This is it! 75 GREATEST MOVIE POSTERS of NEO-NOIR! 15 – 1

Welcome back! Let’s put this countdown on ice! 

15. Heat (1995)

Were it not for those long shadows, this would have fallen far back in the countdown. Clearly this is a ‘big faces’ poster if ever there was one, but I’ve been drawn to posters that find a novel way to represent the psychological distance between the men of the noir underworld and those of polite society. The poster for “Heat,” with its ironically cool colors, does this quite well. Oh but how I’d love to nix those big star photos and make this one all about the arrangement of the smaller figures and their lengthening shadows.

14. Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)

The strength of the poster for Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me is multi-faceted: we’ve got an unusual composition, an unsettling juxtaposition of male / female imagery that challenges us to consider the film’s title, as well as a stylish type treatment and color palette that doesn’t make us grimace on behalf of the 80s. Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers were both riding high in 1987, so it’s surprising to see a poster for a film such as this (which is more romantic than the poster wants us to believe) that doesn’t give them the ‘big face’ treatment. This poster may rate more on style than substance, but form needn’t always follow function.

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.

12. The Two Jakes (1990)

This one’s worth it for the smoke alone. No neo-noir poster better exemplifies the deco style than this one. While the poster for Chinatown oddly employs art nouveau, the art deco style is far more appropriate to the period of both that great film and its mildly unfortunate sequel, The Two Jakes. This one is simply stunning — I’m sure I don’t need to explain it to you. However I will point out the influence of the mid-century French movie poster designers, especially Rene Peron (check some of his work out in this post here and here), on poster artist Robert Rodriguez. Note the mannered way in which Rodriguez treats the folds around Nicholson’s jacket pocket and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

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!

9. The Driver (1978)

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.

5. The French Connection (1971)

There’s one reason and one reason alone that I’ve ranked this poster so highly: it depicts the protagonist, a police detective, shooting a man in the back. This is indicative of the expansion of classic film noir to neo-noir. Looking back at the killer cop pictures of the 40s and 50s, no poster was willing to go where this one goes, not even the posters for pictures like Shield for Murder or Too Late for Tears, which are both quite scandalous in their own way. Misogynistic violence? No problem. A shot in the back? No chance. So again we have a poster that I’ve included not for it’s attractiveness or for the technical virtuosity of the designer (there’s little of either evident here), but for the careful selection of the poster’s imagery, the critical thinking and messaging involved, and what that imagery says about not just the film itself, but the evolution of the noir ethos.

4. Point Blank (1967)

Here is an exercise in stylization that almost every college art student has completed. You are given a photograph, and your job is to boil it down to its purest form, to render it in flat blacks and whites. It’s a challenge that forces young artists to make some tough decisions, and yet it’s no mere exercise either — we see this sort of imagery used extensively throughout the commercial world — just like in the poster for Point Blank, which is rapidly becoming one of the most desirable (and bloody expensive) posters of the period. The simplification of Marvin’s face gives the poster an extreme graphic power: it will attract attention in the way that all great designs are supposed to: from very far away. Yet the creative and sophisticated use of color (most likely inspired by the psychedelic posters for the Fillmore Ballroom which were en vogue at the time) maintains viewer interest as the poster is viewed from up-close. Quiet type lets the image do all the talking. A masterpiece.

3. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

This is one of my favorite posters in the countdown, a nasty poster for a nasty movie; and I’ve managed to acquire two nice copies — one for the house and one for the office! If there’s a theme that ties together many of the top posters in the countdown, it’s the way in which the designer has been able to focus on the isolation of the main character from those around him, not just physically, but psychologically as well — and in film noir it’s the alienation of the protagonist that matters. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a noir aficionado’s movie — most casual moviegoers are hardly aware of its existence. If you haven’t heard of it or seen it, make an effort to do so. It’s emblematic of the best qualities of 70s crime films: visceral, grimy, aloof, and (unlike the popular films of today) it honors the intelligence of its audience. AND it features a performer in a role that, frankly, no other actor could have played. Mitchum embodies the strange marriage of fatalism and desperation that defines our film noir heroes — and the poster for the movie shows him at his best. The black and white halftones (which will never display as well online as they do in person) speak to the grittiness of the subject, while the near Cubism-inspired collage of characters reinforces the isolation of Eddie Coyle — the only character without a gun. Brilliant, thoughtful stuff.

2. Taxi Driver (1976)

Can we call it a tie? I’m perfectly willing to if you like, and I could easily pull the switch. This thing is absolutely spectacular. Travis Bickle isn’t the ultimate noir protagonist — he’s moved psychologically far beyond how we’ve come to understand the film noir hero into something altogether different. Bickle is so alienated from society that even in the stark loneliness of his poster image he can’t bear to make eye contact with us (the true brilliance of this poster). And yet he shines there in his own little world, the star of his own movie, illuminated as if from within, along with the cab that seems an oasis against the looming, deserted city and the demons that lurk in the alleys and shadows. The mood and atmosphere created in this illustration is so compelling that we nearly forget that the subject is one of our most famous faces. (Looking at The Two Jakes, is it possible to ignore Nicholson?) And in a sense, this is essentially the same poster as the one in the entry that follows — both take their hero and thrust him front and center for our perusal, set against a backdrop of the inescapable city; opposing visions — both suited to their respective coasts — of what film noir has come to represent.

When all is said and done though, I had to make a decision between the Apple and the Angels.

1. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

And the sun sets on another countdown… 

In the end, film noir is as much about the mythology of Los Angeles as it is anything else. One can argue that the title To Live and Die in L.A. is itself a fitting way of memorializing film noir. Yet for all of the ways in which we think of Los Angeles — romantically, nostalgically, with disdain — as the ultimate urban expression of the noir milieu, it’s worth remembering that the City of Angels has as many identities as it has neighborhoods — and almost any description is fair. It’s a city of dreams found, dreams lost, and dreams long forgotten. Movers, shakers, hustlers and hangers-on. What I like so much about this poster is how it manages, in just one photograph, to viscerally represent so much of how we’ve come to visualize our most mythic town. And it’s a stunning photograph! Forget C.S.I.this is how William Petersen is supposed to look: in sunglasses, turned-up collar, frayed jeans and boots, he’s the ultimate Angelino. With the sun setting over the scrub-covered hills behind him, he somehow manages to straddle the space between shadows and light — silhouetted before the impossible light source coming from the overpass above. Clearly the photo is contrived, but quietly and beautifully so; rich in color and details (that arrow!), so steeped in what film noir is all about, and about to explode with pent-up energy. Truly this is the best of the best.

Thanks for reading, I hope you’ve enjoyed the countdown and downloaded 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. 


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  2. You are so right about the Manhunter poster. The colors and graphics scream the 80s, but the overall effect is timeless. It's strange to see that usually cheerful, gaudy style work in such an unsettling way.

  3. Following this countdown has truly been a pleasure.

    1. Thanks so much Tony. For your blog as well, I always appreciate your insight on the new stuff!

  4. Thanks for doing this series. I loved it, both for the posters and your comments.

    Darn you for pointing out that typographical schtupping in Ms. .45, however. If you hadn't, I'm sure I wouldn't have noticed it, and I would have been spared saying "Oh dear" out loud in a Miss Marple voice. (Great movie, BTW.)

    1. Thanks Karl! I must have looked at that poster a thousand times myself before I noticed that nuance in the type. Certainly puts the film into an odd perspective.

  5. I always look forward to your poster countdowns and this one was supremely enjoyable. As someone with no background in design, I really appreciate the little mini-lessons you give here for each poster. Great job as always!

    1. Rachel, thanks so much for reading - I really appreciate it!

  6. Excellent job with this. It reminds me how exciting posters used to be. Eddie coyle is my favorite, i have it in my living room.

  7. That is some treat for all the fans of neo noir!