January 14, 2011


Here we go again…just three weeks now until poster number one! I wonder if anyone will be able to guess it? All I know, is that the top ten is sure to please. A reader asked if I could upload the remaining posters at higher resolution. I'll do it for the top 20!

40. Raw Deal
A Poverty Row product made by rising stars director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton, Raw Deal is one of the more revered film noirs. As for its placement, for the first time in the countdown (and hopefully the last) I think I got it wrong. Looking at this again to write the blurb, I think it just doesn’t stack up to the quality of the posters around it and if I could I’d shuffle it backwards ten or fifteen spaces. What originally pushed it up this high was the powerful image of Dennis O’Keefe spotlighted against the brick wall. It’s an image that longtime film noir enthusiasts encounter often — pulled from the poster and used as a prop on all sorts of noir websites and publications. That aside, I think the cobbled together elements that make up the rest of the poster just don’t hold water. I appreciate the title typography but it reminds me too much of the sort of lettering you’d encounter on a 1930s prison picture, and the arrangement of the elements is just too haphazard to be successful. If the yellow background shape were hard-edged and precise it would be an improvement, then the black boxes for the taglines at the top and bottom could just be eliminated — the one at the top is practically invisible anyway. And finally, is it just me or is the image of Claire Trevor based on a different film?

39. The Lady from Shanghai
Ah, Rita. We were all wondering when you’d show up. What’s that — you’ll be back again in a few weeks? We knew that too, doll.

I have a feeling she won’t be a blonde next time though. Here’s Rita as one of film noir’s better femme fatales. I don’t mean to channel Coco Chanel here, but I love the lines of this poster. It would actually be easy to dismiss this as pure glamour — that is if the actress weren’t Rita Hayworth and the incredibly prominent tagline, impossible to ignore, weren’t so menacing. Once we read it, it becomes awfully difficult to look at the image in the same way — and somehow it isn’t until after we read the tag that we notice the woman is positioned against a scarlet background. Very sexy, very subversive, very subtle. You probably know by now that I’m predisposed to typography when it falls at the bottom of the poster, and the treatment here is very successful.

38. Born to Kill
I’ll have to tally up the performers when all is said and done, but if Claire Trevor doesn’t make the most appearances in the countdown I’ll be really surprised. This is probably the best treatment she ever got on a film poster, and that may be partly because the poster itself is so good. The big image of a cigarette-smoking Lawrence Tierney is pure film noir, and anticipates the style of contemporary movie posters, but it’s Claire in the classic femme fatale pose that sells the tickets. The composition here is exceedingly simple and strong, with a juxtaposition of imagery and style that is incredibly evocative of a tornado — see it? There’s one tagline — that’s all this poster needs. It’s positioned well and says a mouthful. The rest of the type balances the tag and occupies just the right amount of space in the composition.

37. Crime Wave
Andre de Toth’s gem Crime Wave is the last of the great 1950s Warner Bros two-color posters to make the countdown. I think that if nothing else comes out of the countdown, I’m going to start collecting these. Posters for many of the films in the countdown can be had a very reasonable prices, particularly those for less well known films that don’t have large format movie star representations. While I love the sexy image of Ruth Roman on the Lightning Strikes Twice poster, I think the illustration here puts this in a different class. The composition of the image is perfect — we get so much information packed into a relatively small area, but all of it is important. It also goes without saying that the three distinct “stories” of the illustration aren’t meant to be understood as happening at the same time. In many of the other designs we’ve seen the three images (the killer in the foreground, the cop and hoodlum in the background, and the couple on the right) would be broken apart in separate illustrations. I appreciate that the artist didn’t insult out intelligence by doing so here.

Every detail has been carefully rendered, from the great illustration to the handling of each bit of text. The title, illo, and inset triptych at the bottom all nestle together like they were born that way. It’s balance with black text in the generous white frame at the top and bottom, and everything “lines up” on a clearly defined grid system. A masterfully controlled design. And I love those initial capitals on the three stars’ names!

36. Chicago Confidential
You guys all know why this one is here, so instead of lauding it as an example of great design work, instead it gives us an idea of the extraordinary power and popularity of Confidential magazine. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Confidential, it’s the original scandal sheet, and was one of the most important pieces of fifties pop / Hollywood culture. Recently the subject of a book I haven’t had the chance to read yet, Confidential and it’s bizarre history is worth looking into.

35. City That Never Sleeps
This is the final entry from the artist that I’m betting worked on the posters for #89 The Threat, and #48 Hoodlum Empire. Similar to Crime Wave, the illustration tells many stories in its wonderful comic book style. Like its siblings, this poster has an unsophisticated composition and type treatment, but is so emblematic in its representation of the urban landscape so central to film noir that the sum of the poster is truly greater than the parts.

34. The Long Wait
Sheesh, I know it’s a lotta text, but c’mon — this is one of the greatest poster images in all of noir! What a great pose…and the girl even has a gun. I love how classic this is, covered from top to bottom in hand drawn letters — surprising for a poster from 1954. Sure, there are a few typefaces there, but they don’t dominate and despite the sheer volume of text, everything fits together harmoniously and nothing reduces the power of the central image. If this were a little less busy, I’m betting it would have cracked the top twenty. From a content point of view, this is pure Spillane — somebody sure got this one right.

32. Accused of Murder
This is one of the coolest posters in the countdown. You’ll notice as we move forward that there are fewer and fewer unknown films that make it this far, but one look at this poster tells you that it surely deserves its placement. The gun-toting female figure is great: she’s sexy (even if her dress is a bit too Les Miserables for my taste), and by positioning her at the edge of the design instead of in the middle we really get the impression that she’s on the lam. The silhouette of the Colt 1911 is brilliant though — it draws heavily on the tenets of the modernist style, yet still manages to hold a part of the narrative illustration: the wall she hides behind and them men who pursue her through a dark and forbidding urban landscape. She stands on the title typography, and her weight has managed to shift it onto a diagonal, enlivening the composition of the bottom of the poster. Sublime.

33. Manhandled
The violence here is so reminiscent of the covers of EC Comics Shock SuspenStories! A great image made even better by the artists attention to detail: the broken strap on the left shoe; the helpless policeman looking up from the fire escape the small, unrelated drama being played out in the alley far below — not to mention that the performers actually look like themselves. I consider the stars names at the top of the design to be something of a pleasant failure, but the title typography is out of this world, and doesn’t disturb the illustration at all. Move the title to the top and the names to the bottom and this could have moved a lot higher — it remains one of the most jarring and powerful images in the countdown.

31. Plunder Road
The poster for Plunder Road is one of my favorites in the countdown, and goes a long way to proving what a skilled designer can do with very little raw material. A few words about the film first, which most of you probably haven’t seen yet: In case you haven’t had the pleasure, it’s one of the many noirs now streaming at Netflix — here’s a link to the film. (Beware though, Steve-O from Noir of the Week reports that this isn’t the greatest copy in the world.) Nevertheless, this is a film that all crime enthusiasts fall in love with from the get-go. I’m never come across a noir buff that doesn’t like it. It’s a first rate heist picture, with an incredibly fatalistic ending. The poster is just as good — sporting as powerful a use of negative space as we are likely to see, both in terms of the large red rectangle and the white strip that violates it. Does the stripe represent the road, or merely the white line diving the lanes? Is it some barrier through which the hoodlums in the film must somehow crash through? Or is it merely a graphic device used to push the poster closer to the avant garde? As far as I’m concerned it is all of those things! Furthermore, I love how this poster plays with scale, depth, and perspective though the juxtaposition of the figures, even if they are just swiped from publicity stills.

And talk about restraint! For once we have a road film with a poster that doesn’t actually depict a highway that vanishes into some dreary spot on the horizon, with the text appearing in street signs. I tip my fedora to the designer here for avoiding cliché — and that’s why this is the poster of the week.

Are we there yet? Almost — now sit back and be quiet before I turn this countdown around.


  1. Still working my way through this glorious post but I just wanted to warn you that that Confidential book (Shocking True Story) isn't worth the paper it's printed on.


  2. Thanks for the heads up, Caroline. Instead of buying it myself I'll have the university library get a copy!