I hope everyone who has participated in the countdown over the last three months has enjoyed it as much as I have. For my part I’ve realized that there’s a great deal more to mid-century poster design than just the work of Saul Bass, and that the film noir movement provided rich fodder for the poster artists of the era — resulting in a cohesive body of work as invigorating and topical as the films themselves.
Any time someone makes a ranked list they open a can of worms, especially regarding whatever thing finishes on top of the stack. I can tell you that over the course of producing this list I shuffled film posters up and down at each and every sitting, particularly when selecting the top 25 or so. Over the past three months, I considered four different posters for the top spot, and I’m certain I’ll have second thoughts in the future. So like my other great love, the Academy Awards, it’s important to keep in mind that it isn’t really about deciding which is “best,” but using the occasion as an excuse to celebrate something we all truly love, the movies.
Pitfall, a domestic noir that finds family man Dick Powell in over his head when he falls hard for Liz Scott. The poster boasts a sophisticated composition, with a limited color palette, strong title lettering, and expressively colored photography. I love how the whole thing is held together by the circular shockwaves emanating from the impact of the punch in the small photo. The waves are conceptually significant: they remind us of one of film noir’s more popular themes — the domino effect that occurs when the protagonist takes his first step down the wrong path. Even better are the photos themselves. It’s clear in how Dick Powell is depicted that his tough guy screen persona is fully cemented in the public mind. Gone is the ambiguity of the poster for Murder, My Sweet, where Dick appears to be as much crooner as private detective. In this poster he’s frayed, frazzled, and coming apart at the seams. Let’s shift to Scott. Although she isn’t front and center, this is nevertheless one of the most potent images of her (or any other noir fatale) to grace a film poster. Some might consider the coloring of her lips to be a bit much, but not me. It’s a highly charged, sexually provocative image presented in a style that reminds me of the film posters of the eighties — and Pitfall was made in 1948! With this in mind, it’s difficult not to think the poster is way ahead of its time. Who wouldn’t hang this one up?
Night and the City Richard Widmark plays an American hustler in London, doing anything and everything he can to get ahead, with eventually tragic results. There’s so much to say about this from a design perspective that it’s difficult to even begin. The style is pure postwar modernism, this is so steeped in the style that it is more reminiscent of the book jackets of the era than a film poster. The organic, floating composition is striking, and the sense of spatial depth is not just beautiful, but believable. Widmark is perfect here: frightened, nervous, on the run; while the elegant Gene Tierney, herself something of a tragic figure, appears just on the other side of the wall, unable to look upward. The typography is conceptually appropriate, and the visual surprise of the looming figure at the top of the composition is the icing on the cake. One of the most striking and original film posters of the mid-century period, or any other.
Guilty Bystander in my essay about the film, and our good friend Steve-O uses it for the Noir of the Week group on Facebook. The poster just resonates with film noir people in a way that few others have. Why? Redemption.
We’ve talked about many themes throughout the countdown, yet I think the notion of redemption is new here. Instead of chronicling the protagonist’s fall from respectability to the gutter, Guilty Bystander picks up where other films have left off, with Zach Scott languishing in a hell of his own creation, inwardly looking for some way to climb back out of the gutter. Such roles came easily for Scott — he was a professional heel in the movies, and audiences loved hating him. In Guilty Bystander he plays a man who gets a second chance, and somehow manages to reclaim the important things he thought were lost to him.
Noir pictures so often chronicle the breaking of a man, and the poster here shows a man broken. Look at Scott’s face, such pathos! Yet he’s on his feet, gun in hand, trying hard to get past all of the terrible things he’s been part of, looking tentatively off into the distance at some seemingly impossible future. For me at least, this isn’t a poster; it’s a mirror.
The Killing is one the greatest heist pictures ever made, and certainly no one can argue the extent of its influence on contemporary filmmakers. Yet unlike Gun Crazy, this is a instance when the poster matches the film itself — both are clearly ahead of their time. Kubrick didn’t have any cache with audiences when this was made, so it’s easy to understand why the producers would use the poster as a vehicle to invoke the titles of such films as Scarface and Little Caesar (even though it’s a little odd since The Killing isn’t a mob picture.) However the large taglines aren’t a drawback here — they give us some clues about content and the use of color reinforces what’s happening elsewhere in the poster. It is worth a reminder to note that this was released in 1956, and the design couldn’t have been more original for the time. As a matter of fact, I think this poster would look a great deal more comfortable on the wall of a contemporary multiplex than it did all those decades ago. Drawing on the graphic power of bold primary colors and comic book style illustrations, it presents a pastiche of overlapping images in a deceptively simple arrangement — and dig those stiffs at the bottom. Just shocking.
Veronica Lake: the ice-princess, the girl with the peekaboo bang. Next to Marilyn Monroe, the most photogenic Hollywood actress of all time. In James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential she’s the lurking, symbolic presence of the Hollywood mystique. Lake’s history is well known, so I won’t rehash it here; but at 4’ 11”, her career really took off with this This Gun for Hire, when Hollywood finally found an actor in 5’ 3” Alan Ladd who looked good standing beside her — and people wonder why they made so many pictures together! Ladd was such a beginner at the time that he only rated fourth billing, even though he’s undoubtedly the film’s star.
What’s not to like here? Why place it at five? I have a few reasons for not placing this in the top spot — though in my first few drafts of the list I had it there. First is the type at the top of the poster, Alan Ladd’s name (four letters, like Lake) would look so much better up there, and would certainly balance the composition more than Preston’s; and I don’t think the names integrate well with the rest of the design. They are too heavy, and the poster would improve if they could shift to the bottom, and the artwork could shift up. More importantly though (and don’t get mad at me!), I have issues with the illustration of Lake, it’s fine, but it just doesn’t quite look like her. If you disagree that’s just fine, but Lake had a girlish quality to her beauty that is absent here, not to mention an exquisite delicacy to her features that I also can’t find in the image. As I’m writing this I’ve placed a photograph of her face beside the poster and it just doesn’t stack up. Nonetheless, this is a showstopper, I’ve used the image of Alan Ladd as my internet avatar for many years. This is one of the greatest film posters ever made.
Gilda, another one of the posters that got consideration for the top spot. This presents the noir female as exactly the opposite of the girl we see in the poster for Pickup. Rita Hayworth, lovely Rita, the studio era’s preeminent screen goddess, is the living embodiment of male sexual fantasy. Her allure is so intoxicatingly powerful that one risks everything in even approaching her, which brings us to Gilda. Not one of the truly great noir pictures, it still resonates with audiences because of Hayworth’s indelible performance. The poster itself is far from hardboiled, or many of the other things we would expect to see in a film noir, but it remains the single most iconic representation of the femme fatale, of Hayworth, and even of cigarette smoking in move history, and consequently lands at number four. Put the blame on Rita.
Dead Reckoning spent almost as much time as the eventual winner in the top spot, bit I finally pulled it back a few places because I didn’t feel it measured up conceptually. I felt a strong urge to see a Bogart film finish as high as possible, and it looks like #3 will have to do. There’s something melancholic, possibly forlorn about this image that it brings to mind the doomed lovers of so many noir pictures, though I had to admit to myself that doomed love isn’t in play here, and that Lizabeth Scott and Humphrey Bogart aren’t Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger. What remains when we consider the poster for Dead Reckoning is beauty — this is simply one of the most artful, emotional, and beautiful film posters ever made. Bogart’s name goes over any film title, so it’s nice to see that all the typography is so sensitively and perfectly handled nonetheless, and the image of the performers is simply heartbreaking. If anyone out there ever wondered why the husky-voice actress was a star, take a look at this poster. If anyone really wants to be blown away, seek out the all red, three-sheet version of this.
No bleeds, how cool is that! Have you ever seen a film poster without a border? Few have ever been made, and this is certainly the best of them. We’ve seen many limited color palettes, but none this limited — and it’s surprising to think that in the entire body of classic noir this is the only poster that uses black and white to such stunning effect, if at all! An outstanding poster is every regard, from the composition to the quality of the illustration, to the typography, and so forth. The image of Victor Mature perfectly summarizes his character’s frame of mind: world weary and terrified, constantly looking over his shoulder. Note also the way the letter “I” in “Kiss” is used to cleverly integrate type and image. I also love the subtle knife-shaped shadow speeding into Mature’s head from the right. This is pure film noir, the only thing missing is Tommy Udo and the wheelchair.
From the perspective of the graphic designer this is the greatest film poster of all time. No example from another era, nor one in another style, genre, or whatever you want to call it so perfectly (or simply) communicates the content of its film nearly as well as the poster for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. As I said last week, this isn’t a film that I respond to strongly, so I surprised myself a little by placing it here. In the end, doing so was simply unavoidable, and even my personal preferences couldn’t overcome the incredible power of this poster.
And what better kind of film to merit such a compliment as one about the movie industry itself? First, the designer must also be applauded for avoiding the obvious: the street sign. How easy it would have been to simply make a poster with a Sunset Blvd. sign and call it a day — sorry to those involved with the later musical, but there it is. The designer here dug deeper and uncovered the truth, and frankly, no poster solved with a mere street sign could ever do this movie justice. Even Billy Wilder understood this, as he opens not with the title on a street sign, but stenciled on the curb, next to the gutter. The poster itself is extremely simple — even minimal by 1950 Hollywood standards. It’s greatest strength is that unlike other film posters, and in spite of its own simplicity, it attacks the design problem with two concepts: the first is the filmstrip, the notion of which is at first almost a cliché, but it’s less about the filmstrip than it is the knot — making it appear as some sort of noose, drawing ever nearer and ever tighter around the neck of hack screenwriter Joe Gillis. The second is Gloria Swanson, whose Norma Desmond looms over this film like no other character had ever done before. The size relationship of the images is important as well, Desmond is a monstrosity: always present, larger than life, watching, ready to swoop down on Joe should he try to escape the filmic ‘knot’ in which she’s bound him. It speaks to the strength of the tandem concepts here that the poster could succeed conceptually if one or the other were removed — by taking out either he filmstrip or all of the images, yet because of the Spartan presentation they still coexist gloriously.
I’m sad to reach then end, but I can promise more posters and analysis in the future. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did, and I’ll be back soon with more film essays. See you then.