November 26, 2010


Let’s get started! I have a feeling that as I go through this countdown, I’ll be waging a continuous battle against my own judgment, and the compulsion to reorder my selections. As I pause over each image to write the blurbs, I find myself noticing new details and making new discoveries that beg for a reassessment of the list. As a rule, I won’t do this unless I feel my oversight is positively glaring. I need remind myself that I looked at over 500 film noir one-sheets for this exercise (over the course of numerous sittings, not to mention the time spent in Photoshop) and that for every design I chose to include at least four were left out. With that in mind, it doesn’t quite matter as much where each poster ends up — particularly when I understand that many viewers will disagree with my placements anyway. And that’s perfectly fine — if I didn’t want disagreements and discussion, such a project would be too silly and time-consuming to engage in. Besides, it stands to reason that some of my choices, and especially my ordering, might be baffling to many. I spend the lion’s share of my working week criticizing the graphic design work of students and fellow professionals, and standing at the front of a darkened room looking at slide examples and ranting about what makes for a successful poster, package, annual report, magazine cover, and so forth. It goes without saying that I’m bringing a completely different frame of reference to this than most readers. But in each case, I’ll try to explain myself.

100. The Blue Dahlia
Here’s a poster that would certainly have been placed higher were it no so crowded, but I like opening with such a well known film. As we go through the countdown we’ll look at plenty of examples of what I refer to as “Stephen King” paperback design: like certain fiction authors, the names of the stars here are more important than the title of the picture, and have been given a more prominent place in the design. The practice is fine, and an unavoidable aspect of motion picture marketing, but the design could have been executed better here. The trio of stars in The Blue Dahlia made numerous profitable films with each other, so it made sense to market this purely as a star vehicle. And while the resulting poster is attractive, it is equally generic: three mug shots that could have been pulled from any Ladd / Lake / Bendix picture. Think of it this way: here’s a movie with a flower in the title, so why not have a flower in the poster, or even the neon “Blue Dahlia” sign we see in the film? Give me some sort of precise reference to the content of this film in particular and I’ll be happy.

So why is this poster included when 400+ others were not? The rendering is superb, even if the names at the top seem crammed into the available space. The representations of Ladd and Lake (though less so) here are iconic, and the cigarette smoke that wafts lazily around Veronica’s breasts is the icing on the cake. Too bad big Bill is sporting lipstick, and Doris Dowling is positioned so awkwardly — yet her shoe poking through the title typography is a nice touch.

99. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry
Oddly, some of Hollywood’s most beautiful women don’t translate particularly well to posters, while others become even more beautiful. Ella Raines is one of the unfortunates — take a look at her posters and you’ll realize she never looks as good in art as she does in life. (Lizabeth Scott, on the other hand, shines in her posters like no other actress.) This example is one of the rare exceptions, as the artist has done a fine job of capturing Raines’s extraordinary looks. An equally fine job has been done with Sanders, and this poster scores points for not only the quality of the illustration, but for the striking way in which Sanders’s gaze confronts the viewer. I appreciate the strong diagonal composition, but wish the female figure at the top didn’t seem so awkwardly perched atop Sanders’s head, like a halo on……a Saint? (Sorry, couldn’t help doing that.) Let’s also examine the stars’ names along the right; they should align vertically with the printed margin of the poster. The human eye craves order, and wants badly for things to “line up” — we’d appreciate this poster more were that the case.

98. The Killers
Thank heavens this was Burt’s debut, otherwise he’d likely upstage Ernest Hemingway in this design! Lancaster is another curious example of movie marketing: it’s amazing how often he’s rendered in profile, and with a woman in his arms. The posters for Criss-Cross, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, From Here to Eternity, and The Rainmaker all show Burt clutching his female lead. This is the best of the bunch, and even though the quality of the illustration is substandard (Ava, really?), the overall composition more than makes up for it — there’s even something of a criss-cross in the way the title and the illustration work together. Great job with the long shadows cast by the killers — they lead us right to the doomed lovers. I’m also conscious of the attention to detail: despite the small scale and extreme angle, anyone who knows this film (of course you do!) will tell you that the killers on the poster are the very same killers from the film. Finally, all designers will confide that the worst word to design for is “the,” because although it’s insignificant as hell it almost always comes first! As you look at film posters in the future, try to decide whether or not this is done well. The designer here solved the pesky problem of “the” beautifully; the designer on The Blue Dahlia poster, for example, did not.

97. Wicked Woman
Like the forthcoming poster for The Beat Generation, I’ve included the poster for Wicked Woman purely because it’s so offbeat. I’ll happily acknowledge that it isn’t an attractive poster, but let’s not dismiss it out of hand either — there may be a few more things going on here than first meet the eye. It’s impossible not to draw the reference to Hawthorne, and instead of a large “A” (and befitting the radioactivity of the atomic age) we are confronted with a woman who is quite literally glowing scarlet — how great is that! In addition to the inventive (and inexpensive) use of two ink colors, I love how the designer has cast us as voyeurs. All of the poster’s scenes are domestic — whether amorous, violent, or indifferent, and we are forced to look at them as if through the panes of an uncurtained window. There’s something very much in keeping with film noir here, in how the film poster reminds us that for many folks the American Dream was a sham, and not every 1950s home was a happy one. I’m a little troubled by the lower image panel — it seems unrelated to the two above; and for that matter the “vampire” panel is confusing as well. Nevertheless, this is such a unique poster that it very much deserves a spot on this list.

Enter the realm of “ugly but effective.” As I first mentioned in my initial post about the countdown, originality will be highly rewarded. Why? Because originality sticks in the memory — and being memorable is everything. I don’t mean to imply that designers and illustrators are vain; it just makes sense that a unique design will linger in the mind longer than something derivative — and consequently increase the chances that the poster will pull in more sets of eyes than those around it and thus sell more tickets. Besides, anyone who has seen The Beat Generation knows that it couldn’t be promoted traditionally. In one sense the design here is a mess: type everywhere, no negative space to be found, and three or four conflicting illustration styles. Yet what does it tell us? Sex, violence, music, and weirdness — a beatnik exposé featuring a hot Mamie Van Doren. For the squares in middle America, this was too much to miss. Me too, I guess.

95. Highway 301
Here’s one of the few posters we’ll see that exploits the semi-documentary style of noir films to great effect. It almost reads like a newspaper page or magazine cover (we’ll see that notion taken to extremes later in the countdown) with “ripped from the headlines” style type-treatments all over the design, a radio-style “Flash!” at the bottom of the poster, and authentic-looking scandal sheet crime photos along the right hand side. All of this visual noise frames a photograph of Steve Cochran pistol-whipping some doo-dad in a pinstripe suit. The expansive field of red in the background is quite powerful as well, it frames the artwork and holds the various elements together, while suggesting blood and action through the choice of color and immediacy of the brushstrokes at the very top. The diagonal composition here vaguely reminds us of the Uncle Harry poster, but notice how much stronger this composition is because the type at the left and bottom “line up” to complete the rectangular shape, and how the title type points us to the poster’s focal point: Steve Cochran. All with only two colors! Five distinct typeface choices though — yikes!

94. Alias Nick Beal
Here we have a strong counterpoint to the poster for The Blue Dahlia. What it did wrong Alias Nick Beal does right. A simple, strong composition from top to bottom, it offers us a wonderfully colorful glimpse at Audrey Totter (even if her hips are strangely narrow), as well as a space-filling sketch at the bottom that provides some insight into the setting and the intrigue of the film. The characters have been arranged so as to accommodate the expansive red box that holds the film title and the stars’ names — and here we don’t have stars of such magnitude that they require the top of the poster to be wrecked, despite the fact that unlike the Dahlia stars, Milland was an Oscar winner. Finally, notice how the actors are engaged with one another. Sure, Totter is objectified, but at least here she’s drawn the attention of Milland, who likewise is scrutinized by Mitchell. Since this is a rare film I won’t give anything away, but I will point out that each of the three leads are depicted very much according to character here.

93. Blonde Ice
The poster for Blonde Ice, one of the penultimate B-films, is another that benefits from not having to include big star names above the title. While the imagery here is primarily photographic, especially the gigantic image of Miss Brooks and her smoking gun, it benefits the poster — the lack of an idealized illustration of the female star gives the thing an intoxicating trashiness that’s what this movie is all about. Looking past that though, the design holds up under any microscope: dynamic composition, deft blending of type and image, and follow that wafting gun smoke that leads up to the lover’s embrace. If only Brooks’s line of sight conformed to that of the typography, and the boxy drop shadow on the capital “I” could be removed — not to mention the clumsy and unnecessary shadow of the two lovers — this poster might finish higher on the list.

92. I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.
Nothing shouts B-movie like a two-color poster, and this is one of the best. Just as we appreciate films made on the cheap, I admire the economy of a poster done to match. There’s really quite a lot to like here: note how Frank Lovejoy, even more immediately than George Sanders in the Uncle Harry poster, confronts the viewer — Frank even speaks to us via that delightful tagline. He points directly at the vignettes of the violence and sex that we’ll see if we buy a ticket — all certain to entice potential audiences. Notice as well the wonderful title typography: not only does it use perspective to steer our eyes to the same place as Lovejoy’s pointing finger, the perspective provides a place for that lone darkened figure to stand — and folks, any time you can so beautifully juxtapose type and image and still maintain readability, you will always find work in the design racket. Let it not go unsaid as well that audiences were sure to notice the prominent positioning of Warner Bros. and the Saturday Evening Post in the poster design: Like putting the Good Housekeeping seal on your fifties exposé picture.

91. Short Cut to Hell
This is one of the only films (maybe the only one) in the countdown that I haven’t seen, and chances are you haven’t either. Primarily notable as the lone film directed by Jimmy Cagney, Short Cut to Hell is a hardboiled story of a hit man on the run. Regardless of the quality of the movie, this boasts one hell of a poster — and is yet another design that benefits from not having to promote a big name cast. Let’s take a few minutes and really break down the design of this excellent poster, because it’s that good:

The first thing to notice is the economy of the design. The designer was clearly working within a tight budget, yet still managed to create a superb poster. Here’s how: we have three-color poster (black, red, yellow), which could be printed far more cheaply than a four-color process design with tightly registered colors. (A poster that doesn’t rely on all those tightly registered little CMYK dots, means fewer throw-aways on the press and significant savings over the course of the print run.) There’s also very little illustration, with both of the images pulled directly from the film’s publicity photographs. The top image (notice the trench coat) has been worked over with an ink wash, but my suspicion is that the artist did this in order to make the provided photo suitable for use on the poster — I bet that part of the still photograph was somehow very different than what we see here. More evidence of this can be found in the strange cropping of the female figure’s front shoulder that appears beneath the word “Short.” Designers were usually given a sheaf of publicity shots and told to make them into a poster — they had to make do with what they were given. At any rate, using straight photography is a lot faster and cheaper than creating an illustration.

Next let’s direct our attention to the photographs themselves. We have a pair of action-oriented shots, both convincingly let us know that this a tough-guy movie, with a little cheescake thrown in — the allure of violence, and of sex. What’s even better is how the photos are used to create depth, this is practically 3-D — the hood getting shot at the bottom of the composition erupts from the picture-plane right at us! But his body also overlaps the title typography, which itself nestles beautifully around him. That type, in turn, overlaps the large image in the background, which although in the background, is quite large and very much at the top of the design. Each aspect of the image: the falling figure, the title typography, and the large couple work perfectly together; and in this case I do not use the word perfect casually.

Now here’s the icing on the cake: Look at the falling hoodlum one more time. Where does his gun point us? Directly at the title of the movie. Where does his free hand point us? At the text typography! It’s as if he is one of Bob Barkers beauties, using his hands to caress the latest Maytag. That’s no accident! Now let’s look more closely at the big image on top. Where does that rather large and phallic gun point? You got it, and that’s no accident either.

Finally there’s the color, which is the mortar that holds these bricks together. The black ink really pops against the yellow and the red, but that large red rectangle is an incredibly powerful composition device. It gives the title typography, as well as the secondary typography, something comfortable to anchor itself to and align with; and it frames up all of the important information in the design. Like a picture frame, it shouts, “Look at me!”, and does it damn well.

Although this is only the first installment of the countdown, we aren’t likely to find many entries with better designs — there will certainly be more beautiful posters, more original posters, and more resonant posters, but few more, as we say, designerly. Posters like this one make me love my job. What do you think?

See you next week with ten more.


  1. I think my favorites from this batch are Short Cut to Hell & Wicked Woman. I'm really fascinated by this series, can't wait for the next 10! :)

  2. "Oddly, some of Hollywood’s most beautiful women don’t translate particularly well to posters, while others become even more beautiful. Ella Raines is one of the unfortunates — take a look at her posters and you’ll realize she never looks as good in art as she does in life. (Lizabeth Scott, on the other hand, shines in her posters like no other actress.)"

    What an interesting observation. I just love this series. Looking forward to the rest.

  3. This is a marvelous post! I really appreciate your insights about graphic art; it's educational and fun, too. My favorite above is ALIAS NICK BEAL, and not just because I love Milland and Totter -- it's a strong, colorful poster.

    Looking forward to seeing more!
    Best wishes,

  4. I came across your blog by accident yesterday, and I am beginning to think it was a fortunate accident, rather serendipity. Your header banner immediately captured my attention, although I hadn’t yet read your “about me” profile, I assumed you had a background in design and graphics. The use of a variation of primary colors certainly appeals to my imagination, but there are even more subtle details. The actresses, with the possible exception of Lizabeth Scott, are all facing in profile, and you have alternated photos of the actors with and without hats (just sublime). Each author/host of a blog can bring something of their background and knowledge to the subject of classic films, and you have succeeded with a truly unique perspective. Vintage film posters have always fascinated me, and while I have seen a few in your collection before, I do not have the training to understand why some represent those films better than others. I agree that posters depicting Ella Raines rarely do her justice, but I’ve seen a Mexican version of the Uncle Harry poster in which she is quite lovely (and I wonder, is there a good version of “The Phantom Lady” poster?). Your comments on the posters, such as “pistol-whipping some doo-dad in a pinstripe suit”, are as entertaining as the insights into the posters. I also wanted to mention that your observation “and folks, any time you can so beautifully juxtapose type and image and still maintain readability” made me realize that I need to rethink the whole layout of my header banner. Thank you for sharing your fascinating insights and I look forward to your next installments.

  5. Thanks for the comments all! I'm glad everyone is enjoying this, I know I am.

    @ whistlinggypsy: thanks for the nice words about the banner, it took me a long time to select the photos and get the colors exactly how I wanted them, I really wanted to do something atypical for a blog that's essentially about film noir. So many similar sites stick with black and white and old typewriter typefaces.

    As for Ella Raines, I haven't ever seen a good poster for The Phantom Lady, the standard one-sheet is just awful. There's so much great imagery in that film that it's too bad the primary image on the poster is a book!

  6. Mark. Sorry to be late commenting on this particularly smart series. I love “inside baseball” coverage of an overall subject I know reasonably well that covers an aspect about which I know virtually nothing. Your remarks on poster art are edifying. I have seen seven of the films and prefer the posters for 100, 99 and 93. I am more than a bit of a traditionalist but your observations enlighten.

    You convinced me citing Ella Raines and her poor showing in poster art. I have been smitten with Ella, probably since I first saw her on screen in World War II, likely Korvette K-225. Extending your thought -- even the 114 electronic photographs that I have of Ella rarely do her justice. Like you and Whistlingypsy (whose comment was incisive) I have never found a satisfactory poster of “Phantom Lady” – most are awful --and I have been immersed in the Woolrich / Irish / Hopley world for almost as long as I have been with Ella Raines.

    I always think of poster art as the view from the street, primarily to induce the passer by the enter. So I am grappling with your idea of originality (Beat Generation) and if it would necessarily accomplish that goal. But I respect your knowledge in this area and I suppose it would draw the intended audience. Excellent start. Best. Gerald

  7. Gerald, Thanks so much for the great comment. Like you, I'm devoted to Ella Raines much in the same way others are to Deanna Durbin: obsessively. It's funny you should mention Corvette K-225 as it was quite literally the last movie I watched, having finally secured a copy (albeit a poor one) just yesterday! Best wishes!

  8. Mark: Glad to know there are a few Raines lovers left. You probably know, but on a chance that you do not, Todd McCarthy in “Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood” covers Hawks’s time with Raines. And more so, Raines with Charles Feldman. I have the book, but if you just need the information, the entire Raines related section is covered (free) in the Google Books entry on the Internet (page 347 through 351). There is even some brief coverage of Korvette K-225. Best. Gerald.

  9. Thanks for the great post. I'm looking forward to the rest! My favorite so far is Short Cut to Hell: great impact. I'm curious about one of my favorite posters (White Heat): will it be high on the list? We'll see.

  10. Best poster....Shanghai Gesture. It's also the worst movie....Jeeze!