January 21, 2011


Hello cheesecake! It’s dirty old man week in the countdown! In other news, I’ve increased the pixel-quality of the posters: from now on all of the digital files are 900 pixels wide instead of 700, and saved with the least amount of JPEG compression possible. Also, welcome to all the new followers, commenters, emailers, facebook friends, hoodlums, heathens, and gun molls! Very special thanks to everyone who has Tweeted or re-Tweeted about the countdown. I’m not a Twitter user myself, so I really appreciate all of the traffic you’ve helped direct to the blog. The amount of traffic here has truly been humbling. Thanks so much.

Pull up a bar stool, the peanuts are free…

30. Somewhere in the Night
This is one of the more popular film noir posters, probably owing to the unusual color scheme and classic studio design. I’ve always found this poster odd in the sense that it appears to have been produced as a stone lithograph, though of course that’s highly unlikely, if not impossible. The feeling comes from the grain of the illustration. We normally only think of photographs as having grain, though the crayon artwork of the stone lithograph always produces a prominent grain — as you can see here. In all likelihood the illustrator rendered this on a toothy paper, but the effect is the same, and for vintage poster enthusiasts it’s alluring. Design-wise, the poster has many elements at home in film noir: a desperate, confused protagonist, a girl in a trench coat, a shady character, guns, romance, and so forth. The beams of light emanating from John Hodiak’s head are strange to say the least, but appropriate considering his character’s amnesia. This is a solid poster from top to bottom, though I wish the title typography had a little more pop — it’s somehow too small, or just gets lost in the bottom of the poster.

29. The Mask of Diijon
Yet another poster that makes a strong noir statement, this time one of alienation. The sullen expression on von Stroheim’s face, contrasted with the serenity of the sleeping blonde is evocative of the stilted mindset of many noir protagonists. The dark colors obviously heighten the mood. On the other hand, this is simply an interesting poster because it seems to go out of its way to avoid giving away the fact that von Stroheim is actually a magician in the process of performing a trick — instead it appears at first glance to be altogether more grotesque: we think we are seeing a man with a woman’s decapitated head in a wicker basket. He almost appears to be seated on a train brooding over the passing landscape. This sense of ambiguity, heightened by a melancholy stylism, is powerfully noir-ish, and makes for a titillating advertisement for the film. A bizarre poster to be sure, but also an effective one.

28. The Glass Web
Not too much to shout about here — a well-crafted cheesecake poster with everything in the right place. This would be a prize in any poster collection. Pretty good girl artwork backed up with a nice title type treatment and an offbeat composition. The publicity shots of Robinson and Forsythe are a bit lazy, but the girl more than makes up for them. The artist here had the good sense to know that feet should be suggested more than fully rendered, as evidenced by comparing this image to the one in the poster for The Prowler. Yikes!

27. Canon City
A few weeks ago I messaged back and forth with someone who inquired about where I was getting such pristine copies of the posters, and I responded that I was making them myself — in Photoshop, of course. The person wanted to know more, as in what the posters look like when I start with them, and whether or not it is easy to learn to do. The poster for 1948’s Canon (pronounce Canyon) City was fairly annoying to jazz up (the original was filthy!), so I thought for once I’d include the source copy so all could see what I’ve been doing to these things. Is it easy? It took me about 30–45 minutes to get this one into shape, but I’ve been at this since the original version of Photoshop hit the shelves in 1990. Is it hard? No, not really. It just takes practice. We teach the college students to do this stuff in their very first software class, though it takes them a while to realize that there are a few right ways and a million wrong ways to color correct, or otherwise improve / restore an image. I used to enjoy this part of my teaching duties, but I haven’t had the freedom to teach the beginning courses in years and years. I average 10 – 15 minutes per poster, mainly spent removing the folds and tears. I wish I had time to really make these things shine, but there are 100 posters in the countdown and that’s just not possible!

At any rate, great poster. I’ve placed here because of the immediacy of the violence. We’ve seen quite a few images of people kicking the crap out of one another, but the convict on the poster here is out to get us! A strong type treatment (even if it is a bit phallic in its positioning), and well executed small illustrations combine with a eye-popping color palette to make this a low budget home run. This is another recent addition the streaming library at Netflix: check it out here. With some of John Alton’s best cinematography, this is a must-see.

26. Blonde Sinner
On the merits of its title alone, this film gets a free pass to the top thirty! If you take a quick look back at Blonde Alibi (#61) you’ll see that the poster for the similarly titled Blonde Sinner is trashier, sexier, and even manages to include some gunplay — thus the higher spot. You’ve just gotta love a poster with four separate shots of the same girl. No one is going to argue that the design here is stellar, but the imagery is vivid and integrated into the composition with a surprising amount of care, especially considering this is a Poverty Row movie. What am I talking about? Notice how much better the photos of Diana are clipped from the respective backgrounds than is the image of Evelyn Keyes on The Prowler. Notice also how the designer applied a painted shadow to help her fit into the red background with a little more ease; not to mention the careful transition from her torso to the title typography — carefully executed with an airbrush instead of a scissors. There’s a lot going on here, and I’d love to see the title a little larger — maybe at the expense of one of the images, but this is still a really fun poster.

25. The Web
If we could somehow convince ourselves that we didn’t know what Ella Raines and Edmond O’Brien actually look like, this poster might vault into the top ten. Unfortunately though, while Ella fares passably (from the mouth up!), the poor schmuck caught in her web looks nothing like Edmond O’Brien, and so the poster suffers. Now before you correct me — I realize that or old friend Vincent Price is the nefarious web spinner in the actual film, but the poster certainly wants us to think it’s Raines — and that’s fine by me. Before we move on, let’s go back to Raines for a second. Take a look at her face, her chin to be more precise — hasn’t the artist let us down a little here? Ella’s jaw looks as if she just took a stiff right cross that knocked her chin out of line with the rest of her face. Now look again — our point of view is from below, looking up. It we look at her forehead and eyes, her head at first appears too be tilted backwards, as if she were looking down her nose at us — yet when we return to her jaw line it’s horribly out of place. All that aside, I obviously think this a fine film poster — and it is. The simple notion of a spider web (we’ll see another next week) is so in line with the noir milieu, and it used so well here that the poster just can’t miss. I like how the artist has used scale to his advantage, and even though the positioning of much of the typography is forced, the gestalt of the poster is still spot on. If only the same hand that rendered the Street of Chance poster had been at work here.

24. High Sierra
Again I don’t have much to say, I think the poster for High Sierra really speaks for itself. Fortunately for the designer Bogart wasn’t yet well-known enough that they felt compelled to give the movie star treatment on the poster, leaving the way clear for this wonderful image — one of the most original I’ve ever seen. The extreme angle of the illustration juxtaposed with the broad expanse of orange space makes for a potent and original expression of the film. Sure, we could quibble that the design falls apart amidst all the rubbish at the bottom, but the upper two-thirds are so fantastic that this poster easily rates its spot in the countdown.

23. The Prowler
Recently restored and released (February 1st, that is) on DVD by our great friends over at UCLA and the Film Noir Foundation (are you a member yet?), favorite (and blacklisted) director Joseph Losey’s ultra-rare The Prowler is one of the more provocative films in the noir canon. It deals with a wide range of issues, from sexual obsession and fulfillment to the mutability of middle class values and the American dream. It’s one of those films that simply begs to be talked about, and noir enthusiasts have been doing so for quite some time. The poster is a gem as well — it’s not often that the designer is able to integrate type and image this successfully, with the film’s title fitting so nicely on the window shade. I’m not in love with the use of red for the lettering — combined with the rough style it evokes the slasher genre, but the use of the window motif to place the film in a conceptual context and Van Heflin’s presence as a peeping tom (all the more troubling considering Van plays a policeman) give the poster one of the darkest film noir statements in the entire countdown. I’m a big Evelyn Keyes fan, and I don’t feel like this photograph does her justice. It’s easy to understand why it was chosen: the deer-in-the-headlights expression and guarded body language are appropriate for someone who discovers a watcher outside her bathroom window, but there’s something about the pose, especially in the foreshortening of her shoulders, that looks just wrong. The photo is poorly clipped (look at her hair), and for some reason it looks as if Evelyn’s shoe size has to be 25 — keep those things covered Ms. Keyes!

22. Street of Chance
Made very early in the noir cycle (and having nothing to do with the better known 1930 William Powell / Jean Arthur / Kay Francis film of the same name), the 1942’s Street of Chance offers us one of the most beautiful vintage Hollywood posters in this or any other collection of film advertising. And whaddayaknow? There’s our old pal, the beautiful Claire Trevor, this time a blonde, making yet another appearance in the countdown (#s 50, 48, 40, and 38). If this film was widely recognized and talked about by noir scholars and fans, I would have probably ranked it higher — as we move forward, certain posters will score in part simply because they are so well known. This hasn’t always been the case in the countdown however, if you remember back when we started I pointed out the posters for films such as Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and Kiss Me Deadly just plain didn’t make it. In the end though, there is just nothing not to like here: the illustration is stunning, the typography is perfectly handled, and the clever overlay of the hand with the knife is the icing on the cake. Our pal Jenny pointed out a few weeks a go that the poster for The Glass Key (#75), also from 1942, must have been a source of inspiration for the poster for Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious, and I think the same could be said of this one. Finally, how about that streetlight? How can you not love a film poster poster with a streetlight? Great stuff.

21. Trapped
Could there be any doubt that this magnificent poster is the featured entry this week? Not in my mind — I’m resisting every urge I have to move it up in the countdown. Another Poverty Row gem, the poster for Trapped scores with both genders, perfectly representing the film noir male and female. Let’s start at the top, with tragic beauty Barbara Payton. We won’t get into Payton’s story here (though I do in the essay for Murder is My Beat), but for those of you unfamiliar with her, I can tell you that the artist has captured her screen persona perfectly. Her sexy but trashy, slightly frayed, come-hither look, cast directly at the viewer is just extraordinary, and it’s matched by John Hoyt underneath. I’m surprised at the choice of Hoyt for the poster, considering that Lloyd Bridges is the film’s star, but it isn’t the identity of the man that’s important, it’s the use of light and shadow. When we think of film noir, one of the more ubiquitous visual signifiers are the shadows cast by the slats of window blinds, yet the poster for Trapped is one of the only film advertisements that utilizes them — and it does so to spectacular effect. The tagline is delicious, the title typography is first-rate, and the small illustrations at the bottom of the composition are truly something else! With posters this good, there must be some real gems in the queue!


  1. The exploding title on the TRAPPED poster is amazing! That's my fav for this week.

    Thanks for the series! Looking forward to 20-11!

  2. I just wanted to say that I'm still following, and still enjoying, your excellent series. Thank you for all the work you put into each presentation, and for the evocative and insightful comments. I added my vote for your blog in the poll.