May 24, 2010

50 Great Movie Posters: Part 3 (The '70s & '80s)

As nearly everyone knows, the mid-'70s brought about the rise of the modern-day blockbuster film. In the next five years, poster design for the giant tentpole film would be perfected by artists like Bob Peak (Superman: The Movie) and Roger Kastel (Jaws). The hand-drawn montage character posters (think Indiana Jones) were perfected by artist Drew Struzan in particular, who probably designed the cover of every VHS you owned as a kid (he also did the poster for the first Harry Potter film). Both the symbol-centered teaser poster and the staggered character poster templates are alive and well in recent blockbusters--see: The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Without further ado, enjoy these posters from the 1970s and 1980s.

Film: Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, USA, 1971)
Designer: Piero Ermanno Iaia, Italy

What better way to open the '70s than with this counterculture classic? I love this multilayered mosaic design. I don't know much about the film other than if you were cool back in the day, you thought Easy Rider was for posers and Billy Jack was where it's at. Taking a cue from Dennis Hopper, Tom Laughlin wrote, directed and starred in Billy Jack, an even grimier, lower budget road-and-revenge picture than Hopper's Easy Rider. Billy Jack is a part-Native American who's sick of injustice and decides to go rouge. The images splashed against his face look like war paint and the hat and profile recall Sitting Bull. The rather lame tagline is easily overshadowed by the overall badassery of this poster's design. Any self-respecting SDS member would be proud to hang this poster in their dorm.

Film: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunel, France/Italy/Spain, 1972)
Designer: Ferracci, France

Oh, Bunuel, you so crazy. Made during a late career resurgence, this film is among his most famous. This is in no small part due to the iconic surrealistic logo. The bowler hat is an obvious reference to the haughty anachronism of the titular class--it's 1972, who wears bowlers? The legs are from an even earlier century, belonging probably to a wig-wearing, fake mole-sporting dandy. And the lips are the charm, that sickening "kissy kissy" charm of those making nice for social niceties' sake. The absence of any other signifiers forces you to ally the title with the image and the complementary colors of the title and the oversized lips cement the connection.

Film: Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, France & Italy, 1972)
Designer: Unknown, USA

The most simplistic design on this list, Last Tango in Paris succeeds solely due to the assumption that everyone in the audience knows who Marlon Brando is, how cool he is, what a great actor he is, coupled with how relaxed and satisfied he looks on the poster. There's not much more that needs to be said. The font type is classically '70s. It doesn't tell us much more. Less is certainly more with a film of this reputation. It's rated X and the only films that get an X rating were, of course, for sex. Brando's reclining repose plus an X rating plus the gossip and controversy the film garnered upon release equals curious filmgoers equals box office.

Film: Chinatown (Roman Polanski, USA, 1974)
Designer: Jim Pearsall & Richard Amsel, Italy

This beautiful poster from the Italian release of Chinatown is somewhere between Arts Nouveau and Deco. Although not dark, it couldn't be more noir in its imagery--the face of a beautiful woman framed by silky cigarette smoke, overseeing/haunting the fedora'd male protagonist. My favorite touch is that the smoke curls around the bottom of the poster, indicating everything will come full circle at Nicholson's character, probably, if we know anything about film noir (or cigarette smoke, for that matter), for the worse. 

Film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, USA, 1975)
Designer: Unknow, USA

This one is simple: the title "flies" over Nicholson, the "cuckoo." Literal, playful and a clean design aesthetic. The fence and the lock in the title connote imprisonment but Nicholson's cheerful demeanor and skyward glance indicate his body may be incarcerated by his mind will never be chained. The design does a good job of utilizing Nicholson's star power to sell the picture while still avoiding blandness (nowadays the photos of stars used to sell films rarely have anything to do with the films themselves; too many film posters are just pretty, airbrushed US Weekly covers).

Film: Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1976)
Designer: Andrzej Klimowski, Poland

Klimowski is probably most well-known for the posters he's done for the films of director Jim Jarmusch, but I love his interpretation of Taxi Driver. Whereas the U.S. posters focus on Travis Bickle's isolation, this one gets to the heart of his twisted psychology. He's a man obviously divided and the conflict between his outer and inner self forms the basis for the film's tension. I also like that Travis' checkered shirt pattern is extended in the striated pattern between his two halves; the long tails on the T and Z of the title echo the same kind of cleavage. 

Film: The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, USA, 1976)
Designer: Bill Gold, USA

Bill Gold has done a ton of posters for Eastwood's films, including Unforgiven (which I'll get to in the next installment). But I really like Josey Wales because it's so viscerally satisfying. Let's read from the top down. Clint Eastwood: by 1976 you already have a badass image conjured; this is post-Leone, post-Dirty Harry and the reputation is well established. BAM! The image: Clint is mad as hell and he's got two ways to vent his anger, one in each hand. I mean, just look at that face. Nevermind that Josey in the film is actually a comparatively nice guy who has to avenge his family and is only labeled an outlaw by the Union soldiers who killed his wife and daughter in the first place. I mean, the guy can't catch a break. You'd be mad, too. But the execution of this design is so straightforward and so effective. It's a great example of a star persona-centered poster that really delivers on the promise of some satisfying genre brutality. Good times.

Film: Eraserhead (David Lynch, UK, 1976)
Designer: Ben Barenholtz, photographer

If ever there was a cult poster, it's Eraserhead, the classic example of dorm room wall art. A sample conversation:

Co-Ed #1: Dude, sweet poster. Have you seen the movie?
Co-Ed #2: Wait, what movie? Oh, Eraserhead? Nah.
Co-Ed #1: Cool poster, though.
Co-Ed #2: Right? Look at his hair!

The photo of actor Jack Nance was taken by Libra Films head honcho Ben Barenholtz. The entire production was cheap and dirty, financed for a mind-boggling $10,000 with Lynch's AFI grant. With a budget like that, it's critical you have an eye-catching advertising campaign, which Eraserhead certainly does. And a poster of a spaced-out looking guy with crazy hair never hurts with your cult credentials.

Film: Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1979)
Designer: Bob Peak, USA

This poster was sent by grocery clerks. Sorry, couldn't resist. But seriously, folks, how sweet is this poster? I can practically feel the sticky heat and hear the mosquitos. Nasty. There's some subtle "Land of the Rising Sun" imagery going on here, with the red sun in the center and the emanating rays. Obviously Vietnam isn't Japan, but there's a subliminal Pan-Asian feel to the design. It's also clever how we transition seamlessly from Brando's face, dripping with water, to river below so we can see the reflected lights. It gives a sense of place and bearing in what is really, impenetrable and undifferentiated darkness.

Film: Alien (Ridley Scott, USA & UK, 1979)
Designer: Steve Frankfurt & Philip Gips, USA

In space, no one can hear you scream. Did you get the chills? Ooh, everything about this poster is impeccable. From the eerily spaced letters in the film's title (a lot of space between letters makes sense to the creepy green mist and unsettling crisscross pattern across the bottom (are those bodies? gulp!), everything about the Alien poster is meant to put you ill at ease. And yet, like the film itself, there are no obvious attempts at scares. There's no blood, no screaming buxom blonde, no monsters. It evokes a psychological horror. The unknown--is that an egg? Is it...hatching?--is what terrifies. The Alien poster perfectly matches the deliberate, slow-burn intensity of the film.

Film: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, USA, 1980)
Designer: Roger Kastel, USA

Just to give you an example of how important Roger Kastel was to '70s poster design, in addition to Empire Strikes Back, he also drew the poster for Jaws. So, yeah, kinda influential. Jaws was thirty five years ago and still that shark is instantly recognizable; the poster is as iconic as John William's score. Kastel's poster for Empire was inspired by the classic art of Gone With the Wind, perhaps a strange antecedent for a sci-fi film but one that ads an unexpected and refreshing romanticism to the film. I also really love the color gradation on this poster. The cool whites and blues conjure up the ice planet Hoth while the purples convey a kind of extraterrestrial mysticism. I don't know why but I always imagine deep space having lots of purples (depressingly, it seems the universe is actually beige--lame).

Film: Manhunter (Michael Mann, USA, 1986)
Designer: Unknown, USA

I don't know why, but I've always really loved this poster. I think it's because it's cinematic. The top is a close-up, the diagonal line is the cut, the second triangle is the long shot and the final section is the title card. The tagline ("It's just you and me, sport...") is a line from the film and its placement indicates William Petersen's spoken dialogue. The color palette is dark with pink and orange accents, perfectly replicating Michael Mann's neo[n]-noir style. It's a simple poster but a very effective one. It's stylish and moody enough without screaming "Eighties!" and gets its point across with little effort and a lot of cool.

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