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!


  1. I haven't seen most of the posters in this series before -- thanks for bringing them to my attention!

    Of this batch, The Shanghai Gesture is my favorite.

  2. @Cullen - I'm loving Shanghai Gesture too. It's an incredible exotic story.

  3. I had no idea EGR had such a hard life. I'd like to see 'Black Tuesday' someday.

  4. I've got a brief essay about his history as part of my essay here for Black Tuesday. He really took it hard when he was called a communist.

  5. Martha O'Driscoll is a BABE.

  6. I've been reading your blog today, and enjoying it very much- but must say, I've hardly seen any of the films you've seen! I'd love it if you could email me a list of five films; personal favorites, or pictures that you think everyone must see. I'd love to know!

  7. That poster for Black Tuesday really caught my eye. I'm a fan of Robinson's, but I was also in the dark about just how rough his life had gotten. I really want to see this one now!

  8. I would like to make an observation regarding Regis Toomey that is a total non-sequitur. He was a character actor who seemed to have been around since the dawn of time, the earliest film I have seen him in is ALIBI (1929), and while his career was less than stellar, he just makes me smile.

    The poster that intrigues me the most is for THE WRONG MAN, for all the reasons you mention but also because it has the feeling of being simultaneously classic and contemporary. The design looks as if it was originally part of a two-page magazine spread (perhaps THE SATURDAY EVENING POST), with part of the type disappearing into the fold of the magazine. The challenge to readers to research the facts of the case is truly original. The only element that bothers me is the repetition of the word “Somewhere;” I might be wrong about this but it could have been more effective if the line read “Somewhere…out there.”

    I was likewise unaware of the personal and professional heartbreak that EGR experienced in his life during this period. A few of his contemporaries seem to have developed ennobling personas as a result; it breaks my heart to think he wasn’t likewise considered a courageous man. I have one simple observation regarding BLACK TUESDAY and it relates to the placement of Robinson’s left hand. The manner in which he holds his hand, and the barely perceptible white line leading to the woman’s head (Jean Parker?), at first glance make it appear that Robinson’s character is something of “a puppet master”.

    I must be missing something (or seeing something that isn’t there) on BLONDE ALIBI because the face at the very top looks to me like Turhan Bey. I am assuming this is not he because he certainly would have rated a mention if he were in the film.

  9. Sorry for the delay in responding to comments - the holidays sure can suck the life out of a person!

    @ 5plitreel: agreed.

    @ The Kid: Do you mean five classic films in general, or just film noir?

    @whistlinggypsy: Great call on the EGR as a puppet master. He appears that way very much in the film, and to no one moreso than the girl. And definitely not Turhan Bey in the poster for Blonde Alibi - though I do see the resemblance!