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 Print, How, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.