April 18, 2013

75 GREATEST MOVIE POSTERS of NEO-NOIR! SINGLE POST EDITION!

Hi all — here are all 75 posters from my the recent countdown in a single post! Enjoy the posters, and for those of you curious about neo-noir, hopefully this countdown will put some new movies on your list! 

Unlike the classic film noir period, which lasted from the early forties to the late fifties, neo-noir has been part of the cinematic landscape for fifty years. So don’t be surprised to see a poster that was created in the 60s next to one for a film that was released a year or two ago. It was certainly a challenge to sort through all the candidates, and then to lend appropriate consideration to the evolving style of poster design, as well as printing and production techniques spanning such a broad length of time.

Who the heck am I to be doing this? In the real world I’m a university graphic design professor and longtime professional designer. My designs have appeared in what professionals refer to as “the annuals,” (like PrintHow, and Graphis) more than 300 times — and I’ve been collecting one-sheets and studying film poster design for as long as I can remember.

Before we plunge into the posters themselves, let me refresh you on the ground rules: First and foremost, this countdown is about design. This is a ranking of poster designs, not of the films themselves.

What’s eligible:
First-run, theatrical release one-sheet posters for American neo-noir films from the past five decades, For the sake of having more posters to choose from, my definition of neo-noir was much more relaxed than it is when I’m writing about film noir.

Judging criteria (In order of prominence):
  • Design and Artistic merit. Composition, color, balance, typography, strength of illustration or photography, graphic power, etc.
  • Concept. How well does the poster communicate the film’s message? Is the poster true to the film? Is it misleading? Does it reach the intended audience?
  • Originality and Novelty. I reward artistic risk-takers!
  • The Blank Slate rule. All films are equal. Chinatown’s poster doesn’t get an advantage for representing one of the great American films. 
  • My personal taste. The least significant of the criteria. My choices are guided primarily by the above criteria, though my personal preferences must come into play somewhere. And while any such list is by nature subjective, not all opinions carry equal weight: I’ve spent the entirety of my adult life teaching design and advertising professionals how to successfully tackle design problems and communicate their clients’ messages.

75. Wild at Heart (1990)

(I’m going to try to keep my blurbs as brief as possible this time around, I’m not quite certain that enough readers are sufficiently interested in design analysis to keeping writing such lengthy breakdowns — but I will when moved to do so. Humor me.)

A solid poster to kick this thing off. Classic noir really influenced the way I chose to rank certain posters, and Wild at Heart is a good reason why. Although the style in play here is clearly indicative of the years of the film’s release, the presentation of the ‘fugitive couple,’ situated by their car against a night sky. It harkens back to a dozen vintage noir films. The poster is vibrant, kinetic, and sexually charged — this pair never looked better. 



74. Revenge (1990)

I don’t love this poster, but it is one of the better examples of a stylistic cliché that ran amok in movie posters from the 80s and 90s: the glamour shot knocked out of some defining shape, set against a (typically) white background. Stowe and Costner are awfully good-looking, but I dislike how they stare directly into the camera. What really makes this work is the interesting hand shape, and the nice detail of the fingerprints. The smeared wrist is indicative of impending violence — which is subtly reinforced by the small silhouette of a gun-toting Anthony Quinn — himself no longer pretty enough to rate a mug shot on the poster, in spite of second billing!



73. Mulholland Falls (1996)

A trio of 90s posters to start the countdown. If you are waiting for those gritty classics from the 70s, stick with me — they’re locked and loaded. One of the things I quickly realized when putting this together is that although the neo-noir era spans many more years than that of classic noir, far fewer films have been produced. I selected this list from just over 200 posters (as opposed to 700 or so for the classic countdown) and was dismayed to find that so many of the neo-noir designs were not just not distinctive, but often painfully redundant and occasionally even insulting. While the low budget classic noirs often boasted the best posters, the low-budget neos … don’t — tending to dwell exclusively on the female form, but without the panache that characterized so many of the classic designs.

The poster for Mulholland Falls exhibits another one of those design clichés, in this case one that continues to dominate current Hollywood film posters: the floating head shots. That being said there’s a lot to love here. As a period film this is dripping with vintage style, and you have to LOVE a poster that actually depicts a character smoking. This poster is atmospheric and mysterious; and the view of L.A. from the hills is a powerful draw to fans of film noir. The deco-style type treatment was tedious by 1996, but it’s used sparingly enough in this example to still be compelling.



72. Black Widow (1987)

Here we go with the big heads again, this time from 1987. I’m placing the poster for Black Widow one spot higher, if only for the sake of its earlier release. And even though this poster also uses typefaces inspired by the art deco period, I respond strongly not only to the claustrophobic relationship of the star names to the film title, but to the creativity of the title typography itself. Certainly the poster lacks the atmosphere and the slickness of the Mulholland Falls design, but I’ll take Theresa Russell over Nick Nolte any day.



71. Brainstorm (1965)

Clearly influenced by the iconic Saul Bass posters for films such as Anatomy of a Murder and Vertigo, the art for Brainstorm is amateurish in comparison, but scores a ton of points for being so offbeat. I like its stark simplicity, but have to cringe a little when I think of the extraordinary two-color film posters produced by Warner Bros. in the previous decade. The patented white frame is still there, as is the strict organization of the text at the bottom — but this is merely a shadow of what had once been.



70. Warning Shot (1967)

Famous faces galore populate this off-beat Paramount product starring David Janssen, of The Fugitive fame. I’m a little unclear on whether this film was made for the small or large screen, but the poster is engaging: well organized spaces and interesting title typography. I’m liking the playful language, and the fact that the poster design isn’t overly concerned with all those guest stars.



69. The Naked Kiss (1964)

Fuller’s strange cult classic is one of the original neo noirs, and the poster is one of the few you’ll see here that is done in the classic style. Three distinctive image areas create a sense of depth and dramatic scale, while the big tagline at the top keeps your eyes from leaving the composition. Not enough negative space, but I applaud the designer for not spoiling the film’s big secret, as the designer of the film’s Criterion DVD packaging recently did.



68. The Outfit (1973)

The poster for The Naked Kiss is more appealing at first glance to me, but upon further consideration I realized there’s more to appreciate in the design for The Outfit than is apparent at first glance. This is one of the first posters to so exhaustively utilize photo collage, and although some of the images at the bottom aren’t very compelling, it’s worth remembering that this was created well before the computer era. And while there seems to be no underlying grid structure to ground the type, the poster’s ample negative space really brings the photocomposition to life. Get a load of that 70s MGM logo — yuck.



67. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

What a hot mess this thing is — the designer in me aches! There’s so much happening in this poster — good and bad — that it becomes extremely difficult to rank. On one hand, the title typography and the accompanying political pin / playing card image is astonishing — the perfect distillation of the film, and one of incredible graphic power. On the other hand is just about everything else: the silly tagline, the crushing / crowding weight of the stars’ names, and the confusing illustrations at the top. Here’s a poster that could have been one of the all-time greats, but the studio couldn’t leave it alone.  Just for fun, I’ve tossed in a quick Photoshop iteration of what I think this poster ought to have looked like! 

66. Dark City (1998)

I’d rank this is higher if the title typography had the same grit as the image. Instead it’s more evocative of science fiction. Nonetheless, the clock motif and the isolated, pained protagonist set against a bleak urban landscape is what noir is all about.



65. Hammett (1982)

We’ve already gotten a little taste of it in the posters for The Outfit and The Manchurian Candidate, but here’s the most prominent appearance so far of the design cliché that characterizes neo noir posters possibly more than any other: the protagonist who is shooting at us!  In spite of the vast array of posters I’ve seen over the years, I wasn’t aware of how often this particular device is used in neo-noir advertising imagery. At the end of the countdown I’ll total them up, but in the meantime pay attention to how often this is used. As for this particular poster, score one for illustration and all-around retro style. The stacked “character” boxes on the right bring to mind the posters of the 50s, and I love the subtle visual surprised on the $50 bill tucked into the top of the design. All of the additional text type makes for an awfully busy poster though.



64. Hickey & Boggs (1972)

If you do nothing else, read the short narrative at the center of this poster — who writes this stuff? That last line, “something … anything” — what nihilism! I’m not claiming that this is a pretty poster, or even a very well designed one — it isn’t. But it does have a healthy amount of camp value, and within the grand scheme of neo-noir posters, it’s certainly an original. I would’ve actually rated this a little higher if the photos of Culp and Cos didn’t seem quite so obviously staged.



63. The Money Trap (1965)

Good poster in the classic vein, if only it wasn’t so pink! Nice concept and execution on the title typography, accompanied by a novel arrangement of the text elsewhere.


62. One False Move (1992)

By the early 90s the Apple Macintosh, along with software applications like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Quark XPress, and Aldus Pagemaker and Freehand had fully revolutionized the graphic design industry. This evolving technology gave designers the power to play with scale, transparency, and mood with previously unheard of ease and versatility — all readily apparent in this poster. The full-bleed single photograph, layered with gigantic transparent typography, screams 90s to graphic design veterans, but it’s still a great poster. Also worth noting that the image depicts a cop killing — pretty daring stuff.


61. The Onion Field (1979)

It’s no accident that I’ve paired the poster for The Onion Field with that of One False Move. They are practically twins! In spite of the slickness and technical virtuosity (for its day) of the previous poster, this one is superior. Both depict similar subject matter, but the designs differ along much the same lines that the films do. Where One False Move sensationalizes vivid, cinematic brutality, The Onion Field is a subtler, nuanced, and far more cerebral look at what happens after the crimes have been committed. Its quiet poster design appeals to the imagination and sense of mystery, asking viewers to consider “What’s about to happen?” rather than the poster for One False Move, which instead pleads for your attention.



60. Night Moves (1975)

Well-organized spaces, good use of black, quality illustration, intriguing references to the narrative — what’s not to like here!?! Night Moves offers up a fine all-around poster, even if it lacks the impact of some of the designs we’ll see later on. My favorite part is the isolation of the color red in the title typography. It acts as a visual exclamation point and really makes the title of the film stand out against the busy illustration. By the way, if you haven’t seen this film yet, jump in your prowl car and go grab one from the evidence room — it truly is one of the best neo-noirs.



59. Body Heat (1981)

Sex! After-sex cigarettes! Kathleen Turner! This is a good poster that could have been great. Compositionally it’s well done; the reverse “L” shape of the photography allows for the typography to play a prominent part in the design, without making the whole feel crowded. And yet William Hurt isn’t cutting it here; is he dead, sleeping, thinking? Why isn’t he looking her? One would imagine that with this film title the characters would be more engaged on the poster. And why isn’t that darned text at the top properly aligned? 





58. Brick (2005)

This offbeat poster for the offbeat high-school noir Brick suffers from too much genre confusion for my tastes, but I appreciate its daring departure from contemporary film poster conventions. Think about it: no photography, no gigantic typography, no movie star faces, and no garish, attention-grabbing colors. Instead it’s graced by an elegantly rendered illustration that manages to attract all the necessary attention by simply being unconventional. The illustration is dark, moody, and a little unsettling. If it didn’t so easily bring to mind the horror genre I’d love it even more.



57. Targets (1968)

Like the poster for BrickTargets features an unusual design. It has the “ripped from the headlines” look of a grocery store tabloid, characterized by heavy black sans-serif letters against a white background, and the sensationalized tagline. The letterforms used for the title (as well as the illustration technique) date the poster, but the clever use of the bullet holes as the counters (design jargon!) in the A and R, and as punctures in the G and S, go a long way towards conceptually redeeming the design — especially given their proximity to the crosshairs/face graphic.



56. Charley Varrick (1973)

In spite of the fact that Charley Varrick has a few surprisingly brutal scenes, it remains a film with an identity crisis, punctuating its violence with moments that seem altogether too light. Even though the typestyle of the title and taglines seem more indicative of a sitcom than a film noir, all the elements in play, from the typography to the illustration — to the colors, composition, frame, and negative space — are so strong that this poster succeeds. I can even forgive the obvious riff on North by Northwest.



55. Memento (2000)

If ever a poster made me angry, it’s this one. What a great idea this has though! Playing off a popular comic book cover device — the infinity image — the poster for Memento is almost great. Certainly it could be ranked much higher than I have it here. But just as I’d penalize my young designers letter grades for making this terribly lazy design decision, I have to take points away from this poster.

What bothers me so much, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you: When a designer wants a type solution that is meant to appear as if it were lettered by hand, then it should actually be lettered by hand. If you look at the film’s title, it’s apparent that it really was hand lettered — or at least, mouse-rendered with a brush in Photoshop (easy to see if you know what to look for). At any rate, the designer made an effort on the important type, great job! But, when we look just above the title at the names of the actors, a typeface that is meant to resemble handwriting was used. Now I realize that this may not bother — or even register — with most viewers, but I live in a world of designer-wannabes with unlimited access to shoddy web typefaces. Professionals have to go the extra mile to make their work truly original, to separate themselves from hacks and create value for their own stuff. A loving devotion to typography is one of the many ways in which we do so — anyone can download a typeface. I’d make a student do the darn thing over! 



54. Heist (2001)

Quite a lot to like about this poster for Heist, particularly the fragmented space and juxtaposition of color and black and white photography. The typography is especially pleasing — I applaud the designer for establishing a grid system and then allowing Hackman’s name to break through to a neighboring rectangle. Again this may not seem like a big deal, but as someone who sees beginning designers struggle to establish compositional grid systems (and advanced designers struggle to break them, once established), this poster is pretty exciting.

The larger observation here (beyond noting that for once Danny DeVito is depicted with a serious expression on his face) is how this poster is essentially a contemporary update of the classic noir poster style. If you look back at the posters ranked in that countdown, you’ll see that like Heist, those posters were typically collaged from publicity photos and actions stills, and always featured a healthy dose of violence and a come-hither girl.



53. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Rule number one for poster design: it has to attract attention from far away — and oddly enough this is where many film posters fall short (though it also explains the ‘gigantic heads’ we see in so many posters these days). Everyday design professionals rarely create anything near the size of a 27X40 film poster (all too often we only get to make 11X17 glorified flyers), and it seems that film poster designers often take the large format for granted, including too much detail at the expense of what we call “pop.” The poster for Reservoir Dogs pops: simple composition, high-contrast colors, and big, bold type give it a ton of graphic power. Put it in a marquee row outside a multiplex with other movie posters and this is the one that commands attention. It’s every bit as powerful from the parking lot as it is from the sidewalk. Some might point out that the use of Photoshop filters is painfully obvious, but I’m happy to chalk that up to the novelty of 1992.

One quibble: Wouldn’t it be fantastic (and clever)  if instead of letting the cardboard texture show through, Keitel’s shirt was white?



52. The Late Show (1977)

This one’s for you, Richard Amsel. This extraordinary illustrator was lost to AIDS in 1985 at the age of 37. His death brought to an end a spectacular career in the arts. Amsel was the creative force behind many legendary film posters, including The StingThe ShootistMad Max, and most famously, Raiders of the Lost Ark. He also completed numerous magazine and LP covers, and in 1977 actually rendered Lily Tomlin twice, on the poster for The Late Show, and then again on one of Time’s most memorable covers. We’ll see his special draftsmanship again in this countdown, but for now check out Art Carney and Tomlin in Amsel’s logo-style treatment of The Late Show.

Ugh — give me the Oxford comma!



51. Pretty Poison (1968)

Undoubtedly this poster is a product of its era, and I’ve located it here primarily because it is so out of character compared to the typical neo-noir image. The sense of scale is interesting — dig the two female figures rendered in white — but the poster is most jarring in how directly confrontational the drawing of Perkins and Weld (vapid expressions in place) is — as they point what appears to be a rather large hand cannon directly at us!



50. Jagged Edge (1985)

Much more successful than the poster for Revenge (#74), I like how the characters depicted here seem more engaged with each other than they are with us. And the contrast between the knife shape and the passive expressions on their faces tells us a great deal about the nature of the story. Also: excellent use of negative space. This is a poster that confidently directs the viewer’s eye.



49. Black Dahlia (2006)

When this film (finally) adaptation of James Ellroy’s fantastic novel was announced, one of the first things I wondered was how the designer would tackle the poster. The temptation to sensationalize the gruesome death of Elizabeth Short would most likely prove too strong to resist. I had visions of suggestive blood splatters, unattached body parts, and gritty, deconstructed typography. I was pleasantly surprised when the poster was released, as it proved to be not only subtle, but highly conceptual and quite elegantly rendered.



48. Basic Instinct (1992)

Helen of Troy had the face that launched a thousand ships, but Basic Instinct (and Sharon Stone) launched a thousand neo-noirs. It turned out to be one of the biggest star-turns in recent decades — note that in spite of that fact the Sharon Stone is the focal point of the design, the only name featured is that of Michael Douglas. Nonetheless, this is one of the more sexually charged posters in the countdown, and one of the few that brazenly promises a classic femme fatale. Love that white dress…


47. Year of the Dragon (1985)

What I love about this poster is how the designer has created a sense of depth by having Mickey Rourke’s figure over- and underlapping the Chinese glyphs that comprise the entire image area of the composition. On the other hand, I wish a little more thought or effort had been put into the clumsy ‘spotlight’ shape that surrounds them. Beyond that, the conservative typography compels the eye to focus on the action at the poster’s center, while giving the whole a balanced simplicity. A straightforward poster design, but a good one too. I also like the subtle nod to the Polanski classic in the upper tagline: “It’s Chinatown.”



46. The Conversation (1974)

Not a great deal to say about this poster, beyond noting its attention to detail. It sports a surprisingly complex illustration, yet it appears simple — or rather, quiet — and in doing so whispers a great deal to us about the narrative. Note the subtle reference to violence suggested by the sniper’s scope that takes the place of one of the tape reels, and the overall somber tone of the poster. This isn’t an action film, and the poster intrigues without lying to us. Exquisitely executed, and the concentric circles that form the film title make a minor masterpiece.  





45. Sea of Love (1989)

Quickly becoming a classic poster, Sea of Love is also a film that nudged me deeper into the world of film noir when I first saw it in the theater. The type area at the bottom is a little too dense, and the poster as a whole is marred by the typographic star-treatment that Pacino gets (some things about film posters never change!) — but the Bond-style pose and its controlled interaction with the large image in the background are striking.




44. The Border (1982)

If you’ve never see The Border, do so. The poster uses language to make some bold claims about the film’s appeal, but it generally backs them up — this is a good movie with a strong cast and a convoluted, morally ambiguous narrative that places it squarely in the realm of film noir. What I appreciate about the poster design are the rather subtle details: notice that the flag is on the opposite side of the chain link fence, suggesting that the Nicholson character is somehow on the wrong side of the border, or even that there is a very real barrier separating him from the flag, and everything it stands for. Those are the biggest chain links I’ve ever seen, and the fade-out used to transition from the flag are to the text is clumsy, but the poster is original and challenging. And designers: How often do you actually get to see ITC Eras put to such good use?





43. Thief (1981)

Great wordmark! The fewer the letters, the more difficult it is to make compelling, and the easier it is to take for granted — yet Thief stands out like a beacon in this design, in all of its 1981 glory. Beyond the type, I appreciate the pre-computer layering of a threshold-style image of James Caan against a photographic background with safe sparks flying.





42. Sharkey’s Machine (1981)

This isn’t a great poster — there are plenty of better ones in the countdown. But it scores in a big way for being so bloody bizarre. Looking at it today, one could easily believe that Sharkey’s Machine is a comedy in the same style as the Naked Gun films. There’s an unmistakable quality of campiness going here that I would be foolish to attempt to dodge. But be that as it may, the centered composition, the highly contrived (and surprisingly successful) photo-illustration, and the wonderful neon light title typography (you have no idea how incredibly difficult that is to render!) really demands that viewers take this poster seriously. Burt’s shoes notwithstanding, there’s a lot to like here. I mean, c’mon, Bernie Casey rules!





41. The Nickel Ride (1974)

Is it a photograph or is it an illustration? I think the answer is a little bit of both. This is one of the stranger films in the countdown, characterized by the ‘gritty aloofness’ that was emblematic of so many 70s crime films. While I like the imagery here very much, and I love the logo-style treatment of the title typography, I certainly wish they were better integrated — combined in such a way that the large image in the box weren’t so arbitrary. Looking at the composition this way, it’s as if any scene from the film could be pictured in the box — and we want a poster where the two images presented share a relationship that means that neither one could be ‘swapped out.’




40. The Parallax View (1974)

Designers will call this a ‘designerly’ poster — meaning it offers a happy blending of high concept and graphic boldness that is a clear departure from typical film poster design, the sort of trendsetting poster that most designers would give their eye-teeth to claim as their own. The limited color palette and the thoughtful reinforcement of the concept via the style of the title type is what pushes this over the top. In a wall of film posters, this one shouts at you.





39. Magnum Force (1973)

The great comic book artist, Jack Kirby, would be proud of this poster. The extreme foreshortening of Dirty Harry’s famous revolver is incredible: the hand cannon seems to be bursting forth from the picture-plane. Combined with the overall simplicity of the rest of the poster, it makes for a design that is as nearly as powerful as the .44 magnum. Notice especially how the typography is nestled up against the imagery, and presented in a striking diagonal with color used to draw attention to the film title. The ample negative (white) space is surprising for a poster promoting a major motion picture — can you imagine how busy and garish the poster would be if this film were released today? No thanks!




38. 12 Monkeys (1995)

Black, white, and red, you old scoundrel — you just never look bad. Here’s a simple photographic design that relies more on clever photo manipulation than it does star-power, and with such a cast that’s really saying something. Compositionally this design is far too heavy on the right hand side, but the juxtaposition of type and image here is so striking that it almost makes up for this leaning tower of poster. One of the criticisms of this design is that it inadvertently suggests the Terminator franchise, but this hasn’t held much water with me. I’ll let you decide.





37. No Country for Old Men (2007)

I had to fight off the temptation to improve this poster’s position in the countdown. The type treatment is fantastic — gritty, interesting, cohesive, and with colors and supporting text that is suggestive of the film’s western setting. The image of Josh Brolin on the run connects back to countless noir films from the classic period, and the horizon on which he runs doubles as both a Texas landscape and horizontal tear through the design. I’m held back though by the image of Javier Bardem — though I wouldn’t argue for his removal from the poster. Instead, I’d tweak the design so that Brolin didn’t seem to be emerging from Bardem’s mouth, and select a photo in which Bardem looks directly at the viewer. And is it just me, or does he appear to be wearing make-up?





36. Badlands (1973)

The poster for Terrence Malick’s Badlands is one of the stranger entries in the countdown, in spite of its apparent simplicity. First, and most importantly, it works as a noir poster: placing the fugitive couple in a dramatically staged image that speaks not only to their alienation from society, but also to the romantic undercurrent of the film. The obvious allusions to sex (position of the female figure), violence (prominence of the shotgun), and the road (inclusion of the car) almost go without saying. Just like the poster for Thief, I appreciate the quality of the wordmark, which manages to captivate through its hand-rendered style, in spite of its out-of-the-way location in the composition. On the con side, I hate the text at the top of the poster, which unfortunately most viewers will read first. Fastidious? Really? The text is so self-important that it verges on being silly.






35. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Most of the time simpler is better, and when we take a look at the teaser text on the poster for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang we can really see why the attempt at introducing the film on the Badlands poster doesn’t work. The message here is communicated clearly, quickly, and sets the proper tone for the film — not to mention how well the figures of Downey and Kilmer beautifully frame all of the poster’s text. Part of me wants to bristle at the use of Photoshop, but the mixing of the high-contrast large figures with the scenes from the film inside is striking and well executed — though I’m as aggravated as ever by the lazy use of a typeface for the title. Find an old typewriter and type it in yourself darn it! The lowercase “k,” “b,” “s,” and “n” letterforms should not be twins! The designer tried to cheat our eyes by employing uppercase letters to avoid total repetition, but it’s a fail. Argh!




34. The Getaway (1972)

High concept rendered beautifully: using the passports as a way to sneak in the stars’ faces was a stroke of genius. Throw in a well-used .45 and some shells to make an impromptu still-life and you’ve got an atypical — and incredible — movie poster.





33. Drive (2011)

Part of the contemporary film marketing racket is getting the star’s face on the poster in as big a way as possible — even more so with a “little” movie like Drive — Ryan Gosling has got to sell the tickets. Yet, even with those design restrictions in mind this remains a powerful image from a noir perspective. Drive is the most authentic noir film to come out of Hollywood in some time (read my review here, which explains the film as a classic noir), and the pent up energy in the photo says much more than 1,000 words. The title type in straight magenta is a daring choice that gets at the film’s other throwback area, the eighties; while the text type seems to move across the picture plane. Great poster, great movie.




32. Chinatown (1974)

Now don’t go all crazy on me, I have my reasons. As with all of my other countdowns, it’s important to remember that I’m looking at poster designs only, not the films themselves. And while the poster for Chinatown is in a good spot here, it doesn’t rise to the same heights as the film itself does — what poster could? I’ve made the argument in the past that this may be the best film — and certainly the best screenplay — of all time.

So let’s take a look at the poster though. Here are the problems: The first, and biggest, is the repetition of the title. Did you ever notice it before? Why in the world is Chinatown — ugly quotation marks and all — repeated twice on this poster? Silly designer. Lose the lower repetition of the title, recapture the saved space in order to make the illustrative “box” that much larger, and diminish the overwhelming black frame. Make no mistake, the illustration here is good — sort of a 70s take on Alphonse Mucha and the art nouveau style — and it should be a more prominent aspect of the design. I’m all for quality negative space (see the poster for Magnum Force), but the cropping of the Nicholson figure in order to maintain the heavy black color field at the bottom is a clear design error that diminishes the impact of this poster.






31. L.A. Confidential (1997)

Just like the previous entry, it can be quite difficult to separate film from poster as this is one of the most recognized and critically acclaimed neo noir films, not to mention my favorite contemporary film. (Titanic? Really, Oscar?!?)

I can’t give credit to the designer for the vintage typography — borrowed from the original book jacket — and the photocomposition is a bit too contrived for me. L.A. Confidential is really about Ed Exley and Bud White, yet our friends from down under are situated farthest from the viewer. Certainly the arrangement of the actors is based on 1997 star power, and done in good sense, but fifteen years later the poster resonate as well as it did at the time. Gotta love how DeVito is taking a phone call from somewhere inside Kevin Spacey’s jacket pocket though.





30. Slam Dance (1987)

As someone who joneses for Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Virginia Madsen, what can I say? I saw this in the theater and it has been a favorite since. My prejudices aside, this is a great design: inventive use of typography and a single axis composition, and the image of Madsen is simply stunning. Film poster designers (especially contemporary ones) get extra credit when they manage not to cram every little bit of compositional real estate with useless information and visual confetti.





29. The Kremlin Letter (1970)

John Huston’s espionage-noir is not one of his better films, but the poster is striking (even if it borrows a little from the design for The Manchurian Candidate). I admittedly waffled at ranking it this high, but it has a few visual surprises for which I want to reward the designer — most notably the small size and inconsequential positioning of the film’s title. The Kremlin Letter is really the third piece of type you encounter as you approach the design, yet through the use of color it asserts itself as the poster’s focal point. As a designer, this is incredibly difficult to pull off, especially when the typography has to work alongside an image, and as the kicker in a larger sentence. I don’t love how tossed-together many of the design’s other elements are, but the subtle power of the title type and the marriage of word and image here carry the day.




28. Madigan (1968)

The poster for Madigan is simple enough to have been screen-printed, and uses the same posterization technique that designers continue to love. I’m placing this one here in the countdown primarily because of the integration of Widmark and Fonda’s faces (Doesn’t Henry look uncomfortable as hell with his face there?) with the female form. Certainly the imagery is a little misogynistic, but let’s chalk that up to the era. The typography is nowhere near as striking, and thus the lower ranking.





27. Experiment in Terror (1962)

This is good stuff. On one hand there’s a little too much happening in this design, but on the other, the negative space we get is fairly daring for 1962. The combination of tagline, image, and title type on strongly oblique axis is exciting! And while the Ford / Remick star treatment in the upper right corner is nicely done, it treads on the line of overwhelming everything happening at the poster’s center — where communication really matters. The text type at the bottom is just fine — sometimes designers need to know when to quit!




26. The Detective (1968)

Like the poster for Madigan, also from 1968, this is one of the few sheets in this countdown with enough simplicity that it could have been produced via silkscreen. The Detective marries that brand of graphic simplicity with a boldness that makes the imagery here pretty exciting. We get the grittiness of period New York City layered beneath a threshold of Sinatra, seen through, what was for him, a pretty new lens. Strong left hand alignment for all of the text, set in big bold Herb Lubalin typefaces, balances the composition and supports the larger images, while the little image in the lower corner promises some sex and mollifies the old-fashioned studio art directors.





25. Fargo (1996)

I like the poster for Fargo, though not as much as many of you out there. I appreciate the concept (though it’s sort of a one-trick pony) and the lack of major star faces on the poster, but I’d dig this a whole lot more — and sorry if I sound like a broken record — if this had actually been rendered in needlepoint rather than faked in Photoshop. And it’s a small qualm, but the embroidered border / frame is overpowering the rest of the design. And what’s with the baseball-style embroidery of the title type? Surely that isn’t indicative of the style of lettering we’d find on a stitched sampler. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to like here, but we don’t have to be fan boys!




24. Breathless (1983)

And here’s one I probably like much more than you. I appreciate it when a designer finds a concept and carries it through the whole design, especially in the details. Here it’s the collage presentation of the imagery, which hints at the fractured narrative and spins the differences between this version of Breathless and its iconic predecessor. I like the composition, the ripped edges of the paper, the control of the layout, and the smallness of the title type. That’s definitely one of the corniest taglines in the history of motion pictures, and the design does a bang-up job of trying to hide it.




23. Shattered (1991)

In the blurb for Romeo is Bleeding, I mention the banality of early 90s film posters. Shattered is an MGM star vehicle that could have easily resulted in a forgettable poster — and almost does — but is saved by a skilled designer. Sure, the big star mugs are present, but they are integrated with the broken glass imagery in a way that conceptually reinforces the film’s title, and subtly obscure the almost-invisible sexual imagery in the background. Were that background image not driving the concept, the poster couldn’t succeed — I applaud the design for not making terribly obvious.




22. Blade Runner (1982)

I realize that Blade Runner is one of the most popular neo-noirs ever made, but before you get upset about its place here, consider the typography at the bottom. Admittedly, the illustration is top-notch — but the type is so crowded and inelegantly (compared to the illustration) thrown together that it really diminishes the whole. From time to time I’ll correct a beginning student who stacks roman and oblique types as the designer has done here; and it’s easy to see why it doesn’t work. The forms look awkward against one another, and they are almost impossible to optically center. I won’t even mention the spacing!




21. Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Harvey, Harvey, Harvey…
The peccadilloes of Messrs. Ferrara and Keitel aside, this is truly a great poster. It isn’t likely to adorn very many walls, but if design is meant to communicate first and please the eye second, this is an inarguable success. The cheapness, or the snapshot quality of the photography only makes this feel more gritty and authentic as a crime film, while the gigantic letterforms confirm the audacity we typically expect from this director and actor. What a bold poster!


20. Romeo is Bleeding (1993)

Well, if you are going to use Comic Sans, at least make sure to do it in the appropriate moment. The poster for Romeo is Bleeding is as original as the film itself, especially noteworthy given the period of its release — 1993 — when film poster design was possibly at its most banal. The designer gets a ton of mileage out of some pretty crummy stills, and does a good job of carrying through with the comic book concept. When you think of this film, what comes to mind first? It’s Lena and that chair, isn’t it?





19. Sin City (2005)

The poster for Sin City uses an optical trick I wish a few more young designers would take a moment to learn: By placing the figures on a tilted axis, the designer is able to obscure the fact that they are not collaged together very well. Covering up a mediocre photo-montage with diagonals makes for a decent band-aid, but jazzing up already-good imagery in a more dynamic composition is an ace up your sleeve. Regardless, the juxtaposition of type an image, and the strength of the type itself is what earns this a place in the countdown — it’s one of the few newer films to make the cut. Comic Sans, again?!? 




18. The Big Sleep (1978)

Richard Amsel strikes again! Here he does Robert Mitchum justice in this striking illustration for the 1977 remake of the classic ’46 Bogart film The Big Sleep. Once again we see our hero pointing a smoking gun at the camera (let’s not forget to add those up at the end) while the duplicitous Candy Clark hangs on for dear life. The detail here is spectacular, and extends to the carved doorknocker in the upper corner and wonderful hand lettering. All of the photo-lettering on this poster is obtrusive and ugly, particularly the UA logo at the bottom. Yet there’s a tongue in cheek quality to the tagline at the top that I practically find offensive: it turns the hardboiled language of 30s pulp into campy jargon, and makes something of a mockery of the film it’s trying so hard to sell.




17. Death Wish (1974)

Not much to say about this one — a simple high contrast duotone sets the proper mood for the film, and recalls the glory days of film noir’s black and white past. The photography here represents a fine contemporary refresh of those classic noir themes: the alienated protagonist against a gritty, nighttime urban backdrop (dig that NYC graffiti), alone yet prepared for danger. A simple, powerful, and striking poster — by far the best depiction of Bronson on a film poster.





16. Atlantic City (1980)

This is pure graphic design heaven. Look at that type! That’s drawn folks, no computers involved. Stunning typography (if anyone knows who did this, please leave a comment!) evokes not just the title town, but also the endless neon landscape of hundreds of mid-century crime pictures. The designer even managed to sneak in a roller coaster! Throw in an image of one of noir’s greatest actors — Burt Lancaster — along with a girl and a gun and you’ve got a magnificent poster. The Helvetica tagline at the top of the design is far too prominent for my taste, but this remains one of the very best neo noir posters out there. 






15. Heat (1995)

Were it not for those long shadows, this would have fallen far back in the countdown. Clearly this is a ‘big faces’ poster if ever there was one, but I’ve been drawn to posters that find a novel way to represent the psychological distance between the men of the noir underworld and those of polite society. The poster for “Heat,” with its ironically cool colors, does this quite well. Oh but how I’d love to nix those big star photos and make this one all about the arrangement of the smaller figures and their lengthening shadows.




14. Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)

The strength of the poster for Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me is multi-faceted: we’ve got an unusual composition, an unsettling juxtaposition of male / female imagery that challenges us to consider the film’s title, as well as a stylish type treatment and color palette that doesn’t make us grimace on behalf of the 80s. Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers were both riding high in 1987, so it’s surprising to see a poster for a film such as this (which is more romantic than the poster wants us to believe) that doesn’t give them the ‘big face’ treatment. This poster may rate more on style than substance, but form needn’t always follow function.




13. Chandler (1971)

Sometimes it’s okay to borrow a little, because there is certainly a friendly resemblance between the posters for Chandler and Point Blank (read on, dear friend!).  And while this poster withers in comparison to that of the Marvin film, this is nevertheless an exciting collage that, like the film itself, offers a throwback to the classic period. The two snipers at the top of the wonky Target logo seem horribly awkward, but the image of Warren Oates and those great sedans — one vintage and the other contemporary — put this poster in a special place.





12. The Two Jakes (1990)

This one’s worth it for the smoke alone. No neo-noir poster better exemplifies the deco style than this one. While the poster for Chinatown oddly employs art nouveau, the art deco style is far more appropriate to the period of both that great film and its mildly unfortunate sequel, The Two Jakes. This one is simply stunning — I’m sure I don’t need to explain it to you. However I will point out the influence of the mid-century French movie poster designers, especially Rene Peron (check some of his work out in this post here and here), on poster artist Robert Rodriguez. Note the mannered way in which Rodriguez treats the folds around Nicholson’s jacket pocket and you’ll see exactly what I mean.




11. Ms. .45 (1981)

Oh come on, you knew I was going to include this somewhere … 

After all, who doesn’t adore this film, and the poster for Abel Ferrara’s violent and controversial masterpiece is every bit as exciting, terrifying — and darkly funny — as the film itself. Every time I look at this poster (I don’t own one … yet) my eyes inevitably work their way down and my mind boggles at what’s going on between the 4 and 5 in the “.45” of the title typography and I throw my hands up in bewilderment over how Ferrara wants viewers to read this movie.

If you haven’t seen this — young folks — go get a copy as soon as you can find one. It’s really something else.



10. Dirty Harry (1971)

Wanna sell tickets to an Eastwood picture? Simple, just let folks know it’s an Eastwood picture. His posters would likely fare a little better were he not such a big star — with such a craggy, photogenic face. In part that’s why the poster for Dirty Harry is so effective — it’s more about the gun than it is about the actor. (Nice synchronicity with the film too, Harry makes that great speech about the magnum.) Of all the ‘pointing gun’ posters that are so representative of neo noir, this is one of the best, and like I said it’s fitting for Dirty Harry. Wed the prominence of the gun to the shattered glass (which in turn functions as a type-container), and you’ve got a poster that rates pretty well; and is a good deal stronger than the other Harry Callahan entry, Magnum Force. Good luck getting your hands on one of these.

By the way, there turned out to be exactly 25 ‘pointing guns’ in the 75 posters chosen for this countdown; that’s 1 out of every 3!




9. The Driver (1978)

The illustration style in play here has become indicative of the 70s — primarily thanks to some godawful clip art — in a way that designers don’t usually consider fondly. Nevertheless, close inspection of the mysterious M. Daily’s work reveals meticulous craftsmanship and virtuoso style that would be obvious to anyone seeing this poster as it was meant to be seen — full-size and up-close. I have a copy, so you’ll have to trust me. The online universe is often a wonderful thing, but when it comes to film posters an electronic display is no substitute for encountering a poster in ‘real life.’ If I could get away with it (no pun!) I’d move the tagline to the bottom, or just nix it, but the mood created by the illustration here is deeply noir-ish and impossible to ignore.




8. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Structurally, this design resembles that of the poster for L.A. Confidential (or rather, vice-versa), though unlike that poster, the title typography for Devil in a Blue Dress is original, and not borrowed from the cover of the source novel. (There’s some curious irony here: although the type on the cover of the first printing of Walter Mosley’s novel is bland (see below), the illustration of the title character, Creole girl Daphne Monet, curiously depicts her as an almost impossibly-white Veronica Lake lookalike. There has to be a deeper story behind that book cover.) At any rate, the design here is simple and striking, in all its period style. It sacrifices a great deal of compositional real estate at the altar of star power, but there’s so much noir packed into that small space over Denzel’s shoulder that the poster is still able to make quite a powerful statement.







7. Manhunter (1986)

As opposed to the two decades of classic noir, neo noir covers a period of more than fifty years — and new releases such as Drive continue to wow audiences. Such an expansive time period can be difficult to assess in terms of design aesthetic (thanks heavens the good old one-sheet is still … relatively … the same size) particularly when the means by which designs are created changed so radically with the advent of the computer. And then we have the 1980s, that decade when wit, cleverness, and subtlety seemed to take a back seat to loud colors, brash headlines, and a gawdy sense of style. Although I fancy myself a thinking designer who tries hard not to respond to plasticity, I notice that the 80s are well-represented here in the countdown — even at the highest levels. There’s something quite potent about the poster for Michael Mann’s Manhunter, it big and bold, powerfully graphic — awash in those same bright colors that fail so miserably in a million other posters from the period. Yet here it works, and if you and I aren’t on the same page as far as the look and feel of this one, then I can’t fault you for devaluing my opinion — but this poster takes exception to my personal value system — and maybe that’s why I like it so much.




6. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Okay, 6 and 7 are a complete coincidence! Really!

An undeniably great poster, this is nevertheless one of the most difficult to write about, if only because it’s so well known. I’m not sure how much you may have thought about the positioning of the death’s head moth over Jodie Foster’s mouth here, but it’s ramifications regarding not just the crimes of Buffalo Bill, but also Agent Starling’s own troubled past and inability to communicate with others — or even come to grips with herself — are profound. Again we have a designer who knows when it’s the right time to subdue type to image, but we also have someone at work on this image who understands (a million times better than I do) how to get the most out of color. I don’t know if anyone actually reads these blurbs or not, but if you’ve thus tortured yourself you may have noticed that I don’t get into color very often — owing primarily to the fact that it terrifies me! However, this is a poster where even someone as oblique as myself can see how really defines the way in which this poster communicates with us.





5. The French Connection (1971)

There’s one reason and one reason alone that I’ve ranked this poster so highly: it depicts the protagonist, a police detective, shooting a man in the back. This is indicative of the expansion of classic film noir to neo-noir. Looking back at the killer cop pictures of the 40s and 50s, no poster was willing to go where this one goes, not even the posters for pictures like Shield for Murder or Too Late for Tears, which are both quite scandalous in their own way. Misogynistic violence? No problem. A shot in the back? No chance. So again we have a poster that I’ve included not for it’s attractiveness or for the technical virtuosity of the designer (there’s little of either evident here), but for the careful selection of the poster’s imagery, the critical thinking and messaging involved, and what that imagery says about not just the film itself, but the evolution of the noir ethos.




4. Point Blank (1967)

Here is an exercise in stylization that almost every college art student has completed. You are given a photograph, and your job is to boil it down to its purest form, to render it in flat blacks and whites. It’s a challenge that forces young artists to make some tough decisions, and yet it’s no mere exercise either — we see this sort of imagery used extensively throughout the commercial world — just like in the poster for Point Blank, which is rapidly becoming one of the most desirable (and bloody expensive) posters of the period. The simplification of Marvin’s face gives the poster an extreme graphic power: it will attract attention in the way that all great designs are supposed to: from very far away. Yet the creative and sophisticated use of color (most likely inspired by the psychedelic posters for the Fillmore Ballroom which were en vogue at the time) maintains viewer interest as the poster is viewed from up-close. Quiet type lets the image do all the talking. A masterpiece.




3. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

This is one of my favorite posters in the countdown, a nasty poster for a nasty movie; and I’ve managed to acquire two nice copies — one for the house and one for the office! If there’s a theme that ties together many of the top posters in the countdown, it’s the way in which the designer has been able to focus on the isolation of the main character from those around him, not just physically, but psychologically as well — and in film noir it’s the alienation of the protagonist that matters. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a noir aficionado’s movie — most casual moviegoers are hardly aware of its existence. If you haven’t heard of it or seen it, make an effort to do so. It’s emblematic of the best qualities of 70s crime films: visceral, grimy, aloof, and (unlike the popular films of today) it honors the intelligence of its audience. AND it features a performer in a role that, frankly, no other actor could have played. Mitchum embodies the strange marriage of fatalism and desperation that defines our film noir heroes — and the poster for the movie shows him at his best. The black and white halftones (which will never display as well online as they do in person) speak to the grittiness of the subject, while the near Cubism-inspired collage of characters reinforces the isolation of Eddie Coyle — the only character without a gun. Brilliant, thoughtful stuff.




2. Taxi Driver (1976)

Can we call it a tie? I’m perfectly willing to if you like, and I could easily pull the switch. This thing is absolutely spectacular. Travis Bickle isn’t the ultimate noir protagonist — he’s moved psychologically far beyond how we’ve come to understand the film noir hero into something altogether different. Bickle is so alienated from society that even in the stark loneliness of his poster image he can’t bear to make eye contact with us (the true brilliance of this poster). And yet he shines there in his own little world, the star of his own movie, illuminated as if from within, along with the cab that seems an oasis against the looming, deserted city and the demons that lurk in the alleys and shadows. The mood and atmosphere created in this illustration is so compelling that we nearly forget that the subject is one of our most famous faces. (Looking at The Two Jakes, is it possible to ignore Nicholson?) And in a sense, this is essentially the same poster as the one in the entry that follows — both take their hero and thrust him front and center for our perusal, set against a backdrop of the inescapable city; opposing visions — both suited to their respective coasts — of what film noir has come to represent.

When all is said and done though, I had to make a decision between the Apple and the Angels.





1. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)


And the sun sets on another countdown… 

In the end, film noir is as much about the mythology of Los Angeles as it is anything else. One can argue that the title To Live and Die in L.A. is itself a fitting way of memorializing film noir. Yet for all of the ways in which we think of Los Angeles — romantically, nostalgically, with disdain — as the ultimate urban expression of the noir milieu, it’s worth remembering that the City of Angels has as many identities as it has neighborhoods — and almost any description is fair. It’s a city of dreams found, dreams lost, and dreams long forgotten. Movers, shakers, hustlers and hangers-on. What I like so much about this poster is how it manages, in just one photograph, to viscerally represent so much of how we’ve come to visualize our most mythic town. And it’s a stunning photograph! Forget C.S.I.this is how William Petersen is supposed to look: in sunglasses, turned-up collar, frayed jeans and boots, he’s the ultimate Angelino. With the sun setting over the scrub-covered hills behind him, he somehow manages to straddle the space between shadows and light — silhouetted before the impossible light source coming from the overpass above. Clearly the photo is contrived, but quietly and beautifully so; rich in color and details (that arrow!), so steeped in what film noir is all about, and about to explode with pent-up energy. Truly this is the best of the best.


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Thanks for reading, I hope you’ve enjoyed the countdown and snagged a few of your favorite designs. Please considering signing on as a follower or connecting with me on Facebook! Or just leave a comment with your thoughts — I haven’t received much feedback on this one! I’ll be back soon with new crime film essays, while another countdown — a MAJOR countdown — looms somewhere on the far-flung horizon.