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.


  1. I love that PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET poster (probably because I also love the movie itself), and I absolutely agree...Thelma Ritter is incredible. One of Samuel Fuller's best.

  2. FANTASTIC write up!! I've been buying framed reprints of Noir posters of late, and will certainly reference your work here!!

    Now I'm off to check out your previous entries, partly in hopes of seeing my favorites make the list. (Namely, 'Manhandled'... the french poster for 'High Wall'... and the Danish poster for 'Dark Passage')

    Great work!!

  3. Alas, I restricted myself to considering only the first-run American version of each poster, otherwise I don't think it would be an apples to apples comparison, and I didn't want to risk having multiple posters show up for certain films.

    However, Manhandled will show up in the countdown in a week or two!

  4. Hi Mark, Happy New Year; hope you’re enjoying a bit of calm after the chaos. This week’s selections include some beautiful artwork and intriguing images. Despite the similarity between the image and Cinderella’s pumpkin coach, I like the illustration in the lower left on RIDE A PINK HORSE; it just suits the overall design and color scheme. The images (and shapes) that appear first on HOUSE OF NUMBERS and then on BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT remind me of a Dada inspired collage and the later abstract work of Henri Matisse. Your comment regarding THE VERDICT, “as if the photograph couldn’t do the job of identification just as easily” got me thinking about the artists who created the film posters of the silent era. I realize this is a bit off subject, but are you familiar with the work of Batiste Madalena? He created hand painted film posters for the EASTMAN THEATRE that were fascinating in that they relied primarily on an image of the actor or actress and very limited text as with THE UNKNOWN (1923) featuring Lon Chaney. His palette was mostly limited to primary colors, such as shades of blue for UNDERWORLD (1927) with George Bancroft and THE NOOSE (1928) with Richard Barthelmess, but the poster for THE FRESHMAN (1925) with Harold Lloyd is a wild combination of fuchcia pink, lemon yellow, red and tangerine. I realize your focus is posters of film noir, but if you have a bit of free time, take a look at some of Madalena’s posters to see how he used an image to do the job of identification.