Welcome back to the countdown! It’s a Gene Hackman kind of week this time around. Hackman contributed to some of the most iconic neo-noir films, and this week’s entry begins and ends with him. Enjoy, you flock of stool pigeons! (and download all you like.) 

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)

Basic Instinct 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.  

See you in two weeks for numbers 45 through 31!


  1. Love the article, as always with both of these series. The posters are a treat and the comments insightful. Great take-down of the Memento poster -- definitely a "points off for laziness" issue!

  2. these are awesome! i love 'night moves.'