May 22, 2010

50 Great Movie Posters: Part 2 (The '50s & 60s)

Poster design really started to change in the '50s with the rise of graphic design in advertising and animated title sequences in film. It's the decade of Saul Bass, whose work I'll only feature once in this list (or else I'd run the risk of featuring everything he ever did to the exclusion of all other designers). The '60s were an interesting transitory period in film and film advertising. Towards the end of the decade you see a turn toward the giant, big concept poster designs which would dominate into the '70s and herald the dawn of the blockbuster. But the decade as a whole is a mixed bag of traditional Old Hollywood design, hand-drawn and star-powered, and nifty new counterculture-infused posters.

Film: Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, USA, 1950)
Designer: Waldemar Swierzy, Poland

It's interesting we start with this poster, by Polish master Waldemar Swierzy because the entry also ends with a Swierzy poster. This poster captures the film perfectly. Anyone who's seen Sunset Blvd. knows it's all about Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. It's one of the greatest performances in film history and the lady is batshit crazy. Swierzy wisely renders Desmond as a modern Medusa, the one-time beauty who become the monster (Freud allied the mythic lady to castration and maternal sexuality)--a pretty good symbol for Norma Desmond. She has her gorgons out for Joe Gillis (William Holden) since the word go, and gets him, too (then guess what happens). Sunset Blvd. is straight out of Greek tragedy, updated to the 1950s via the landscape of slinky, sinister, femme fatale'd film noir. This poster is full of potent symbols and allusions that do Wilder's film proud.

Film: Murder in the Cathedral (George Hoellering, UK, 1951)

This poster is an example of flawless execution of a concept. Running with the primary form of artistic expression in a cathedral (stained glass), the poster manages to convey both the plot and setting of the film (the title helps with this) while tying the event (the murder of St. Thomas Becket) to its religious/artistic roots. It's a simple design but it works beautifully.

Film: On the Waterfront (Eliza Kazan, USA, 1954)
Designer: Anselmo Ballester, Italy

This Italian poster is a good example of Europeans kicking ass when it comes to poster design. The American theatrical poster for On the Waterfront looked more like On the Watercolor Front. And while Ballester's painting may not be factually accurate (Brando doesn't wield a gun), it captures an emotional honesty. The final confrontation between Brando's Terry and the mob is tense and dramatic. This poster also conveys Brando in a boxer's pose, confronting the ominous, unseen opponent. It's compelling work and so much more interesting than its stateside counterpart.

Film: Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
Designer: Saul Bass

Of course the one Saul Bass design I'd pick would be Vertigo. It has to be. Although every other poster he did for directors like Hitchcock or Otto Preminger could have been featured here (imagine the dancing figures of the West Side Story poster or the jagged symbol of drug addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm), Vertigo is his most iconic and enduring design. It's the perfect example of integrated design work within and without a film. Bass designed the poster as well as the film's title sequence and consulted with Hitchcock on the spiral vertigo sequences in the film. Characteristic of perfectionists like Hitch and Bass, every element is contained within a single unified piece. 

Film: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Nathan Juran, USA, 1958)
Designer: Reynold Brown

Reynold Brown's poster for this film is kind of the classic '50s movie monster poster (he also designed the poster for Creature From the Black Lagoon and Tarantula). It's goofy, it's campy, it's titillating. It's anything but scary. It's also a classic case of the poster being more famous than the movie. You're much more likely to have seen this image than the film itself. Heck, I haven't even seen it. But look closer and there's real pop art genius going on here. The yellow background is offset nicely by blue and red cars, creating a strangely warm and familiar glow to this scene of science run amok. 

Film: Pickpocket (Luc Bresson, France, 1959)
Designer: Hans Hillmann, Germany

Hans Hillmann is kind of the man in German film poster design. This poster for Bresson's classic is more understated than his typical work. I like the vagueness of the surroundings; it's not entirely clear where the hand is coming from or where it will return. What kind of clothes are these? I do like the textural, tactile feeling of this poster with the wrinkled palm and thick (perhaps woolen) clothing juxtaposed. It's a classic imagine that's instantly intuitive. It's what you might imagine if you heard the title "Pickpocket."

Film: Zazie dans le metro (Louis Malle, France & Italy, 1960)
Designer: Unknown, France

Ladies and gentlemen, the enduring power of photography for capturing gap-toothed cuteness. I mean, c'mon. Adorable.

Film: Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut, France, 1960)
Designer: Unknown, France

You gotta love the French New Wave. Their new instinctively how to advertise themselves. As critics, they understood design, symbology and marketability. The film's symbol of the piano player without piano and a target on his back looks like something the Criterion Collection would have cooked up 50 years after the fact, but it was there from the first. The literal treatment of the title always amuses me. You think, oh, maybe "shoot the piano player" is like a metaphor for something. But, no. It means shoot him. Shoot him a bunch of times (and steal his piano while you're at it). 

Film: Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960)
Designer: Unknown, USA

Okay, I'm cheating a bit here. This isn't a film poster proper; it's a stand-up ad placed in movie theaters during Psycho's theatrical run. Hitchcock looks very stern indeed. Better not piss him off, he kills scores of people every week on television! The stories are legendary, of course, as this ad demonstrates. Managers really did turn people away from shows if they were late. I can't remember all the details, but one newspaper (or maybe magazine) hired a pregnant woman to show up late to see if the manager would still reject her--and he did! No mercy. Hitch's theatrical theatrics made Psycho the must-see movie event of 1960, a brilliant marketing strategy and a paean to the power of the celebrity auteur.

Film: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1962)
Designer: Unknown, Italy

A disturbing poster for a disturbing movie, this Italian version eliminates the picture's stars Davis and Crawford that appeared in the American campaign and focuses instead on the film's symbol: a cracked baby doll. The American poster features a child's nursery rhyme as tagline: "Sister, sister, oh so fair, why is there blood all over your hair?" So, it's a pretty tough call as to which version is creepier.

Film: 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, Italy & France, 1963)
Designer: Uknown, Italy

I like the mixed media feel of this poster, a fitting expression of Guido's (Marcello Mastroianni) fragmented and distracted mind. Guido is looking up as if imagining, conjuring all the women in his life affixed to the scaffolding he must climb to construct the narrative of his life. The poster imperceptibly conveys the entire plot of the film simply from the posturing of the characters. Neat trick.

Film: Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, UK, 1964)
Designer: Tomi Ungerer

Tomi Ungerer wrote and illustrated a book that was a cherished memory of my childhood. It's called Moon Man and until I was researching the designer of this poster, I had no idea the two were connected. Could my childhood love of Moon Man unconsciously influenced my love of Dr. Strangelove? It was an awesome epiphany moment. I don't know what I love more about this poster: the rotundness of it all or the fact that Peter Sellers is nowhere to be seen. If ever there was a movie where Peter Sellers should be on the poster, it's Dr. Strangelove. And yet, I don't miss him. I like the oblique symbolism in this poster. The planes (the Cold War, its importance) is literally flying over the politicians' heads. The cocktail glass is a nice touch. I don't know what a "suspense comedy" is but the poster does a good job of conveying the film is a comedy via cartoon characters but doesn't make it too cartoony by not showing us anyone's face (this isn't The Pink Panther, after all).

Film: Downhill Racer (Michael Ritchie, USA, 1969)
Designer: Steve Frankfurt

Very similar to Frankfurt's more famous poster for Rosemary's Baby, I quite prefer the understated and yet overwhelming whiteness to the other poster's green tint. Starting with a traditional photo of a lovers' kiss, as we move down the poster (as one might down a hill...hmm...), we come to realize the blank space isn't blank, but purposefully, blindingly white. It's snow. In relief, the lovers become mountains and the lone, tiny racer in the middle of it all. Even the title typography reflects the film's premise. The overall effect is subtle but powerful which I prefer to Rosemary's Baby's vaguely menacing green-ness (of course, it could be argued that 'satan knocked me up' is not a super predictable condition, so maybe vaguely menacing works better than an obvious satanic red and black color scheme).

Film: Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, USA, 1969)
Designer: Waldemar Swierzy, Poland

Poland has a history of doing awesome revisions of classic New Hollywood films and Waldemar Swierzy's take on Midnight Cowboy is a gem in that regard. Of course the American ads shied away from implications of Joe Buck's real occupation--nothing unseemly or homosexual in these ads. In keeping with tradition, the American posters focus on Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, two loners hunched up against the cold, dwarfed in an unfriendly urban milieu. Nothing wrong with these posters but I think the Poles got more to the heart of the matter here. The face is in shadow, the black/blue color scheme a reference to the film's title. We see nothing but plump, gaudy lips. Gender: unknown. They look female, but it's cowboy not cowgirl. Now we're in the danger zone. We can't see anything...except those lips. Lookin' for a good time?


Tomorrow we'll visit the '70s and '80s and marvel at the creation of the symbol-based, blockbuster-hockin' big event movie posters we know and love today!

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