January 29, 2011


Almost there! The top twenty is here, and every poster is noir-significant and sharp as a knife. Hold onto your hats for the top ten though, I’m getting curious to hear what everyone thinks will get the top spot. Feel free to chime in with a guess — I’ll happily mail a CD of all 100 posters in super-high-res to the first person who gets it right. As for a clue, the poster doesn’t represent a film that I really love, nor is it the one from which I derive my avatar.

Thanks again to everyone who has been following along, and to everyone who just discovered the blog. Thanks again to everyone on Twitter and Facebook, as well as sites like Ministry of Type and Subtraction, the contdown has managed to garner more than 15,000 unique visitors in the last seven days alone. I’m truly humbled.

20. The Spider
Last week we had The Web, this week it’s The Spider. This is one of the lesser-known films to finish so highly in the countdown, and every time I sat down to tweak the rankings I had to resist the urge to push this backwards because it’s a movie that very few people have seen (only 13 votes on IMDb, and one of them is mine!). There’s also a nagging feeling that the poster design, with its dramatic lighting and clutched male and female figures (not to mention the film’s title, which sounds like a serial, and comic relief Mantan Moreland’s name in the credits), is more evocative of the forties comic-mystery tradition than it is film noir, though The Spider is definitely a noir. Frankly, the saving grace of the poster, and the primary reason why it rates so highly, is the image of the eyes looming in the background over Richard Conte’s shoulder. The eyes represent fate — that unknowable force that so often plagues the noir protagonist, in this case Conte, who gets in way over his head through the course of a murder investigation. Beyond that this is just a beautiful mid forties film poster, featuring a rare-for-the-time photographic image and beautifully hand-rendered typography.

19. The Maltese Falcon
This is a tough one, a very difficult poster to rank. I’m comfortable with it here, but I need to qualify the ranking by saying that the film’s significance to film noir (and American motion pictures in general) contributed more than a little to its high placement. Not that it isn’t a good poster: the image of Bogart sporting a pair of Colt pistols is certainly powerful and goes a long way to establishing this as a crime film of the first order, but upon reflection, I’d ask you to consider whether or not the Bogart we see is actually Sam Spade, or if he doesn’t more closely resemble the cold-blooded Roy Earle from High Sierra? It’s an exciting poster, and the ambiguity of the Bogart image is understandable considering the young actor’s rising star and his reputation as a screen bad guy, but it makes me qualify the design a little, at least as far as the countdown goes. I’ve already received a pair of emails asking if this would be the top poster, so I can say now that the answer is obviously no, and you should have a sense why. Beyond Bogart, I wish the three primary typographic elements (the title, star names, and tagline) all worked together better, and that the poster could somehow show the fabled bird itself more prominently than just as a miniscule image on the cover of the Hammett book. We have to keep in mind that The Maltese Falcon was essentially a B picture for Warners, and they wouldn’t have invested a great deal in generating original art for the poster. The story had been filmed twice before, in 1931 and 1936, and there wasn’t much hope on the lot that it would score.

18. The Devil Thumbs a Ride
If anyone out there has one of these and is feeling generous……why not send one to your pal the Prof? This might be my favorite poster in the countdown. I love the somewhat awkward marriage of modernism with classic Hollywood poster style here — I think the scales are tipped towards modernism, with a little surrealism creeping in at the proverbial edges — evident in the floating placement of the gun smack dab in the middle of Lawrence Tierney’s forehead. The strange presence of the gun, the rather bent look in Tierney’s eyes, and the “L” shaped composition combine to make this marvelously original, even if the necessary evils of forties poster design are still present: the spot illustrations of romance and murder that fill up the corners. Beyond those images, my final qualm with the design is the clumsy use of crosshatching at the edges of the red shape that holds the title typography. For the majority of the countdown I had this just inside the top ten, but my head finally won out over my heart and I pulled it back a bit.

17. Gun Crazy
This would rate higher, but we’ll see a poster for a Hugo Haas gem next week that tops it. One certainly can’t argue against the film: Gun Crazy is one of the most important film noirs ever made, and a few critics have even tried to argue for it as the Great American Movie. In my Advanced Typography class I have the students create a program for a hypothetical film noir festival, and over the years I’ve shown a variety of films to introduce them to the style. No movie has ever gone over with them like Gun Crazy, not even Double Indemnity. There is something so potent in the story of Bart and Annie Laurie, as well as the visceral, seat of your pants filmmaking that just reaches out and grabs you. Frankly, this is an instance where no poster could ever measure up to the film itself, which might be why the poster for the Haas film made the top ten and this didn’t. In that case the poster is the best thing about the movie, and in this case it isn’t — but at #17 it’s obviously one hell of a poster. British honey Peggy Cummins is larger than life in the composition, and she just glowers back over her shoulder at us — challenging us, as if to say, “What are you looking at?” It’s one of the great images in the countdown, even if her near forearm is too long (the overlap of the smoking gun with the typography makes it worth it). However, the artist must have been terrified of negative space, he’s gone out of his way to fill every open area of the poster with either artwork or scribbling. I don’t think this is a top ten poster regardless, but I’d like it at eleven or twelve if we could lose the vertical photograph at the bottom, lighten the ink wash-shadows on the right, and nix one or both of the photos at the top. This thing is just too busy — leave the girl alone and let her carry the poster!

16. The Harder They Fall
The thing that has always impressed me the most about this poster is that in 1956 Humphrey Bogart was still a major star — a living legend even. And although the studio system was punch-drunk at the time, it’s quite impressive that a concept-driven design would win out in this instance over one that featured a gigantic portrait of an iconic (and bankable) actor — or even one of rising star (and even more bankable) Rod Steiger, fresh off his big splash in Oklahoma!. The fight picture is a force to reckon with in the canon of film noir: Body and Soul, The Set-Up, and Champion, and are bona fide classics. Yet even though The Harder They Fall doesn’t always spring quickly to mind when boxing noir is discussed, its poster is by far the best of the bunch. (Not much competition though, the Body and Soul poster is a laugh.) They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and being that this is a movie about a newspaperman you’ll forgive me for invoking cliché, but it’s really appropriate here. The connection between the title of the film and the stark image of the boxer’s hand splayed on the canvas is a potent reminder that the fighter himself is most often the sucker in these movies. Where most posters go the route of showing the full-figure boxer, either posing or in action, the minimal approach and tightly-cropped image here is all the more powerful because it trumps our expectations of what the poster ought to be. I’d like it a little more if the taglines were deleted, and the ropes too for that matter — they are out of proportion with the glove anyway — but any way you look at it this poster is still a knockout.

15. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
I bet you didn’t notice that Liz Scott’s head is out of scale with those of Stanwyck and Heflin. That’s how stunning the artwork here is. One could make the argument that this is the most beautiful poster in the countdown, at least as far as the illustrations are concerned. Yet there’s a lot more going on here than just technical virtuosity; each of the three leads here is shown in character, which is what really knock this out of the park. We’ll come back to Liz Scott in a moment, in the meantime look at the nuances of what’s going on here between Stanwyck (Martha Ivers) and Van Heflin — she’s in the power position, with her hands on his face, situated above him in the picture plane — very much in keeping with the film. This isn’t a romantic image, it’s one purely about sex, and power. Is she kissing him? Or is she about to bite? Is she smiling? Enjoying herself? Heflin seems a little helpless; he looks away from her, ostensibly at the viewer, or maybe even at Scott, as if to implore for some sort of help.

The star names at the top really represent the high water mark in that style of brush lettering that was so popular in the mid-century period. The typography junkies in the crowd (like me) could spend an hour simply exploring the letterforms in those three names. The “tt” ligature in Liz Scott’s name is enough to leave a graphic design professor breathless. So effortless and perfect it hurts to look at. (I know. The weirdo alarm is going off right now.) I’m a little less excited about the handling of the type at the bottom. The designer has made the strange choice of aligning the typographic elements to the curve of the illustration, instead of to one another, resulting in awkward negative spaces and a thrown-together look. The title could have been much larger, and could also have occupied the space better — the word “of” is hanging out there on the end like it doesn’t belong, and the “whisper HER NAME” tagline has been given way too much space. In spite of this, there shouldn’t be any doubt as to why this poster ended up in the top 20!

14. The Hitch-Hiker
If memory serves me correctly, I really owe Richard Edwards and Shannon Clute of the extraordinary podcast series “Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir” for turning me onto this poster. In their episode about Ida Lupino’s film The Hitch-Hiker, they talk about this poster, and how it places you in the title character’s shoes. Throughout the countdown, we’ve seen posters that break the fourth wall in some way or another, with the characters on the poster engaging in one way or another with the viewer. Yet this one takes the notion quite a few steps farther — not only does place you in the backseat of the car as William Talman, with Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy looking dead in the face at you, but it puts a gun in your hand — making you an active participant in the movie’s extraordinary drama. This is an important, and exciting, development in poster design, but it’s more significant in its relation to the content of the film, and to film noir in general. One of the key strains of noir is its preoccupation with the proliferation of crime in the years immediately following the war, and not just urban crime. Countless film noirs were made in the 40s and 50s that depicted criminals, of the organized and unorganized types, functioning away from their typical haunts of those dark alleys and wet city streets — threatening people who were doing their best to work hard and achieve the American Dream. Film noir cynically endeavored to show that no one was safe, no matter how far they moved away from the urban center. The Hitch-Hiker takes place primarily in Mexico, about as far away from the city as you can get. The victims of the film are two working stiffs, just like you and me. The poster also makes it easy to believe that the killer is just like us as well — it puts the gun in our hands. And if the killer is just like us, it could just as easily be the guy next door, the nice guy we think we know so well. I won’t waste pixels talking about the design here, it just isn’t that relevant compared to the content, but I will mention how fantastic the use of red is — particularly in an era of filmmaking (1953) when any association whatsoever with the color was highly frowned upon. Ms. Lupino sure knew how to take risks.

13. The Las Vegas Story
It’s a pleasant accident that this should fall on the heels of the poster for The Hitch-Hiker, as it couldn’t be more different. The Hitch-Hiker poster succeeds entirely on the strength of its concept, while the poster for The Las Vegas Story earns its spot through visual fireworks alone. Consequently, there’s not much to explain here. If this one doesn’t knock you over you better check your pulse. Fans of Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw are entitled to their opinion, but for my poker chips this is the most striking image of Jane Russell that ever graced a printing press. There are basically two distinct things happening here, with Russell and Mature up front in a magnificent (if a bit traditional) illustration, while the vividly stylized (Modernist? Designerly?) interpretation of old Vegas in the back ground contrasts and frames the foreground image perfectly. Any inky-fingered pressman will tell you that blues are the hardest colors to print, and deep blues are the worst of all — the blue here is outrageous; and I can promise that of all the posters in the countdown, this one needed much less digital manipulation than you might expect. It’s just an extraordinarily vibrant presentation. Great harmony, beautiful people, precise execution, this one is just dripping with style. And if there are any quibbles about a lack of substance, read the title of the film one more time.

12. Cry Vengeance
This poster is a miracle. If we can be sure of one thing, it’s that none of us have seen anything like it. That’s why the poster is ranked way up here — it may be the most unique in the whole show. The film itself is highly original, set in San Francisco and Alaska, with some slick twists on a variety of noir tropes, it’s very much worth checking out. Obviously the unique setting is a big part of the poster’s novelty: the totem pole is just fantastic. But that’s not enough to push this over the top — what really makes this tick is how, in spite of the unique imagery, the poster still speaks directly to the noir frame of mind. Get a load of the lone cop in the image. Gun drawn and pointed right at us, he’s the ultimate noir hero — isolated and alone, casting a long shadow. It’s hard not to imagine this is an Alan Ladd film, though Mark Steven does a fine imitation here. The typography is mid-century-cool, and the cropped photo of the eyes floating above gets at the detective’s paranoid frame of mind like nobody’s business. It’s fair to suggest that the same set of complaints could be made about this poster that could be made about Gun Crazy, but this poster has a great deal more nuance. Could we tighten the text type up? Sure. Could we lose the lower left photo? Sure. But it’s the marriage of distinctive title / star typography with photography and illustration really sets this apart. The placement of the two photos at the bottom within Stevens’ shadow is just brilliant. This is one of the posters that gets me excited about doing this whole thing.

11. D.O.A.
The imagery here isn’t as well-executed as it might be, but so what? The huge title type, punching Edmond O’Brien right in the gut as he presses backwards, terrified, into some unseen corner, all the while casting a gigantic shadow says more about the nature of film noir than practically any other poster or still image out there. Noir is notoriously difficult to define. As I said recently somewhere else it’s quite similar to art in that there are million different definitions floating around, yet none of them are quite adequate. This poster makes the matter simple though: if someone ever asks you what film noir is, just point them at this poster. No further definitions necessary.

One week to go. I'm pulling lever on the top ten next Friday (Feb. 4) at 5 PM eastern standard time. Be here, the lights are gonna flicker.


  1. These are so gorgeous! I'm getting excited for the top ten!

  2. Excited for the final list!

    My favorite of these is The Hitch-hiker.

  3. Have you chosen a relatively well-known film as your number one poster, or something a bit more obscure? I saw a really lovely version of the GILDA poster and an intriguing version of KILLER’S KISS yesterday, and both could make an excellent choice for the top spot. I'm looking forward to this Friday's installment.

  4. Definitely a well-known film, though not a personal favorite......