June 29, 2011


Let’s do it again! The noir poster countdown was such a success that I’ve decided to make poster rankings as much a regular feature of the blog as possible. Up next is classic science fiction. I chose sci-fi instead of horror (which is on the docket) because the genre is of slightly more interest to me. I confined my selections to films released from 1940 to 1960, which roughly parallels the period of classic film noir and is in keeping with WDL’s mid-century theme. While it’s easy enough to begin at 1940, some readers will undoubtedly point out that there were many brilliant, or at least notable, science fiction films made during the sixties, such as 2001, Fantastic Voyage, Barbarella, and many others. I chose to cut off at 1960 for a few reasons, the first being that I wanted to make an “apples to apples” comparison of posters: as much as it pained me to exclude at least one favorite (1961’s Mysterious Island), visual style evolved so rapidly in the sixties that by the time the iconic poster for Fantastic Voyage was created in ‘66, designers were making posters that had a markedly more modern look and feel from those of the fifties — such comparing and ranking was a can of works I was unwilling to open. Between you and me, Fantastic Voyage would have been the only other film poster with any real chance at cracking the top fifty:

I worked on this for about six weeks. It took a few weeks to narrow my choices down to the top 50, another session or two to develop a rough ranking, and then at least ten sessions of Photoshop work where I reevaluated all of my choices. I’m likely to make at least one or to more changes in the course of getting all the posts up. The noir countdown generated more than 200,000 hits, so I want to make sure I do my level best — all of those “commercial artists” (ouch!) who worked in anonymity deserve it.

These images are all fairly hi-res, so feel free to download as many as you like — they make a marvelous fodder for screen-savers. I have much larger print quality files than those posted here. If you’d like a set get in touch with me and we’ll figure something out.

As with the noir countdown, I gave myself a set of parameters from which to make selections. I’ll repeat them here, and briefly with every post. I learned the hard way that some of the readers of the noir countdown didn’t understand that it was a ranking of poster designs instead of the representative films, and were stymied when they couldn’t find the bright pink poster for Double Indemnity anywhere. With that in mind, I’ll leave a reminder with each of the five posts. Here though, just this once, is a fair amount of text about who I am and how I go about this:

This is not a ranking of science fiction movies themselves, but the posters that marketed them. In the real world I’m a university graphic design professor (as well as chair of the department of art and art history here at my school) and longtime professional designer. My designs have appeared in what designers refer to as “the annuals,” (like Print, How, and Graphis) more than 300 times. So while all of the choices shown here are subjective, there’s some small measure of heft behind my opinion.

Whats eligible:
1. Only films from 1940 –1960.
2. Only American issue posters of American films — no European versions: apples to apples, not apples to oranges.
3. Only standard one-sheets. (No half-sheets, 3 or 4 sheets, lobby cards, inserts, day bills, etc.)
4. No re-release, reprints, or retrospective posters allowed. Only original, first-run, theatrical release posters.

Judging criteria (In order of prominence):
1. Design / Artistic merit. Composition, color, balance, typography, use of illustration / photography, graphic power, etc.
2. Execution of Imagery. A new parameter for the Sci-Fi countdown because so many of the posters are illustrated. The trick is how well?
3. Concept. How well does the poster communicate the film’s message? Is the poster authentic? Is it misleading? Does it reach the intended audience?
4. Originality / Novelty. I reward artistic risk-takers!
5. The Blank Slate rule. All films are equal, from prestige production to Poverty Row. In all likelihood, many readers will not have heard of all films on the list, and many will be seeing the posters for the first time. That should be half the fun.
6. My personal taste … is the least significant of the criteria. My choices are guided primarily by the above, but it would absurd to imagine my personal likes and dislikes didn’t play some part in my choices. However I’m not hiding behind opinion: this is not a list of my favorites. This is an empirical ranking of what I consider to be the best, with my likes and dislikes shoved as far to the side as possible. And while any such list is, of course, purely opinion, not all opinions carry equal weight: this one is highly educated, professionally seasoned, and exercised daily! Oh, and I’m a pragmatist to boot!

50. Battle in Outer Space.
A great film to start with: get a load of everything happening here! We’ve got fighter jets squaring off against spacecraft in a scene reminiscent of Independence Day, a 2001-style space station, a well-rendered moonscape, and a pair of astronauts. The figures in the immediate foreground are striking, and anyone who was with me through the previous countdown knows this poster has two things I like: well-organized typography and well thought out fore-, middle-, and background. The sense of depth coupled with competent rendering makes this all work. Sure, it’s a little busy, but without a movie star or a rampaging beast, spaceman, or robot to showcase, or even a scantily clad girl, the artist did well with what the film provided.

49. Gamma People.
It didn’t take long for me to invoke a favored word, one I’ll use from time to time when discussing the posters: designerly. It usually means the image in question has idiosyncrasies that graphic designers in particular will be drawn to. Gamma People is such a poster, here’s why: The color scheme is unusual for a film poster, eschewing bright reds and yellows for turquoise and black — a color scheme oft-employed by contemporary designers. The use of a reversed, or photographic negative image is especially impressive as well, as is the substantial sense of pictorial depth the designer has created, solely through the scale of the marching “gamma people.” The waves emanating from the transmitter in the upper left corner are also an asset — we’ll see such waves again and again. They look good (they pop!), and also successfully tie together the disparate compositional elements in the design, as well as reinforcing the sense of depth by going “behind” the marching characters and pushing them forward. The typography here is nothing special, and I’m a little disappointed to see the film’s stars at the bottom. Nether Douglas or Bartok was ever such a star that I would acquiesce to their getting in the way of such a great design. This could have gone higher, but I’m comfortable with it here.

48. It Conquered the World.
See what I was saying about those waves? Here they are again. Roger Corman gives us a frightening creature here, the first of many on the way in the next few weeks. The same is true of the horrified woman in the foreground — we will see her time and again in the countdown, in many different guises and states of wakefulness. Fantastic creatures and damsels in distress are a few of the most popular poster tropes in classic science fiction. There are many others, and we’ll see them all in abundance before we reach #1: tanks and soldiers, people fleeing catastrophe, SEE! boxes, dinosaurs, buildings tumblings, and so forth. While one could argue that this genre in particular is populated with somewhat derivative posters, I’d argue that while we’ll see a few robots holding passed-out young women, the posters are all done with such expert skill and passion that they never feel like knock-offs of one another. Instead, vintage science fiction posters often capture extraordinary prices at auction, just as the films they represent have captured audiences for decades.

47. Mothra
Not much to note here beyond agreement with Pentagram partner Paula Scher: “Make it bigger.” This is a poster, just like the film, that benefits from making it bigger. Super-gigantic typography married to an equally huge image. The babes in the foreground and the jets in the background really give a powerful sense of scale to the type and image, while the stylish black tagline and the vibrant red background give this plenty of punch. The flames at the bottom of the title typography are a nice detail, as is the beautifully elegant rendering of Mothra’s antennae!

46. The Land Unknown
There were many dinosaur films produced in the fifties, yet most of the posters don’t cut the mustard. This is one of the better ones, wholly on the strength of Ken Sawyer’s excellent painting. I’m not buying the relationship of the T-Rex to the group of people standing at its feet, but there’s so much detail otherwise, especially in the “unimportant” areas of the composition, to make this poster a success. The couple in the foreground can take a flying leap as far as I’m concerned (you gotta let ‘em know there’s romance) — but the sea monster and the mountains in the background are positively Tolkien-esque. And how about that whirlybird?

45. Tobor the Great
Hopefully I won’t be giving too much away if I acknowledge that the poster for Forbidden Planet is still a few weeks away? At that time I’ll offer a more complete comparison of that poster to this one, but for now I think it’s important to point out that Tobor the Great is the earlier film by two years, and consequently can make a claim to having the original image. Yet it falls much further back in the countdown because, in spite of what’s become an iconic image in the annals of science fiction, the poster here just isn’t as well designed. The typography is carelessly arranged — shoved and crowded into the corners of the poster, with the title type covering up important parts of the central image. Audiences wanted to see the robot, not the type! Let’s design a poster that can gracefully show both. Two more quick notes: what is that diagonal slash that divides the poster in two? Surely it doesn’t need to be there. And finally, take a close look at the body angles of the robot and the girl: Tobor is seen in a three-quarters view, while the girl appears in profile. For this to hold water, she would have to be a cardboard cutout. An iconic poster, but crudely rendered.

44. Invaders from Mars
Here’s another poster with a creature holding an unconscious girl — I told you there would be plenty of them, just wait! Yet in this poster the relationship of the two figures is much more believable. We also have tanks and army men with guns trained on the invaders, as well as a terrified group of people running away from certain destruction. While this is a well-composed and skillfully rendered poster, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that the titular invaders are nothing more than actors in tossed-together get ups — and it hurts the overall impact of the poster. This is particularly surprising considering the film was directed by famed production designer William Cameron Menzies. The overall feel of the film is surreal and beautiful, but the 'martians' themselves leave a lot to be desired. In this instance I would have encouraged the artist to be a little more creative in trying to hide the cheapness of the film’s costume design — even if some measure of artistic license could have been taken. I’d also seek some improvement in the title typography, which is stacked and difficult to read; it even gets lost amidst the colorful artwork around it. To its credit, and as opposed to the Tobor poster, the text typography, or “fine print,” is deftly handled. Nonetheless, I’d happily hang this one on my wall.

43. Not of This Earth
This is the first poster I struggled to place, another gem from Roger Corman. I’m not very happy with the color scheme or the overall graphic impact of the design, but I appreciate the simple image-type-image horizontal arrangement and the clever way the tagline is stacked into the composition. However my primary reason for including the poster in the countdown is the use of the extreme close-up of the female character’s face — which more than almost any other poster in the countdown, anticipates the design tropes of later decades — though if for better or worse I’m not certain. This poster could have been improved by eliminating the gray text box at the bottom and extending the artwork through the entire image area. There would have been plenty of room at the lower right to easily include such a small amount of text type.

42. The Lost Missile
Hooray for SEE! boxes. This odd poster is the first to have them, and while they aren’t very well organized in this example (they come at the expense of title typography that is too small to be so busy), such boxes are one of the campiest and best-known aspects of science fiction posters. This is such an offbeat poster though — more suggestive of Luis Buñuel than Lester Berke, with its surreal disembodied eye and colossal hand. All of the elements in the composition seem cobbled together in a way that brings to mind the use of clip-art — get a load of those buildings in the background — but the overall effect is unsettling, and ultimately pleasing. This might improve if the SEE! boxes could be nixed and title was scaled to encompass the entire bottom of the poster. However upon reading the content of the boxes it becomes clear how necessary the producers felt they were to properly sell the picture.

41. I Married a Monster from Outer Space
If you haven’t seen this, I suggest you do so — in spite of a title that drips camp, the movie itself is surprising and universally exceeds viewer expectations. The poster hits a home run for simplicity. Red, yellow, and black are oft-utilized colors in poster design from this or any genre, and this is a good example of why such colors work: when juxtaposed correctly they create a lot of graphic zing— making a poster stand out on a crowded wall. Don’t forget the value of a poster that tells a story, giving viewers enticing hints about the narrative Even though this design uses just a few simple images and, for once, no tagline, it provides plenty of information about what we can expect if we buy a ticket. I also appreciate that the aliens are merely suggested, leaving something to the imagination and making them all the more frightening because of it. The designer of the poster for Invaders from Mars would benefit from viewing this one.

Back next Tuesday with ten more!

June 20, 2011


“You know it’s real funny. Since I’ve been on the force I’ve been around hoods and thieves and killers, the real stinking part of the human race. I always wondered if it would rub off on me. Now I know.”


Most people who stumble upon 1960’s Cage of Evil won’t linger much before they start trolling for something else to watch. Yet it’s the sort of thing that I luxuriate in; 70 minutes of pulpy goodness, with sharp stylish dialogue and a second-rate cast giving it everything they’ve got. It’s made on the cheap, with every B movie trick in the book: unfamiliar performers, cheap sets, rear projection, long takes, and so forth — half the plot is related through voiceover narration. Even with its 1960 release date, it still exists in that magical, purely cinematic world that lent itself to such delightful crime films — the one in which a police officer who skews towards brutality wasn’t looked at with scorn by his fellow officers and the LAPD brass. Such cops and cultures don’t function well in the world away from the screen (as the long and storied history of the real LAPD easily demonstrates), but they sure make great fodder for films and pulp novels. In the case of this film, a culture inclusive of the brutal police officer is quite necessary: Cage of Evil would never get off the ground if its protagonist’s violent behavior made him a suspect in the eyes of his colleagues. Instead, he enjoys the support of his fellow officers and the encouragement of his captain. He’s clearly the sort of officer that Dudley Smith would want in his LAPD. (Edgy detectives would become the heroes of seventies films, then cartoonish superheroes during the eighties. By the early nineties they would demonized in a spate of “internal affairs” thrillers.)

The film stars Ron Foster, the kind of squinty, oily actor who does every scene with a cigarette in his hand. Plenty good looking enough with carved features and a dour expression, Foster was cut from the right cloth to play Detective Scott Harper, a cop who gets passed over one time too many and decides to take his chances on the opposite side of the law. His slicked-back jet hair and habit of looking at his costars crossways only add to his unctuous credibility. Harper’s hardboiled bona fides are established early on, when he beats up a hapless diamond cutter on the slight suspicion the man may have abetted in the diamond heist central to the story. It costs him dearly: even after having placed third on the lieutenants’ exam, Harper gets passed over for the promotion when the jeweler signs a complaint.

Foster has had a surprisingly long career in Hollywood considering how spotty his resume is. After starring in a number of B films in the late fifties and early sixties with director Eddie Cahn (including this one), he spent most of the last fifty years appearing sporadically in character roles on television. He had a recurring role in the cop series Highway Patrol, but his longest run was during the mid-nineties on the CBS soap Guiding Light. More recently Foster has lent his voice to popular video games such as Max Payne and Grant Theft Auto.

Pat Blair plays Holly Taylor, the ‘hostess’ who acts as a go between for the diamond thieves and their San Francisco fence. Harper goes undercover to get next to her, and naturally they fall for each other — in pure Phyllis Dietrichson style, she sweet talks Harper into crashing the exchange and murdering everyone involved, but on the other hand she sticks with him even after she finds out he’s a cop! Like many other cheap crime movies, Cage of Fear is heavy on plot and light on character motivation; anyone who forgets that going in is bound to exit disappointed.

Blair is a doll, though she must have grimaced at her image on the film’s lobby card. (By the way, Her eyes don't really look like that, and the set up depicted appears nowhere in the film.) Pushing six feet in heels she runs the risk of towering over the guy opposite her, but she and Foster have surprisingly good chemistry. It took me a little while to make up my mind about her — her facial features and statuesque figure make her come over more like a contestant in the Miss America pageant, but after a change in hairstyle and wardrobe I was on the same page as the casting director. I knew Blair previously as the second female lead in the better-known 1956 film noir Crime Against Joe, but she surpasses that work here. There are still a few green moments during the Cage’s final action sequence, but for the most part Blair shines — especially in those sultry moments opposite Foster. Blair is somewhat more conspicuous than Foster — she had a seven year run opposite Fess Parker on the popular Daniel Boone series.

The arc of the story should be familiar by now: cop gets the shaft, meets a bad girl, and does the crooked thing. Cage of Evil ends along those same lines, though it manages to spin a few of the more tired clichés along refreshing lines. The climax cleverly borrows from Kubrick’s The Killing in a way that almost feels more like homage than outright theft. It’s also slickly ironic: in a sea of films that find their protagonists desperately attempting to make it across the border into Mexico, ours manage to do it in style — yet they bungle their getaway nevertheless.

Cage of Evil is not shot in the noir style, but I was still struck by the economical filmmaking. Cahn almost always uses middle-length shots with a single camera set-up and TV style lighting. This technique has ruined plenty of good material, but he manages to pull it off through pans and zooms, particularly when his characters relocate from one spot to another on a given set in between zooms. He gets a lot of bang for his production dollar by moving his actor about, and the movie feels more prestigious than it really is. Rear is used whenever characters are driving around Los Angeles, but those shots are bookended quite effectively with on-location exteriors at assorted LA locales. One of the rear-projection moments is striking: as Harper and Taylor are making their getaway, he uses the pause at a red light to explain to her why they have to run, “you can never surrender on a double-murder charge.” As he speaks, a large sedan barrels toward them from behind. The car’s arrival on their back bumper coincides with the best part of Foster’s monologue. Though it’s possible the moment may have been inadvertent, the notion of pursuing fate as embodied by heavy Detroit metal makes the moment powerful. The sense of clever B moviemaking evaporates just afterwards, as the rear projection shows Harper’s car turning into the airport parking lot, while his hands remain stalwartly at ten-and-two.

None of this stuff should amount to anything, but Cage of Evil is a much stronger film than I imagined it would be, and it lends a great deal of credibility to the notion that a movie rendered in earnest doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. This title is available instantly on Netflix, and is worth a shot.

Cage of Evil (1960)
Directed by Edward Cahn
Produced by Robert Kent
Written by Orville Hampton and Alexander Richards
Starring Ron Foster, Patricia Blair, and Harp McGuire
Cinematography by Maury Gertsman
Art Direction by Serge Krizman
Released by United Artists
Running time: 71 minutes

June 18, 2011

The Professor is dead. Long live Netflix!

A few days ago, Netflix took another step in their determined plan to remove all user-generated content from their site. They nixed all avatars, profiles, and individual user review pages. Now all reviews show up in an anonymous format, consequently denying customers the ability to peruse all of the reviews written by any given member, and queue rentals from those pages. The links to commentary from Roger Ebert and other pros are gone altogether. It seems that corporate Netflix has decided to create a video-store approach to the way they do business, thinking that all most consumers need is box art and a blurb; if someone wants to read reviews from critics or other users, they can visit IMDb to do so. The reviews are still present in their generic form, but they’ll be gone before too much time passes. (If you have reviews, I’d begin the process of archiving them via a Word document.) The link to the Netflix Blog where this all is announced can be found here. The blog post certainly insults the intelligence, but there you have it.

Over the past few years Netflix has steadily shifted their focus from DVD to streaming, something that will continue into the future until at some point the streaming catalog becomes so robust that DVDs are discontinued (woe be to the USPS when that happens, they’ll probably drop Saturday delivery before much longer). This is going to happen eventually folks — DVDs simply won’t be viable forever. And along the way Netflix discovered something about the way their service is used that they couldn’t have imagined in the days before streaming: for many people $8.99 a month for unlimited streaming, especially considering the extraordinary amount of television that is available, is a much better option than $99.99 a month for cable. Besides, it makes a lot of sense for Netflix to get out of the mail order business as soon as they can profitably do so. They no longer reorder titles when their stock of discs are lost, damaged, or stolen — they simply apply the dreaded green “save” button to that title’s page. (That button used to have a purpose: one could “save” a title, and when Netflix restocked it would automatically be queued. Now it almost always means the title will never be available. These days when I see that button I know to go ahead and request such a film via interlibrary loan.)

I’ve paid very close attention to the way Netflix does business over the last ten years, and I’ve even gotten to know a few key employees. Here’s one thing I’ve learned: Netflix, in spite of some well-publicized blunders, is one of the most well-run companies in the world, and they make decisions with the goal of pleasing the largest segment of their customer base. Unfortunately for hardcore movie fans, that biggest of segments is not comprised of people who are interested in watching Children of Paradise. Instead, Netflix is thinking about the folks who want to stream an episode of Ice Road Truckers at the end of a hard day’s work — and there’s not a thing wrong with that. The dirty little secret that the executives at Netflix know through and through is that they don’t have to cater to the movie buffs — the people who write reviews and read pages of them before queueing a film — because pretty much no matter what happens we aren’t cancelling our Netflix memberships. For the time being, there’s just nowhere else you can rent a copy of Children of Paradise.

The Netflix website is constantly changing — many power users would say for the worst. Whenever a site feature has been removed or modified there’s an uproar from the heavy users that lasts a few weeks over at the Netflix Ning Community and in the comments section of Hacking Netflix posts. Meanwhile, the changes barely register with the broad customer base — or if noticed, they are usually met with approval. The most beloved of all these dead or dying aspects of the Netflix site were the community features: ratings, reviews, reviewer ranking, profile pages, similarity percentages, friends and fan lists, the ability to view a friend’s queue, those blasted notes, and so forth. All gone or on the way out soon. And while I’ll miss many of these things as much as the people ranting at Hacking Netflix, I recognize that things change quickly in life as on the Internet, and nothing as cool as the community features on Netflix could last forever. It’s also worth pointing out that Netflix is a spectacular success story. They stay far ahead of the curve and have made few, if any, poor business decisions. Whatever they want to do to their site is fine by me. The only part of this that really scares me is that Netflix seems unwilling to maintain their service in order to please multiple demographics, and I'm in the demographic that no longer appears relevant to them.

But I loved writing the reviews! And I certainly would never have turned to blogging if I hadn’t begun writing on Netflix. I’ve been a loyal customer for a very long time — a decade — almost the entire time Netflix has been in business. (Heck, I remember credits and cardboard mailers!) In that time I’ve contributed nearly 1,000 reviews to their site; and in so doing I’ve made many friends and received hundreds of valued film suggestions from them. I posted my email and blog address on my profile page and received a dozen letters a week and a ton of blog traffic from fellow movie fans — I love hearing “Hey, you’re The Professor!” It has been a blast, and I enjoy that people in the blogging community see my avatar and know me from Netflix. (Funny story: while I am a college professor, the name is only a coincidence — I got the nickname The Professor years before playing NTN trivia. Wednesday nights were “beat The Professor nights” at my local Buffalo Wild Wings. If anyone in the restaurant could beat me at trivia, they’d get a $50 gift certificate. If I won all the games each week I got a C-note. In two years I only lost twice, but the stress and all the free wings took years off my life!)

The Netflix experience was most enjoyable when all of the community features were going strong. Being a competitive lunatic, I was a sucker for the reviewer ranking. Since I had already written many reviews before the system was implemented, I debuted with a fairly high number: #44. In the years that followed my ranking got better and better, reaching a high point of #11. Looks like I’ll go out at #18. Considering that the ranking algorithm skewed for members who made lists of new release titles and soft-core porn, I was sort of proud of my high number because I never did such things. (I believe that three of the top ten members and eight of the top 25 were folks who had never written a review.) However, the reviewer ranking system brought out the worst in a lot of people, and that’s one of the reasons that seeing all this go away will be a relief. Admitting my personal attachment to my rank was, and is, a little stupid and embarrassing, but I never recruited a bunch of followers to “+1” all of my reviews in order to move up the list. Nor did I date my submissions so my cronies would know where they left off the previous week. I also never used the accounts feature to create four surrogate selves to “+5” my reviews either — but I sure know a lot of strange, lonely people who chose to do so. Some actually started web sites to coordinate their efforts! So if for no other reason I’m happy to see the reviews becoming completely anonymous so all of that nonsense will stop. The biggest problem with those folks was that they were mostly awful reviewers, and in many instances their reviews were the only ones visible for certain films. That was OK with me though, 27 Dresses never made it into my queue.

Here’s one thing I remember though: for me, and I’m sure for many of you, patronizing Netflix has been an enriching experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Netflix is without a doubt the single most valuable movie resource out there, and if it doesn’t make me appear too much like some capitalistic robot by showing gratitude to a profit-hungry corporation, I sure do offer Netflix my gratitude. And while they are removing the peripheral aspects of their web site that I enjoy using the most, I realize two things: Netflix is free to run their business how they see fit, and in the end it isn’t all about what I feel entitled to.