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!


  1. I am loving this series. These posters are all beautiful, & are made even more appealing by your wonderfully insightful descriptions. I gotta admit, I'll be hunting down a copy of "The Bonnie Parker Story" as soon as I get a chance. You really can't beat that tagline!

  2. I love this series, thanks so much for your great work on it.

    I think my favorite poster to date is the right half of SIDE STREET. :) I completely agree, the left side of the diagonal is a mess. I also really liked NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES. A title to add to my list of Gail Russell movies I need to see!

    Best wishes,

  3. Wow, I just discovered this series. Thanks. I now have a way to spend even more of my non-existent free-time online.

    You probably know that there is a Notorious poster that rips off the Glass Key motif.

    The Riot in Cellblock poster works so well because the artist put images of like tone next to one another. Nothing is jarring. It's really beautiful, like one of those Roman friezes but you know with a prison riot.

    The red, black and white combo is powerful. The Nazis loved it! I did my blog in red, navy and white just to free myself from that association.

  4. Thanks all for the quick comments. Always appreciated!

    @ Jenny: Great observation on the "Riot" poster — I wish I'd thought of that, dang it!

    I'm aware of the Notorious poster — it didn't make the countdown for that reason.

    As for the Nazis and R/B/W: there's been a ton of writing in the design community about that over the years, most notably in a book by Steven Heller called "Symbol Beyond Redemption?", all covering the use of the colors as well as the co-opting of the swastika. The idea of the Naziism and what we now call 'corporate identity systems' is a popular topic of discussion most design history courses.

  5. I think "The Big Bluff" is my fav of this set. Looking forward to 70-61!

  6. I looked forward to your next installment in the series all week, unfortunately my monitor went “wonky” on Thursday and I’m now using one that is (close to) a decade old. The result is the poster colors aren’t even a remote match to the originals, but I can see that this week’s collection includes some challenging and sophisticated artwork and design.

    I’ve seen a number of variations on the black and white photo of Ann Savage and Tom Neal included in the artwork for DETOUR, but as you implied the photos better capture the true nature of their relationship. The artwork and the imagery are especially interesting because I saw the film a decade or more ago, and I don’t remember the film was quite as thrilling as the poster depicts. I need to take another look at this one. I would never have imagined that an expose on corruption and the garment industry could be quite so intriguing. The poster for THE GARMENT JUNGLE promises great drama, with a tagline like “Ripped sin-side out by the same company who brought you “ON THE WATERFRONT”!” which the moviegoer only hopes the film will deliver. The poster for THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES is another example of artwork that does not match my memory of the film. I can connect the references to the story, even the Dali-esque eyes (as you mentioned) that remind me of the artwork in SPELLBOUND, but I want to watch the film again simply to satisfy my curiosity. I agree that my favorite of the group is THE UNSUSPECTED an elegant design for an elegant little mystery.

    I enjoyed reading your review for THE LAST MILE and wonder how often you post film reviews here. I realize that end of term is somewhat chaotic for you, and this is simply for curiosity sake, but I wonder if you have considered writing a review on ALIAS NICK BEAL or PUSHOVER in the future, just at thought.

  7. The Garment Jungle is no On the Waterfront, though there are some similarities between the pair, beyond just Lee J. Cobb. Certainly the producers wanted to cash in on the coattails of Waterfront though. Possibly a better double feature would be The Garment Jungle followed by Save the Tiger, with Jack Lemmon.

    As for Detour, I don't pt it on the same pedestal as most film noir people do, but I still think it's a heck of a picture, especially when you consider the backstory of the production. If you haven't done so, you might want to someday listen to some of the Richard Edwards / Shannon Clute podcasts about film noir. The podcast is called "Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir." The episode on Detour is particularly good, though the quality of the entire series is top notch and very entertaining. They are available for free download at iTunes.

    Until I started this poster thing a few weeks ago, all I had ever done was post film reviews — usually at a pace of two or three each month. I watch a lot more movies than I write about, which makes sense because classic Hollywood pictures are typically so formulaic. I have to find something intriguing in order to develop an essay. It's funny you should bring up Pushover — it was recently released on DVD, so I wanted to do something with it. I watched and took a lot of notes, and then just couldn't manage to put an article together! Nick Beal is another story though, I recently got a copy on DVD after having not seen the movie since I was in graduate school in the mid-nineties. I'm hoping to watch it and write something sooner rather than later — I'm a big Ray Milland fan.

    Thanks again for taking the time to leave such great comments.

  8. If I may ask a question - don't you think that the 'Big Bluff' poster has too much empty negative space in the lower right hand corner?

  9. Hi Rich, I'd call that space dead more than anything else, but I didn't really include the Big Bluff poster solely for design reasons. (Though I still think it's a fantastic looking poster) There are a few posters in the countdown because they are so emblematic of the low-budget, salacious aspects of film noir - this is one of them.

  10. I understand. And I agree, it's a very provocative image.

  11. I like the expression they captured in EGR's eyes on the Night Has a Thousand Eyes poster. It describes his character in that flick perfectly.

  12. I guess you can't blame a bad Photoshop clipping path for the inexplicable white space on Detour. :)

    Looking forward to the rest in the coming weeks.

  13. @futilitarian: You've got that right, though maybe I should cut a little more slack. If I didn't have to stare at bad clipping paths all day long in student work, or just bad Photoshop selections in general, I'm sue I'd be more forgiving.

    Thanks for stopping in, I think the quality of the posters makes a huge jump up starting with the next batch. I'm starting to get really excited to put up the higher ranked pieces.

  14. Loved all posters.Gail Russel was a gem on her time.Thanks for sharing.Posts appropriated

  15. Two of my favorite noir posters made your list here... The Glass Key and Night Has A Thousand Eyes.

    Mark, I'm really enjoying your poster blogs. Look forward to seeing what's to come...