January 7, 2011


Welcome to the countdown — we’ve crossed some imaginary line in the sand and I think there’s a huge uptick in the quality of the work as of this week. I hope you enjoy the selections as the countdown moves fatefully forward.

50. Murder, My Sweet
This poster, aside from simply being beautiful, is one crafty piece of movie marketing. Let’s think about another film for a moment, one I’ve written about here on the blog in what is by far my most-hit post: Christmas Holiday with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. Imagine yourself in the winter of 1944, suffering under the brunt of gas rations, food rations, maybe even worrying about a loved one somewhere. You decide to take a break from life’s troubles for an evening at the movies — they’ve got the new Deanna picture over at the Strand, and this one co-stars that new boy, Gene Kelly. You see “Christmas Holiday” on the marquee, and in you go — for what turns out to be one heckuva dark, paranoid melodrama, not the light and whimsical holiday picture you thought you were going to see.

Much the same can be said of Murder, My Sweet, the movie in which crooner Dick Powell reinvents himself as wry and tough private detective Philip Marlowe. Although the title of Raymond Chandler’s source novel, Farewell, My Lovely, was changed so as not to really put the whammy on potential ticket-buyers, the poster straddles the fence between Powell’s old and new screen personae brilliantly. Take a look at the rather stunning, yet purposefully ambiguous illustration of Powell and Trevor and ask yourself if you are looking at an advertisement for a crime story or a musical — with an image such as this it could be either. By not having the pair in a tighter embrace, or actually kissing, it was very easy for viewers to imagine that Powell was serenading his girl; after all, that’s what they expected from him at the time.

For such cleverly manipulative thinking coupled with a positively exquisite illustration, Murder, My Sweet lands here.

49. A Blueprint for Murder
Do I really need to explain this one? One of my criteria for judgment that I mentioned in the initial post claimed that how well the poster represents its film is relatively important to me. Well, as far as this poster goes, the red-blooded American male in me takes it back. There’s nothing very indicative of Blueprint’s story here — the poster design simply gets by on cheesecake power alone, and here it’s enough. Nevertheless, the thing is still well put together. Nice title type treatment in the red box, even considering the cliché of using the stencil typeface to make us think of blueprints — at least the box itself isn’t blue, right? The names are up top where we’d rather not see them, but they balance the two images to their left quite well, and despite the brazen yellow color they do nothing to distract us from Peters, who looks out seductively inviting viewers to see the film.

48. Hoodlum Empire
What a great title! Here’s another poster undoubtedly by the same artist who designed the poster for #89, The Threat. I love this one though — it simply shouts “B movie” at audiences, with an illustrative style that approaches that of a comic book. The images are cobbled together, the typography is cheap and clumsy, and the thing is convoluted as hell, but it all adds up to something really great. This may be another example of personal preference pushing objectivity aside for a moment, but this is one of those posters that screams film noir in a way that, although clear to me, I have a hard time putting into words. No stumbling about Claire Trevor though, who makes a double appearance this week — and unlike the pretty woman on the Murder, My Sweet poster, she is all femme fatale here — just dig the sneer on her face. Her illustration is so strong that it distracted everyone, even the artist (!), from the fact that the man holding her has two right hands!

47. The Stranger
I’m including this poster almost entirely on the basis its exquisite illustration. The typography is generally sufficient, though it’s far from exciting and is gives the poster an awfully unbalanced and unstable foundation. The blue block of color in the lower left is just dead. But the illustration is pure magic, and the color palette is absolutely marvelous. Loretta Young polarizes viewers, and I’ve always felt that her approval rating with modern audiences is far too low. She’s a bit prone to hysterics in The Stranger, but ravishing nonetheless. Aside from the technique, it’s nice to see such a well-executed portrait of Edward G. Robinson, not to mention Orson Welles, though both pale (quite literally) next to Young and her cleavage. What really gets this going though, and keeps the triple-portrait from becoming stodgy are the vibrant colors and the subtle magic of the background — the brushstroke style activates the background and give the whole poster a sense of movement. Like the next poster in line, for The Postman Always Rings Twice, this isn’t perfect, though parts of it are.

46. The Postman Always Rings Twice
Talk about iconic. Although it’s stylistically similar to the poster for Murder, My Sweet, I’m positive I moved The Postman Always Rings Twice around in the countdown more than any other poster (I had it as high as #19); I’m that unsure of it. That’s the big problem with iconic film images — we see them so often they lose their punch, though I’m sure this poster still has some. As a graphic design professor I’ll often make the argument that the Nike swoosh, all things considered, is a pretty good logo design. Yet the problem (for me, not for Nike) is that we see it so often that it functions more like a letter form than a logotype, and loses a lot of its graphic power. We see it simply as code for Nike, and we stopped thinking about the speed and movement suggested by the form long ago — and my students have no clue how conceptually relevant the name of the company it to its purpose.

This poster is similar: it’s for one of the few noir movies that resonates with even casual classic film fans, and consequently that gives us some insight into the way the movie was marketed. This looks much more like a poster for a glossy romance than a straight crime picture, and I’d argue that Lana Turner is posed in a way that reveals far too little about her character; she’s positively Garbo-esque here. What redeems the poster is the use of black, hiding Garfield and creeping in from all sides. Yet the noir-ish quality of the black ink is practically ruined by the flip style of the title typography: it just doesn’t seem to belong. I love that most of the typography is asymmetrical and falls on a diagonal axis, but it bothers me that the tagline is so out of character with the rest of the text; and the ‘bestseller’ image and blurb almost ruins the poster. In the end, we’ve got a poster here that has almost limitless potential, but significant flaws. I’m still not sure where to put it.

45. Police Reporter (Shoot to Kill)
Most of you will know this film by its other title, Shoot to Kill. The poster design is exactly the same, I chose to use this version instead purely for the quality of the reproduction. If you’ve seen it under either title, it’s a dog of a movie, but I’ve placed it here owing to the incredibly powerful image of the hoodlum that dominates the poster. Surprisingly, this really stands alone in terms of this kind of treatment of the large male figure carrying the weight of the design. There’s another poster coming later in the countdown that is much more well-known and iconic than this one, but the mood of the figure in that poster lacks the ferocity and menace of the one in play here. The combination of the great figurative illustration and the colorful gothic typography makes this one a no-brainer. Note: designers use the word ‘gothic’ to describe tall, sans-serif letters — I realize everyone else in the world uses the term differently!

44. The Guilty
Then we have the poster for 1942’s The Guilty, a Poverty Row product from Monogram. Unlike the ambiguity of the image for Murder, My Sweet, this poster is absolutely dripping with film noir. What I love about it is how, despite the use of color photography, the image ‘feels’ black and white, if you get my drift. The shadows … the clothing … the way the man clutches the woman … the title of the film itself: all are indicative of the public’s conception of film noir, and for that matter, mine as well. A wonderfully evocative image, I won’t even get started about my feelings for Bonita Granville, we’d be here all day.

43. Finger Man
One of my favorite poster designs, especially after I cleaned and brightened this one up! When we finish up I’ll have to count how many Frank Lovejoy posters made it in — his films keep popping up. The film noir tropes of alienation and persecution are front and center here, as the anonymous figure in the center of the design points the accusatory finger at the EGR lookalike on the right. The man stands in a visual representation of a spiral, meaning he is about to be swept inescapably into some sort of vortex — the downward descent that almost always characterizes film noir. The bottom of the poster doesn’t measure up to the top (ha!), though it gets the job done, promising the sex and violence audiences were avidly looking for. Great type solution, splitting the central figure and consequently uniting the poster’s two halves, with the rest of the text sitting comfortable along the composition’s right edge. I wish that so many of these great film poster designs weren’t situated against fields of yellow — I’d love to see this in red with yellow text instead. Still a first-rate, highly original poster by any measure.

42. The Turning Point
This has been a traditionally hard to find film, but it has recently popped up on Netflix’s Instant Watch. Even though Ed Begley’s name doesn’t appear on the poster, he gives a coldly vicious performance in this film. Head over and check it out, it’s worth your time (and +1 my review while you’re there, thanks!). In the meantime, dig the poster — it’s as wonderful as it is unusual. In spite of everything that’s going on in the composition the poster feels remarkably simple, boasting an “L” shaped composition that is somewhat similar to the design for Brute Force, from last week’s post. Almost everything happening in the here is super, but the vivid color palette and the ingenious title typography (and the way in which the little cops and robbers are putting it to use) is amazing.

When we look down into the “L” shape, I’m impressed by the control and the tight spacing, especially in the handling of the white text, and the placement of the three heads — pay close attention to the watercolor wash that seems to form the background of the “L” shape; notice how it perfectly holds all of the text, but gets looser and looser and it goes behind the heads, almost until it wafts around them like so much smoke. The female figure in the chair (Sharon Stone, anyone?) is the only photographic element, but by using the yellow overlay the designer has given the photo an illustrated feel that keeps in tune with the rest of the artwork, and, through the use of color, connects the top of the poster to the bottom. Now look away from the poster and ask yourself if you realized that the chair she sits in is a drawing?

The only thing I don’t like here is the yellow color field in the upper corner. I understand why the designer felt it needed to be there, but it wasn’t executed with the same degree of control as the rest of the artwork and consequently it sticks out like a sore thumb. This is a poster of rigid horizontals and verticals contrasted with the diagonal forms of the title type — there’s just no place in the composition for that haphazardly applied yellow blob.

I tend to point out a lot of minutia in my descriptions of the designs, and I received a Facebook message this week where I was asked if designers are actually thinking of all of the issues I raise when they are creating the work. That’s a complex question, and the answer is yes and no. When designers and artists are ‘in the moment’ they tend to work intuitively, and aren’t always consciously aware of why they make certain decisions, even though they are the right ones. The answer is in experience, or more specifically: practice. It’s like anything else, such as driving a stick shift: do something carefully long enough and eventually you’ll be able to do it well without thinking about it. My beginning students labor for hours and hours over simple logo and poster designs, only to crash and burn, while the advanced students can execute the same assignments in one-tenth the time and get an exponentially better result.

41. A Kiss Before Dying
Sure, I know some of you might quibble about this being a color film, but Cinemascope and Technicolor were Hollywood’s two biggest weapons in its war with television, and crime pictures got the big screen treatment the same as everything else. Noir credibility aside, the poster for A Kiss Before Dying is truly a stunner — a happy marriage of modern sensibility and bravado with classic style, yet titillating with promises of the kind of sex and violence unable to be offered on the small screen. I love the posters where I can see the thought process of the designer playing out on paper. Here we have a strong composition with something fairly rare in a film poster design: a single focal point. The white text, the angle of the figures, and the title typography all work together to form a large “X” that leads the eyes directly to the lips of the female figure. Let’s talk about her for a moment: the ambiguity is perfect: are they struggling or making love? Is she alive or dead? Is this the moment of her death? If we want to find out we have to pony up our dough and see the picture. All of the design elements here are spot-on in the bold, minimal, and powerfully graphic classic. It’s the highlight of the week.

Here’s looking at you until next week.


  1. I voted for you! Good luck!

    My favs this time around are "A Blueprint for Murder" and "Finger Man." This series would make a great book with large glossy images!

  2. Thanks Cullen!

    I'd love to be a part of such a book!

  3. Mark, I have officially signed up so that I can better comment on your excellent blog. I echo the book idea. Seems a natural following the time and work you've put into this series.

    All ten posters with this entry are uniformly excellent... with Finger Man being my pick of the bunch. (Glad that my personal favorite American Noir poster is still to come.)

    Good luck with the Blog Awards. I've already added my vote.

  4. Bravo. Very good job.
    I like the one of "Dark Passage" (that you didn't mention)...perharps because also it's one of my favourite movies

    Xavier a frenchman living in Cyprus

  5. Some might say that design was in a very staid and cumbersome epoch back when these films came out, but I would argue that there was a much greater level of idea, composition and expression evident in this more classic work than we find in today's highly retouched versions. Beautiful work! Lets see more please!