mind. Yet for some reason (and probably a visceral one, at least as far as I’m concerned), it all works. The power of gestalt is happening here in some wonderful way and this becomes a poster that just grabs at me. Combine its super magical power with Montgomery’s intense gaze and the poster lands here in the countdown. This is one of those times where being offbeat goes a long way to the positive.

59. Johnny Apollo
Here’s a poster from Fox that set the standard for those black, white, and red posters from Warner Bros. There’s nothing about the design for 1940’s Johnny Apollo that really shouts at you, but there’s a lot to enjoy in the details. And I’ve placed it here in the countdown because it anticipates all of those of the fine Warner posters we’ve already seen. I love the palette: the warm sepia tones of the photography and the secondary type combined with black and the rich red of the title. The attention to detail in the text type is a plus as well — showing us that the designer really cared about the quality of the finished piece — a dedication to craftsmanship often absent from the mass-produced style of the later fifties. The combination of script typography for the first names, with big bold surnames in deco-style hand lettering is just beautiful — as is the cheesecake photo of Dorothy Lamour. Edward Arnold’s part in this film is huge, so his presence in the poster is necessary, but I’d like this a bit more if we could nix him while reflecting the photograph of Tyrone and Dotty in order to get their faces to line up with their names.

58. Pickup on South Street
This is one of the great noir pictures; if you haven’t seen it move it to the top of your list. If we can make the argument that Edward G. Robinson gives the greatest supporting turn of all time by a male actor in Double Indemnity, then an equally strong case for a supporting actress can be made for Thelma Ritter’s in this film. It’s Sam Fuller’s best movie, and maybe Richard Widmark’s as well. Tough, cynical, and subversive; this is everything a mature film noir ought to be. The poster is fine: nice title type holding up a traditional, if a bit too symmetrical composition. The star names are down at the bottom where they belong, and the inset images give us an idea of the film’s content and frame up the large artwork of Peters and Widmark nicely. The white background isn’t very indicative of the dark subject matter of the film, but it works on the poster and contributes to the all-American color palette, which must be intentionally ironic given the movie’s cynical jab at the government.

57. Where the Sidewalk Ends
Feel free to argue with me on this one, it’s another poster that I struggled to place in the right spot in the countdown. Along with the poster for The Verdict, this one features title typography that functions conceptually, in order to drive the message of the film home to viewers. Let’s forget the junky illustrations of Dana Andrew and that makeshift broad somehow supposed to resemble Gene Tierney — all the good stuff here is happening in the box with the title typography. I’ll happily acknowledge that the poster as a whole should be darker, and much of what the artist has made blue should instead be black, but there is something powerfully indicative of the film noir milieu in the use of yellow here. We’ve seen yellow used so often before simply for its brightness and ability to contrast with black. Here, we have the yellow of a streetlight — and it shines down harshly on the drama playing out amongst the typography. What appears from a distance to be a man who has perhaps, fallen down on the street corner — drunken maybe, instead turns out to be two men locked in a struggle, or better yet — one man dragging the body of another. Whatever is happening there under the harsh glare of the lights is fascinating, and viewers are certain to have wanted to see more. Finally, the conceptual device of the type “ending” along with the sidewalk itself is conceptual and witty, not to mention “designerly” — the designer in me is happy to spend a few minutes simply enjoying the skill with which the artist was able to wrap the type along the curb, while maintaining readability of the letters. Any professional designer will look at this and tell you that things such as this, no matter how simple, effortless, or natural they appear to be, are notoriously difficult to get approved.

56. The Verdict
Here’s another one of the great limited palette posters from Warner Bros. Yet unlike so many of the others done in this style this one uses just a single photograph and piece of display typography to shoulder the weight of the entire poster. No insets, no taglines, no cheesecake, and no violence; just a deliciously dark photograph of the film’s three leads looking off-screen, riveted by some unknowable nemesis. The title typography is great — this is one of the first (along with that of the previous poster) instances of a conceptual type treatment we’ve seen thus far. It appears to have been stamped, in red ink of course, by some colossally large bureaucrat with absolutely terrific force, as if on a correspondingly large manila envelope. It hangs in the air, looming above the three unsuspecting characters that strain under the weight of the verdict itself. The oversized red box that holds the star names is the only major drawback — as if the photograph couldn’t do the job of identification just as easily — after all, Lorre and Greenstreet were stars of the first order. The box is too big; it covers up too much of the photo, and weighs the whole thing down. It also bothers me that the red boxes are perfectly parallel to one another; if the lower box were set at a different angle, we might also get the impression of the boxes tumbling through space, as surely the characters in The Verdict must be.

55. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
What would a noir poster countdown be without that particular facial expression from Joan Fontaine? I guess it’s a little ironic that I should accuse Joan of having limited facial expressions when she appears alongside Dana Andrews on this poster. Dana’s mug shows up twice this week and, you got it, he has the exact same expression in both posters. Andrews was the kind of guy that could show up in one of those “Jib Jab” animations and appear completely normal. Ouch, I go too far. I love the guy dearly — if you read my essay on The Fearmakers you’ll know how much. Nevertheless, Andrews’ range wasn’t one of his strong suits. The poster here is quite nice, with the puzzle pieces doing exactly the same thing as the question mark in the poster for House of Numbers and the title typography in the poster for The Verdict — it looms over the main characters and casts some sort of ominous pall over their lives and their fates. It’s the burden they must suffer under. Here the pieces seem to be closing in on the couple, like some angry mob, shortly to overwhelm them — or at least, one of them…

54. Brute Force
It’s almost every film noir fan’s favorite prison picture, and the movie is hard-boiled enough to live up to its title. I have to admit that it’s also nice to see Burt Lancaster looking tough for once, and not wrapped in the arms of his latest conquest. A superb poster that gets the job done without the use of photography, this features vivid, stylistically consistent illustrations from top to bottom forming an “L” shape that frames the equally well-rendered title typography. Note how tactfully the cast listing is handled here: the designer had to include the names of eleven different cast members, and place them in some sort of hierarchy by gender and billing. It works really well, and the prison-style taglines are a nice touch. This is a busy design, but from the other side of the street we’ll come away with the big image of Burt and the title — the only things necessary to get us into the theater.

53. House of Numbers
Jack Palance, he of the chiseled face and the one-armed pushup, makes two appearances this week as well. The poster for House of Numbers may slip past you at first glance — it did me. Yet each time I looked at the thing it resonated with me more and more — so much so that I finally tracked down a copy for my collection. It’s an iconic image of Palance, not that that says much — Palance has one of the great faces in film history, but not so much because it was adorable. It’s the gigantic question mark that makes this poster tick, and the way in which the little icon-style images (OK, they look like clip-art.) invite the viewer to try to solve the puzzle presented by the film. After all, House of Numbers is a prison-break picture — and a pretty good one, even if a little far fetched. Beyond the clever use of the question mark, note how large the thing is, and how it is used (along with the red shaded area) to suggest some extraordinarily heavy burden thrust upon Palance’s shoulders. I also dig the prison-issue typography here, and how the designer managed to use Palance’s clothing as a framing device, without creating a sense of too much clutter. You guys are liable to think I’m screwy on this last point, but I love these little instances of visual surprise and non-conformity: check out how the red shaded area leeches down into the white frame of the poster for absolutely no good reason. Why does it do that?! Jack’s body stops at the edge of the frame to allow for the fine print, why not the red? Who knows, maybe it’s a mistake — but an intriguing one.

52. I Died a Thousand Times
Most of you already know that this is a remake of the 1941 film High Sierra (be on the lookout for that poster in a few weeks!) starring Jack Palance and Shelley Winters in the Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino roles from the earlier film. Palance lacked Bogie’s pathos, and Winters was missing Lupino’s vulnerability, so the remake falls short of the original, but the poster is still a gem. It’s also worth noting (and this might help explain the some of the design choices here), that unlike High Sierra, I Died a Thousand Times was shot in color. The poster is simply marvelous. I don’t feel compelled to explain this one away, I’m sure you are all on the same page with me on this one. It’s just a stunning design with a wonderfully stilted composition and vivid use of color. The large image is sexy as hell, and all of the panels combine to form a fantastic broken stained glass effect. And can you beat a film with Gonzalez Gonzalez in the cast? Somebody get me one of these!

51. Too Late for Tears
Of course it’s possible that some readers could be bothered by the inclusion of a poster such as this in the countdown (though we’ve already seen a few milder examples in the posters for Wicked Woman and The Big Heat), but such violence and imagery are inescapable aspects of the film noir underworld, and I make no apologies for considering such posters. Besides, it’s worth noting that at least in this film the girl has it coming — if ever Liz Scott played a femme fatale, it’s in this picture; she practically devours anyone who gets in her way, especially Dan Duryea. And if I were a betting man, I’d place my bills on the lady: Scott would kick the crap out of Duryea. I mean, look at the hand on that guy — even the poster artist couldn’t toughen him up. My one qualm is with the illustration of Scott, who looks a whole lot more like Cybill Shepherd than she does herself. Otherwise this poster is a home run: extreme scale in the illustration of Duryea and Scott, with competing diagonals running all over the place, including the excellent placement of the tagline. Notice also that the tagline appears to be coming from Duryea’s mouth almost as if it were a comic book word balloon, which puts the violence into an almost cartoonish context and makes it that much more palatable. My favorite thing about the illo is also the most subtle, and that’s the slick foreshortening of Scott’s left arm. It’s almost Kirby-esque in how it creates a sense of depth and movement, and ties together the illustration with the yellow box and the narrative scene in blue at the bottom of the composition. For those of you who may not have seen this film, that scene at the bottom is incredibly relevant to the movie, and sets up all of the drama of the film. If you do track this down though, try to score a good print: this has been in the public domain for a long time, and there are hardly any prints out there that are actually worth watching.

December 24, 2010


Bunco, n.: The use of dishonest methods to acquire something of value; a swindle.

They oughtta teach Bunco Squad in film school, it’s that good. A 1950 product of the famed RKO B unit, it’s a first-rate example of narrative economy and efficient picture-making. Now I’m no knucklehead, Bunco Squad isn’t The Narrow Margin. I’m not out to compare those two pictures, because beyond their B status and shared studio they have little in common. The Narrow Margin is an exemplary noir thriller with an iconic tough-guy actor in his greatest part. Bunco Squad doesn’t rate as a film noir and has a far less prestigious or able cast than Margin — the actors in Bunco Squad even mispronounce words, tough ones like occult and Los Angeles. Still, this is a little movie that crackles. It’s contrived, heavy on coincidence, and might even be a bit campy, but in spite of all this it still begs to be watched and doesn’t disappoint those who do. It’s a gem of a mid-century crime picture, and although it’s not a film noir, it’s one that certainly rates a few days in the spotlight on this blog.

I included the definition above because “bunco” is hardly a household word. It never registered with me until I read James Ellroy—even though Jack Webb devoted a section of his cop manifesto The Badge to the LAPD bunco squad way back in 1958. That same unit is the subject of our movie, which beyond a rare television airing was nigh on impossible to see until it recently became available through the Warner Archive. The picture opens fast, at only 67 minutes it has to, with star Robert Sterling lecturing a citizens’ group about all the ways that flimflam crews get over on the squares. He’s even got a home-movie screen with 8mm visual aids. Movies such as Southside 1-1000, Code Two, Appointment with Danger and The Street with No Name (to name a very few) sport openings with a narrator speaking over some montage of stock footage, telling us about how the treasury boys, the motorbike unit, the postal cops, or even the g-men are putting their asses on the line for the sake of law, order, and Wonder Bread.

Bunco Squad does the same thing: we get the footage, we get the narrator, we get the same results. But in this case the speaker happens to be our star, and by introducing him in this way it trims some fat from the running time. And by making the montage sequence a movie-within-the-movie, it allows us to watch how the on-screen audience reacts. When Sterling’s Detective Steve Johnson mentions how the palm readers and tarot card shams contribute to the $200 million per year bunco haul, a old man in the crowd looks down his nose at his wife, who turns away, red in the face. Yet when Johnson adds the wheel of fortune and roulette to the list, it’s the wife who gets to glower. As Johnson wraps up his speech his partner rushes in—the captain needs them downtown—a hot tip on a new racket. The scene runs just over two minutes, but it’s one of the many frugal but effective moments that sets Bunco Squad apart. It packs a wallop of important information: we meet our star and his partner; get a fix on the bad guys, what they do, how they do it, and who they do it to.

The cops here are one-dimensional, pure cardboard; their moral certainty is absolute. At 67 minutes, time can’t be wasted agonizing over ethical ambiguities or on character development — in fact there’s no character development at all, which is the most damning evidence against Bunco Squad as a film noir; it has none of the alienation, obsession, and desperate choices that make a noir a noir. We have to take for granted why the police are compelled to uphold order and why the crooks would choose to do ill. Fate never takes a hand and irony must have been busy elsewhere. These points aren’t offered to disparage Bunco Squad, but to differentiate it from the film noir and show that such a picture can nevertheless succeed by other means. What Bunco Squad does well is show us, exposé style, how the con artists organize and carry out their scams. The notion makes sense: audiences generally have a sense of how cops do business, but in a movie that deals with crooks who use brains instead of bullets, there’s big upside in showing how they pull the rabbit out of the hat — particularly when it’s a spooky séance scam.

Here are the details: con man Tony Weldon (Ricardo Cortez, Bunco’s lone name star) rolls into L.A. on the heels of Mrs. Royce’s secretary, knowing that if he can get close enough to the old bird he might pry loose her 2.5 million dollar nest egg. When Weldon learns that Mrs. Royce’s boy was killed at Normandy he knows exactly how to work her. He builds a crew of professional swindlers, including ex-con crystal ball gazer Princess Liane (Bernadene Hayes, not bad in a role tailor-made for Marie Windsor), professional shill Mrs. Cobb (Vivien Oakland), restaurant swami Drake (Bob Bice), and the smooth-talking Fred Reed (John Kellogg). They develop an elaborate shell game in order to convince Mrs. Royce to bequeath her money to the “Rama Society.” There’s a fine sequence that depicts each of them uncovering seemingly banal pieces of information about the dead son’s schoolboy days, that when sewn together and dressed up in an otherworldly séance, take on the look and feel true mysticism. The plan works, and Mrs. Royce amends her will. When the secretary gets suspicious of Weldon her car plummets into a canyon—no brakes! (Weldon cuts so many brake lines in the movie that if were a mob picture they’d call him “Snips.”)

Meanwhile, the cops are pounding the pavement trying to make a case—they know who’s involved, but can’t prove a crime has been committed. In a spectacular B-movie coincidence, Steve shows up at Rama society headquarters just in time to see Mrs. Royce. When the cops brace her she scoffs and tells them to buzz off—which Detective Johnson does, and how: straight over a cliff with cut brake lines! He lives, barely, and enjoys one moviedom’s briefest convalescent periods. Finally, the cops contrive to beat Weldon at his own game, with the assistance of famous magician Dante (playing himself) and Johnson’s actress girlfriend, posing as a rival medium. When their scheme gains traction with Mrs. Royce, Weldon resorts to violence, setting the stage for Bunco’s finale—and another brakeless car careening through the hills above Malibu.

The fixation on murder by cutting brake lines jeopardizes the movie’s credibility, but it’s also another one of those expeditious touches that allow a whole lot of story to be crammed into a few reels. The first time it happens we get plenty of detailed information: the killer approaches and climbs under the car; we hear him cut the lines; we see him resurface and stow the cutters. This takes a modest thirty seconds; the final time it takes just six. The cinematic value of this method of attempted murder is significant. Bullets are difficult to dodge, but the brake line technique generates suspense—and a special sort of suspense at that, considering that the amount of time between the cutting of the lines and the car ride itself can be shortened or lengthened to suit the plot. 

Most B pictures rely on contrivances stacked on top of one another and outrageous coincidences too. Bunco Squad is no different, yet it’s all done so smoothly you’ll hardly notice and surely won’t care. It borrows one of the quintessential devices of the caper picture to great effect: that of the criminal who builds a crew and executes a clever plan; except in this case it’s not a heist but a swindle the crooks have in mind. There’s nothing spectacular about the story or the cast, and its noir credentials are tepid. But Bunco Squad is a crackerjack crime movie anyway. It’s polished, well constructed, features a ton of on-location L.A. exteriors and surprising special effects. It goes a long way towards reminding us that not all mid-century crimes movies were filmed in the noir style, and that such films shouldn’t be dismissed—or forgotten.

Bunco Squad (1950)
Directed by Herbert Leeds
Produced by Louis Rachmil
Cinematography by Henry Freulich
Screenplay by George Callahan, based on a novel by Reginald Taviner
Starring Robert Sterling, Joan Dixon, and Ricardo Cortez
Released by RKO Studios
Running time: 67 minutes

December 17, 2010


Week Four, looks like men and women clutching at each other is the theme for the week.

I’ve made it through the finals week slog and moving my faculty office one door to the right (yes!). Now I’m anxious to see more and more significant posters as we progress ever deeper into the countdown. Let’s soldier on!

70. I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes
The noir themes of persecution and alienation are showcased very well here, and consequently the poster for I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes finds a higher place in the countdown that it would merit on design alone. I’d like this a whole lot more if we could lose the photograph of the girl, and make the trio of pointing fingers a much more prominent aspect of the design — maybe even shift the gunman to the opposite side and pose him so Don Castle’s big mug was squarely in his sights. Also, try to imagine the aqua-greenish color at the top as a deep blue (or even black) — better, right? Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not trashing the design here, I’d be happy to hang this poster on my wall. The use of faces instead of full-figures or even busts give the poster a lot of impact — Castle’s head has to be at least a foot tall!

69. No Escape
San Francisco is one of the preeminent film noir locales, yet few movies actually integrate the city into their poster design. No Escape, a B-thriller is little reputation, is that rare poster that manages to capture the noir-ish mood of San Francisco, even if much of the effect gets lost in a sea of yellow ink. One of the comments from last week’s post brought up the flaws in the design of the poster of The Big Bluff, and like that one, the poster No Escape is included more for the way in embodies the characteristics of noir than for the merits of its design. And while the poster certainly has flaws — this one even more than The Big Bluff — its important to recognize that a certain … rough, unsophisticated quality had by many B-movie posters actually enhances their impact. So while this design is too cluttered and is oddly split vertically into halves, the use of the San Fran skyline and the gun-toting silhouette are very evocative, and you just can’t beat a poster with a cowing hoodlum with a bottle of liquor poking from his jacket pocket.

68. Women’s Prison
Sure, it’s exploitation-noir, but c’mon, what a great poster! You know, Cleo Moore isn’t particularly well-known out side of film noir or Hugo Haas circles, but she always got the star-treatment on her posters. Ida Lupino was an A-lister and a household name, Moore wasn’t — but it sure says something about Cleo’s appeal when she gets treated better than Ida on a film poster. Not to mention the other girls in the film: including the likes of Audrey Totter and Jan Sterling. This film is as much camp as it is noir, but it’s a lot of fun no matter how you look at it. I’ve included it as another example of the “ripped from the headlines,” Confidential magazine design style, in addition to a pretty solid design aesthetic.

On a side note: how about the subtle fifties materialism inherent in the taglines?

67. The Shanghai Gesture
Here’s a truly classic Hollywood poster that gets in sheerly on beauty. The Von Sternberg film was released in 1941 and stars an impossibly young and beautiful Gene Tierney. It’s really a proto-noir more than a fully-fledged film noir. I love how ‘drawn’ this feels, especially after so many posters from the fifties that utilize photography and typefaces. In fact, the only drawback is the use of the three inset photos — if only they could be stripped away! Nonetheless, the illustration of Mature and Tierney, framed by the sweeping dragon and title typography is incredibly evocative of the film’s promise of intrigue.

66. Cop Hater
Really vivid colors, plenty of “pop” to draw the attention of passers-by, and the Amazonian Shirley Ballard front and center. This is a late-cycle film, arriving in 1958, so the look and feel of the design (especially in how the tagline is handled) is really anticipating the early sixties. It’s almost easy to look at the colors and the tagline, ignoring the sexuality of the imagery, and imagine this as a comedy film. But the sex and violence keep this firmly grounded in the noir arena, while the progressive design style makes it one of the more original entries in the countdown.

65. Storm Warning
Ginger Rogers and Ronald Reagan in the KKK-noir Strom Warning. The design style here should feel familiar, this is another of the Warner Bros. two color B-style posters, probably by the same artist responsibe for I Was a Communist for the FBI, Highway 301, and Lightning Strikes Twice. All the great things about those designs are present here: dynamic composition, strong type alignment, large white frame, boxed taglines, and so forth; yet this design has more impact than those we’ve seen before: look at Ginger’s expression, notice how strongly the tagline resonates with the primary image, and the unique, storm cloud-like shape of the image area. Very strong: the title is at the top and the cast is at the bottom, as it should be; with the width of the cast names helping finish out the rectangular image area — it’s something of a signature style with this designer. Wish we could put a name to some of these folks!

64. The Wrong Man
Here’s a poster that breaks all the rues, and manages to get away with it. There’s no large star imagery, the title typography is too small and hard to find, there’s too much text type! And yet, precisely because this poster is so unorthodox, it must have really drawn a ton of viewer attention to itself. We talked briefly about voyeurism last week with regarding The Garment Jungle, and here it comes again. This idea of secret watching, or of being watched, is often an important noir motif, and it’s out in force here. Consider all of the ways in which the image of a put-upon Henry Fonda could have been depicted, yet the designer chose to show us this view, of Fonda being watched surreptitiously by some unknown man. The poster conceptually suggests that we too are about to take on the role of voyeur; and it isn’t lost on me that the round field of the car mirror is also oddly reminiscent of a microscope or detective’s magnifying glass. Some aspects of the design are forced: the angle of the car is strange, as is the placement of the mirror on the windshield, but both are necessary in order to get the mirror onto the right place in the composition, and at the proper size.

63. Scandal Sheet
From top to bottom, this is a well-executed poster in nearly all regards. Thank goodness Brod Crawford wasn’t a matinee idol, otherwise we’d have a completely different poster, most likely with a large image of him and a woman in some sort of embrace. Instead, we get a very noir-ish full figure with the big fella in a coat and hat, gun in hand — strikingly lit, even in the illustration. He stands upon (no, it isn’t a pillow) one of the many crumpled newspapers that blow through the canyons of Manhattan. In the film Crawford plays the editor of such a newspaper — one who uses scandal to drive circulation, until he gets a dose of his own medicine. The integration of the Crawford with the big sheet of newsprint serves a dual purpose: it’s obviously conceptual, but the newspaper also gives the artist a nice field upon which to place the title typography. Here’s a really subtle detail, I wonder if you noticed it? Check out the final letter in the title — see how the crossbar on the “T” in “Sheet” just gets cut off? That’s attention to detail.

On the other hand, I wonder what this poster would have looked like if we were to remove the oversized newspaper and let the title just sit in the color field at the bottom of the poster. Then, I’d rework the illustration to make it appear that Crawford was standing in the wind, while more realistically sized newspaper whipped along the ground at his feet, with possibly one wrapped around his cuff.

The tagline at the top is well done, especially in the juxtaposition with Crawford. The same can be said of the Confidential-style inset photographs. For the umpteenth time it is made evident how the use of diagonals can invigorate a design. Two small qualms: First, I’m having a hard time figuring out the blue area at the bottom of the poster. My best guess is that it is meant to be a spotlight of sorts, the same that illuminates Crawford. If that’s the case though, the shadows don’t quite work and the leftover red, white, and blue effect seems a little out of place. Finally, the color transition above Donna Reed’s head is sloppy and awkward.

62. Black Tuesday
My affection for the great Edward G. Robinson is practically limitless, and Black Tuesday is my favorite Robinson film. It came at the time that the great man was forced to make a stream of B crime pictures because of his run in with the red baiters and subsequent gray-listing. It’s widely known that Robinson found this work distasteful, but it’s hard to blame him: his life was so miserable at the time that it’s difficult to imagine him having positive feelings about anything. Not only was his marriage a failure, his wife was mentally ill; his son gave him nothing but trouble; and he couldn’t grasp how the country he adored and to which he was devoted could treat him so poorly, and even call him a traitor. All of Robinson’s feelings bubble to the surface in Black Tuesday — his performance is terrifying. It’s a rare film, but one very much worth seeking out. The poster is darn good as well — it’s one of the few times that Eddie gets the full-figure treatment in one of his posters. Owing to his unconventional looks and build, he often appears as a head floating in the background in order to make room for the romantic leads. Last week’s Robinson poster, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, is a prime example. At any rate, it’s a great shot of a gun-toting Robinson, and the crosshatched / wood engraved illustration technique is fairly rare for a film poster. Yellow is a color we see often, often unfortunately, but here it’s a hit. The color palette here, black and the primaries, really makes this pop out, as does the quality negative space that forces you to confront the image of Robinson. There a lot of typography here, possibly too much because the title gets lost, but it is well-stacked and the little square of negative yellow space balances the larger space above Eddie very cleverly. My favorite part: dig that little electric chair. Zap!

61. Blonde Alibi
Look at those gams, that plunging neckline, those curls. Holy smokes, sometimes design has to take a back seat to a blonde in a red dress — but this isn’t that time, because the design here is just as good as the girl — or is it just as “bad” as the girl? Sometimes noir gets confusing. Seriously though, what a great noir statement this poster makes: the idealized and idolized woman surrounded by the men who revolve around like so many satellites. Great color palette, super composition, strong type treatments (especially in having Martha seated on the box that contains the cast names — talk about getting your money’s worth out of a simple box), quality negative space, and I’ll say it once again: the girl in the red dress. We’ll see better cheesecake posters before we get to the end of the countdown, but not much better.

Back with ten more next week!

December 10, 2010


Welcome to week three of the countdown, numbers 80 – 71 are on the menu for today. My blurbs are going to be a little more brief than usual (probably a good thing) because it’s finals week here on campus, and students and professors alike are rushing to wrap up their work before the break. I’m swamped preparing the design students’ work for all of our end-of-semester competitions — if only it were as easy as grading.

80. Stranger on the Third Floor
How could we not include this film somewhere in the countdown? Stranger on the Third Floor is most often credited with being the first film to visually and thematically exploit the noir style, though enthusiasts often debate the issue. Although the poster is done in the classic style, it embodies the paranoia and alienation that are the hallmarks of film noir. My major qualm is that the accusatory hand pointing at all of those nervous faces above might cause some viewers to believe this is a simple whodunit murder mystery. Nevertheless, the faces are so vividly expressionist and well rendered — especially that of Peter Lorre — there’s little to complain about. I wish the title typography didn’t cover up some of the faces — if it didn’t this may have placed higher.

79. Side Street
This was one of the more difficult entries to situate in the countdown, and I’m still not confident about where it ended up. Just to be perfectly clear, I feel as if I might have placed Side Street too high, rather than too low. The Granger / O’Donnell illustration is very reserved compared to that seen on many of the other entries — something I appreciate. There’s a quiet elegance here that I really wanted to reward, along with the use of the sign motif that we’ll see again on the poster for Detour — very iconic for film noir. Once again I’m pleased with a strong diagonal composition, divided in half by the sign pole. However, I find the photographic imagery to the left of the sign disappointing. It’s awkwardly presented, with halftones that are somehow lighter than the surrounding blue-purple background. Such gray shadows aren’t very seductive, and instead give the poster a cheap, unfinished look that almost wrecks it. I think we’d have a better design if those images could be removed, and the “fate dropped…” tag shifted into that area.

78. The Bonnie Parker Story
Sheesh, what’s not to like? In case you can’t see it very clearly: it’s a woman, with a tommy gun, and a cigar. Yes! What else does a poster need to be brimming over with what my students call “awesomeness”? Seriosly though, score one for a great illustration of cigar-chewing Big Dottie Provine. I love the broken glass effect — it’s almost an optical illusion, appearing both in front of her and to the side. The type treatment at the top is a little boring, but the poster has one of the best taglines ever: “Cigar Smoking Hellcat of the Roaring Thirties.” You can’t beat it.

77. Riot in Cell Block 11
We get back to our low budget roots with this poster, which looks fantastic in three colors. How do you handle a film that boasts no star power? Simple: you overload the design with action, particularly violence-oriented action. I don’t envy the designer who had to sift through all of the production stills that eventually found a place in this composition, but I am curious to know if they are all legitimately from this film. Dig the violence: everyone here is wielding a pipe or a club, Neville Brand has some sort of prison yard knife, while a Barney Fife-ish screw is desperately trying to call in some help at the top right. An impressive, well executed (ouch) photo-montage, especially considering it was done without the aid of good old Photoshop.

76. Detour
The only thing missing here is a vivid depiction of Ann Savage. Sure that’s her leaning up against the light post, but her and Tom Neal look more like pals than anything else, and anyone who’s ever seen Detour will tell you that he and Savage are anything but. Nevertheless, this scores gigantic points for the use of the street sign imagery — and unlike the Side Street poster the designer was able to turn the warning stripes into a frame that holds the entire composition together. The interior imagery is nicely composed from illustrated movie stills, yet I’m having a hard time getting past the inexplicable white space left between the clarinet player’s arms. On the plus side, note how well the artist has used overlapping to integrate the frame and street sign with the artwork — it’s subtle but effective. Finally, you just can’t go wrong with a street lamp, even if it is in color. An interesting, and successful, artistic attempt to translate the beams of light into stylized forms.

75. The Glass Key
Is that Veronica Lake or Kathleen Turner? What makes the world go ‘round here isn’t the content inside the key shape, it’s the key shape itself, combined with vivid colors and straightforward type solution. One could make the argument that this is easily the most phallic poster in the countdown, but while I recognize the obvious shape of the key it doesn’t make me appreciate the poster any more or less. The gestalt of this poster is such that if we could go in and jazz up the details this would skyrocket up the list, possibly into the top 20 or 25. The problems here aren’t insignificant though: the image of Lake doesn’t look like her, and all the rest are far too redundant: men clutching and punching at one another, in rather posed scenes. This is still a great poster, but too bad the interior artwork wasn’t a bit more creative. After all, there’s a lot more going on in The Glass Key than fisticuffs.

74. The Big Bluff
One of the cheapest, trashiest posters in the countdown — I absolutely love it! The no-brainer influence here is undoubtedly Confidential magazine: the colors, inset photographs, and of course, the ‘violators’ (sorry, that’s design-speak — I don’t know what else to call them!) at the top right all scream Confidential. Directed by W. Lee Wilder (the great Billy Wilder’s brother, believe it or not), this is a true low-budget gem. It’s actually not as trashy as the poster suggests, but I still recommend this — it’s available as a bargain DVD. What a great central photo, with its vivid reds and blues — but one question: what in the world is up with the bongo player?!

73. The Garment Jungle
In addition to being the cheescake entry in this week’s post, the poster for 1957’s The Garment Jungle more than holds its own in terms of artistic merit. Voyeurism is a recurring theme in film noir (as we’ll see again in a few weeks), so the peep hole style image of the model either dressing or getting undressed is certainly in keeping with the noir milieu; but it’s the scissors that make this poster so fascinating. The hand / scissors combo is potent in so many ways: it adds spatial depth; it “cuts” the picture plane diagonally, providing edges that typography aligns to; it creates a negative space that holds a tagline and small action-image; and finally it integrates with the background image and the nice little garment tag that holds the title of the film — not to mention the suggestion of violence. Notice also how that negative “white” space reinforces the angle and shape of the model’s body — that’s no accident! The designer has gotten a ton of mileage out of a single image device here, and note how scary the thing is: look at those fingers!

72. Night has a Thousand Eyes
Fantastic poster, so-so movie. Despite the fact that this film was made when Robinson was on the outs with the Hollywood establishment, suspected as a communist sympathizer, his star power was such that he still got his name printed, quite literally, above the title. The three names up top are something of an eyesore here, making the design feel a little crammed into the bottom two-thirds of the space, but nevertheless this is a wonderful poster in the classic Hollywood style. It’s funny that the title typography is situated amidst a sea of stars — at the bottom of the poster! Certainly this one would appear much higher on the list if that text could move to the top of the design while the stars’ names sank to the bottom. So it goes. Poor Eddie, he never seems to get his entire body into a poster design — instead his face always seems to be floating in the ether, larger than life. Still, this has a strong triangular composition; it shows its three leads to good effect (though William Demarest walks away with this movie); and the Dali-esque title typography is out of this world. While I really like the small action illustration of the woman jumping in front of the rushing locomotive (yikes, what a spoiler!), it’s the wonderful title type that makes this one rate so high.

71. The Unsuspected
What a great poster, I’m guessing this one will be uniformly liked by everyone who reads today’s post. Black, white, and red is a very potent color combination — designers often go straight to it when they get in a jam. It works great here, with a little touch of yellow in the title typography contributing a nice visual surprise. The composition is superb: the figures at the top are fascinating conceptually, and give the poster a tremendous amount of visual depth in the way that they recede into space. The juxtaposition of those figures and the title typography (remember we love diagonals!) with Claude Rains’ large face, staring directly at them, is quite striking. If this is marred by anything it’s too much type — I’d like nothing more than to simply wipe away the “You Can’t Forsee It!” and “You Can’t Forget it!” lines and leave the left-over spaces empty, but alas, that would be breaking the rules. One big plus though: notice the exquisite little detail of the pattern of question marks in the top right quadrant of the poster. Subtle and wonderful.

Until next week…right-click away!

December 7, 2010


Mickey Rooney plays John “Killer” Mears in 1959’s The Last Mile, a remake of the 1932 Preston Foster film of the same name. Both are based on a stage play by John Wexley, who should be quite well known to crime film buffs as the screenwriter of such classics as Angels with Dirty Faces, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, City for Conquest, Cornered, and The Long Night.

The Last Mile is one of those “ripped from the headlines” prison pictures with a no-so-subtle social agenda, set in the death house at an unnamed prison in an unnamed state — the idea being that the events of the film could happen anywhere at any time, so long as we embrace a system of capital punishment. All of the film’s action unfolds along a single row of eight cells, fronted by a bare wooden table for the screw charged with babysitting the inmates. All of the cells are located on one side of the row, facing outward (at the audience), so it’s easy to see how this would have played out in live theater, and the film is marred by its inability to break free from its roots.

Seton Miller’s adaptation of Wexley’s play is solidly crafted. The story here divides nicely into halves: the first provides an exposé of life on the cell block: what the prisoners are thinking, how they pass their days, their relationships with the guards, and so forth. The second follows what happens when Rooney’s character is able to break out of his cell and take over the death house for a short time.

The film opens when a new man, Walters (Clifford David), is escorted onto the block for what is supposed to amount to a two-week stay. There’s a protocol to everything here, both officially and in the culture of the other residents, who all introduce themselves to the scared kid and inform him that they prefer to be called by their cell numbers instead of their real names. Walters has arrived just in time: it’s the big night for the man in cell number two, so the new inmate gets to witness the execution ritual straight away. We see the inevitable visit from the priest, the last meal, and the dramatic walk out of the cell and through the “green door.” Despite the tendency of low budget films to reach for melodramatic heights, all of this stuff is presented in a straightforward fashion. The only real cliché comes when the lights flicker on and off as the big moment comes, but even this is forgivable: we never actually see the chair (outside the opening credits), and hey — people say the lights really do flicker.

The following day a new man replaces the inmate “evicted” the previous evening, and life continues as usual in the death house. Inmates trade smokes, play some checkers, banter with the guards, and talk about their girls on the outside. You’ll grimace at this, but the lone black inmate paces his cell shirtless, and prays for the other cons. When bullets start flying later in the second half of the film, he’s naturally the first one killed. I love the Edward G. Robinson film Black Tuesday, so I have to add that on the other hand, at least the character here doesn’t pass the day singing spirituals.

The guards aren’t treated very fairly, but the film claims to have been based on a true story and features an opening title card that cautions viewers that prison protocol — hiring practices in particular — have been greatly improved since the incidents portrayed first occurred. At any rate, most of the prison employees come across like the last kid picked at the playground — unhappy people with an axe to grind, taking their frustrations out on the prisoners whenever they get the chance. They constantly taunt and jab, particularly about pending executions. The hits keep coming, even during those last fateful walks.

Things progress along these lines until it becomes Walters’ time to go through the green door. Circumstances place on the guards too close to Mears’ cell, and he take the opportunity to choke the guy out and grab his keys. Mears runs about like a tiny little whirlwhind, freeing prisoners and seizing guns and ammo from the guard station. The film’s second half ceases to be an ensemble affair and becomes a snarling Mickey Rooney picture — note the poster above, you get the idea. It also adheres much more closely to the typical prison picture story arc: standoffs, gun battles, hostages, demands, tough decisions, guys get killed and stuff blows up — you’ve seen it before. Despite the familiarity this remains entertaining — don’t let me scare you off.

What’s to like here? The film doesn’t waste time on that biggest of prison movie clichés: going from con to con and hearing him talk about whether he’s guilty or not, or if he got framed and railroaded into the chair. It’s actually refreshing to watch a movie that takes as a given that all of the inmates did it, and then just gets on with the story. Considering how The Last Mile wants to generate some sympathy for the guys on the inside, it’s surprising that it doesn’t try to pawn off at least one innocent man on us — after all, it’s not like we haven’t executed a few here in the real world. Furthermore (and this is a bit more understandable), the movie doesn’t paint the prisoners as cowards either. In that early scene when one of the men is taken away the actor plays it well: the guards have to physically remove him from his cell, but by the time he makes it to the door his bravado has returned and he’s able to walk through on his won two feet.

Mickey Rooney is also pretty good. We all like the guy, but he was never a top-drawer talent as a dramatic actor. He spent much of his young life as arguably the most famous and beloved actor in America; but when Andy Hardy and the Babes movies went away, things got tough for Mickey. Even as a person who did not live through Hollywood’s golden age and has experienced these films in restrospect, I find Mickey a little hard to swallow in tough guy parts. Rooney made a number of noirs, but he was typically cast — in pictures like Quicksand or Drive a Crooked Road — as a kid who gets in way over his head. In The Last Mile he plays a tough-as-nails killer, and if you can get past any hang-ups you might have about Rooney, you’ll be surprised at how good he is. Make no mistake, somebody else could have played the part better, just as Mickey would have been better if the budget had allowed for a few retakes, but all in all he (and a cast of unknowns) do pretty well here. What’s not to like? A jazzy score that feels far out of place and almost ruins the whole thing.

Some viewers might find The Last Mile a bit campy, and maybe it is, but on the whole it’s well worth your time. It’s streaming for free on Netflix these days, and those interested in the 1932 version can download and watch for free at the internet archive — accessible from the movie’s IMDb page.

The Last Mile (1959)
Directed by Howard Koch
Cinematography by Joseph Brun and Saul Mitwall

Screenplay by Seton Miller and Milton Subotsky, based on a play by John Wexley

Starring Mickey Rooney
Released by United Artists
Running time: 82 minutes

December 3, 2010


Round two, let's go!

90. Johnny Stool Pigeon
I’d like this poster a whole lot more if not for two things: the contrived pose of Dan Duryea — I can just see the photographer giving him direction, “Dan, hold the gun a little higher…”; and the fact that the designer has made it appear as if he is standing in Oscar the Grouch’s garbage can. The suggestion of violence is great, but why so contrived? There’s also something amiss about the size relationship between Duryea and Mr. Lupino, whoops, I mean Howard Duff — in all likelihood the two were not photographed together. The saving grace of the whole affair is Shelly Winters, who looks extraordinary, iconic, and noir-ish to the nines in her beret, red dress, and fox fur.

89. The Threat
This is the first of two posters that I’m all but certain are by the same artist (I wish I knew for sure). Felix Feist’s The Threat is one of those noir films that only hardcore enthusiasts have seen, and they carry a torch for it. The poster features a lot of movement, with various forms surging from one part of the composition to the next. The designer gets a ton of mileage out of the large red brushstroke that contains the film title. In addition to that, it leads the viewer’s eye to the illustration of Charles McGraw. The next point is subtle, almost certainly the unconscious product of the artist’s intuition, but note how the heads of the three figures above the title mimic the swoosh of the red brush stroke — both in the similarity of the arch, and in how that movement surges outward from the face and body of the man with the gun, through the woman, and finally to the nearest face. There’s a degree of campiness associated with the three heads on the left and their taglines, “Must HE die?,” though what some might consider camp, I think, at least in this instance, is pretty cool.

88. Human Desire
87. The Big Heat
What is Glenn Ford’s problem? If I were Gloria Grahame, I’d yank the cotton ball out from under my lip and tell him to take his mitts off me. I can tell you in all honesty that placing the posters for Human Desire and The Big Heat next to one another in the countdown was completely accidental — but let’s call it a happy accident. Although both are well done I prefer the immediacy of the large image on The Big Heat to the superior composition of Human Desire, though Gloria Grahame is never sexier than she is on the Desire poster. Another positive of the Desire poster is that designers are finally coming to understand that placing quotation marks around the film title is silly and annoying. We’ll have to forgive the era for the abundance of male on female violence that we see in film noir posters (there’s more to come, in terms of entries and the degree of violence). Perhaps the most interesting (and strange) aspect of either poster is the odd appearance that a tiny Lee Marvin makes in the margin of the poster for Heat. What is he doing there? Who is he shooting at? Between Marvin on the Heat poster and the gigantic red pump on Desire, I’m not sure which poster has the stranger details.

86. City of Fear
If we take a look back at the posters from the silent era through the thirties and forties, the majority were produced in tradition of stone lithography that evolved from the Art Noveau period: Traditional illustrations wedded to hand-drawn title typography in organic, curvilinear compositions; with elements of the design nestled together like puzzle pieces rather than adhering to an underlying structure of imaginary horizontal and vertical grid lines.

Coming at the very last gasp of the classic noir period, the poster for 1959’s City of Fear demonstrates the evolving design style that was finally finding its way into the art of the film poster. This is most apparent in the unadorned, minimal composition, the selection of modern typefaces, and the designer’s reliance on concept rather than an idealized star image. The fifties were the beginnings of the information age as well as the corporate era, and American graphic design took on a minimal, mass-produced look and feel — an outgrowth of the Swiss Modern style that flourished in Europe throughout the postwar period, and the American propaganda poster designs of the WPA. Hollywood has always been characterized as a copycat industry that finds something that works (be it a star-genre combination, a story convention, or a marketing strategy), and rides it into the ground. Poster design was no different. The poster for City of Fear owes more to the advertising world at large than it does to Hollywood tradition — it took the movie business until the late fifties to catch up to what had been happening in the advertising world for some time.

However, one of the reasons I find this poster in particular so interesting is that it still contains elements of the classic Hollywood poster style, such as the bedroom scene at the bottom of the composition and the trio of figures at the top. The designer didn’t have the confidence (or more likely, the permission) to use only the frightened eyes / cityscape imagery, and felt compelled to include the typical scenes from the film — no matter that they don’t seem to fit. Subsequently, the poster becomes a mildly awkward bridge between these two eras of poster design. The two figures at the top are bizarre: they nestle nicely among the red letters, but also appear to be clumsily falling through space.

85. Crime of Passion
A very communicative, very cleanly designed and executed poster. Its late cycle date (1957) yet again demonstrates the creeping effect of modernism in film poster design (expansive areas of bright primary colors, crisp lines, typefaces as opposed to drawn letters, photography instead of illustration). We’ve seen a few examples so far where the poster begins to tell a story all on its own, through the sequential panels of a comic strip — Crime of Passion comes the closest. The comic strip is successful because it just whets our appetite. When we arrive at the end of the sequence, THE SIN, THE LIE, THE CRIME OF PASSION, we still very much want to the movies to learn how it all washes out. Another clever nuance of the design is how the first two images are unmistakable in meaning, but the third is quite vague: has she just shot him? Is she about to? Did she simply find his revolver? We have to see film to find out, and that’s what makes this all work.

84. Baby Face Nelson
I present to you: cute little Mickey Rooney, snarling maniac. There are a few posters that made the list through sheer bad-assery, and this is one of them. As you can see, Mickey appeared in this rough-and-ready screen persona in two posters, though the design for 1959’s The Last Mile isn’t quite as sophisticated as Baby Face Nelson’s — the type treatment at the top is forced and awkward, and the large, jowly face on the right is a major distraction. (But I like it so much that I had to toss it up on the page!) The clinchers for the red poster however are the ancillary images: I’m digging the shotgun-toting Carolyn Jones up top, even though the poster artist has given her the gravitas of a linebacker in drag; but the real draw are the sprawling dead figures at the bottom. As you can see, the four characters have all been executed, and blood has spilled onto the floor all around them. This sort of imagery was risqué in any Eisenhower-era film, it’s shocking and notable to see it on the poster.

83. Appointment with Danger
I’ve been an Alan Ladd fan for as long as I’ve enjoyed classic films, and when Netflix first began to allow users to have their own avatars, Ladd became mine. Appointment with Danger is an excellent hardboiled film that has recently become available on DVD; it’s one I’ve written about here and at the Noir of the Week site. The poster for Appointment is super: eye popping primary colors highlighting two classic images of Ladd in action. As with the poster for Short Cut to Hell, I appreciate how the designer has used overlapping forms to give the poster a fore-, middle-, and back-ground. Referring back to the points I raised with the City of Fear poster, this poster is also one that bridges a style gap: none of the lettering here is drawn, it’s all the result of existing typefaces, yet the composition with it’s large image of Ladd and ancillary images of action from the film is pure Hollywood tradition.

Ladd was a huge star at the time, so his name, along with that of Phyllis Calvert (who plays a nun in the film and is consequently absent from the poster) is above the title. Nevertheless, the type all sits comfortably well on the page, and the only real drawback is the black box at the bottom. It irks me how it covers up the falling Jack Webb. One final distraction, which admitted kept me from moving this poster to a better spot in the rankings, is incredibly nit-picky: click to zoom in on this one and dig Jan Sterling’s right arm. Poor woman.

82. Lightning Strikes Twice
With taglines such as “A girl without a stoplight in her life” and “The first time you kissed her was one time too many,” all referring to the spectacularly Ruth Roman (the look…the cigarette…priceless), how can the poster go wrong? A great two-color design in the classic fifties Warner Bros. B-movie style (remember I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. and Highway 301 from last week’s entry?), this poster just doesn’t miss. The Post-It note style box at the top bothers me in that the hastily scribbled type seems out of synch with the rest of the design, but it’s a small gripe. This is a stunner.

81. This Side of the Law
Here’s our first one-color poster of the countdown — there will be a few more, including one that ranks very near the top. At first glance the design for This Side of the Law appears chaotic, with images and taglines seemingly slapped down at random. Upon closer examination though, there’s a great deal of control being exerted by the designer, and there’s a method to what at first appears to be random madness. The first thing to notice here is how the generous white border functions: the busy nature of the artwork is heightened by the use of just one color — there aren’t different hues to help us understand what’s happening in the image. The designer understood that by providing an extra amount of white space to frame the image area, the poster as a whole would appear less chaotic. It worked out well, and I noticed immediately how the white box near Kent Smith’s face actually allows the white frame to interrupt the image area — providing some much-needed relief to the heavily shaded area.

Next let’s look at the balance. Here’s a poster with a whopping three taglines! The two in the image area are each married to a nearby photograph — in that sense they function as captions. Notice though how the “Trapped!” tagline at the top falls outside of the image area, and is perfectly symmetrical with the cast list and fine print at the bottom of the poster. Notice also that the line of text is sized to match the width of the image area, just like the typography at the bottom. Remember, our brains appreciate it when things “line up,” and by sizing the type this way the sense of a rectangle-within-a-rectangle is enhanced and we are more able to understand the elements in the center of the poster. To be honest though, even those elements are perfectly arranged — but I don’t want to ramble on too much. Take it from me though, this is great stuff, and any designer would be proud of it.

Just to drive a few of these points home and understand how two posters can be similarly constructed, yet of extremely different quality, I present the barking dog that it the poster for 1962’s big-budget Cape Fear. Was Mitch ever done a greater injustice than he is on this poster? Instead of looking fearsome, he looks as if all he wants to do is get his hands on Frodo and take back “the precious.” If you want to depict a character clawing his way up from some dark and muddy place, it’s obvious here which poster one should emulate. Furthermore, if none of us had actually seen this picture, wouldn’t we naturally assume that Peck was the bad guy? Take note of a few other points as well: diagonal compositions are much more eye-cathcing and exciting than rigid, vertical compositions. Also, even though the Cape Fear poster has the same number of images but only one tagline, it appears a great deal more chaotic than This Side of the Law — why? Structure. Nothing lines up and we are missing the calming power of that beautiful white frame.

See you next week.