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.


  1. This was fantastic! Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  2. Half the fun of this series is seeing posters for films that are entirely new to me. I have only seen “The Big Heat” and “The Crime Of Passion” of the entire group that you posted.

    May I disagree with you on the depiction of Gloria Grahame on “Human Desire,” she reminds me too much of Susan Hayward or Virginia Mayo. I would not guess she was in the film, if her name were not so prominently featured beside the image. I also think that Glenn Ford on “The Big Heat” looks like Desi Arnaz, Jr. (with lipstick).

    The taglines for “Lighting Strikes Twice” remind me of those used in “Nora Prentiss: “Loving her once is too often!” and “She had a lot to learn…but not about men!!!” I mention this since both films were Warner Brothers productions released four years apart.

    I agree with you regarding the infamous depiction of Robert Mitchum in his Golum mode. I think the only match for indignity is the version of “On the Waterfront” with Brando that you posted earlier.

    A few days ago as I was putting together a post for Dave Brubeck’s birthday, I couldn’t help but notice various design elements in the posters (due to your influence). I included a poster for “The Gene Krupa Story” and “All Night Long,” and I think it is intriguing how unlike each is in artwork, design and typeface. Thanks again for your creativity and hard work in putting together a fascinating post.

  3. Great observations — I'm with you on Susan Hayward. Now that you've brought it up I'm having a hard time not seeing it that way! Also, it must have taken real talent to translate the male figures from black and white publicity stills into poster art without creating the appearance of lipstick — there are so many posters where it happens.

    The two posters on your Brubeck post are astonishing — it's really something to look at them and then learn the films are only separated by two years. The "All Night Long" poster looks as if it had been designed yesterday, instead of 50 years ago. It's really great. The Krupa poster is just weird: Mineo's head is rendered in a completely different style than his body! Strange, fun stuff.

  4. Really liking this series of yours. I love classic films too, although my blog is mostly modern films (link is in my name). When it comes to noir, my knowledge is spotty; I know the big names and little else, so I'm gonna try and look up some of these films too.