November 15, 2012


 Almost there! 

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. 

 See you next time for the final post! 


  1. Great stuff; can't wait for the top 15!

  2. Kudos for your blog,

    To my eye Candy Clark is the actress Clinging to Robert Mitchum in The Big Sleep poster (#18)