100 GREATEST POSTERS of FILM NOIR! Top 10! This is it!
I hope everyone who has participated in the countdown over the last three months has enjoyed it as much as I have. For my part I’ve realized that there’s a great deal more to mid-century poster design than just the work of Saul Bass, and that the film noir movement provided rich fodder for the poster artists of the era — resulting in a cohesive body of work as invigorating and topical as the films themselves.
Any time someone makes a ranked list they open a can of worms, especially regarding whatever thing finishes on top of the stack. I can tell you that over the course of producing this list I shuffled film posters up and down at each and every sitting, particularly when selecting the top 25 or so. Over the past three months, I considered four different posters for the top spot, and I’m certain I’ll have second thoughts in the future. So like my other great love, the Academy Awards, it’s important to keep in mind that it isn’t really about deciding which is “best,” but using the occasion as an excuse to celebrate something we all truly love, the movies.
We’ve talked about many themes throughout the countdown, yet I think the notion of redemption is new here. Instead of chronicling the protagonist’s fall from respectability to the gutter, Guilty Bystander picks up where other films have left off, with Zach Scott languishing in a hell of his own creation, inwardly looking for some way to climb back out of the gutter. Such roles came easily for Scott — he was a professional heel in the movies, and audiences loved hating him. In Guilty Bystander he plays a man who gets a second chance, and somehow manages to reclaim the important things he thought were lost to him.
Noir pictures so often chronicle the breaking of a man, and the poster here shows a man broken. Look at Scott’s face, such pathos! Yet he’s on his feet, gun in hand, trying hard to get past all of the terrible things he’s been part of, looking tentatively off into the distance at some seemingly impossible future. For me at least, this isn’t a poster; it’s a mirror.
Veronica Lake: the ice-princess, the girl with the peekaboo bang. Next to Marilyn Monroe, the most photogenic Hollywood actress of all time. In James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential she’s the lurking, symbolic presence of the Hollywood mystique. Lake’s history is well known, so I won’t rehash it here; but at 4’ 11”, her career really took off with this This Gun for Hire, when Hollywood finally found an actor in 5’ 3” Alan Ladd who looked good standing beside her — and people wonder why they made so many pictures together! Ladd was such a beginner at the time that he only rated fourth billing, even though he’s undoubtedly the film’s star.
What’s not to like here? Why place it at five? I have a few reasons for not placing this in the top spot — though in my first few drafts of the list I had it there. First is the type at the top of the poster, Alan Ladd’s name (four letters, like Lake) would look so much better up there, and would certainly balance the composition more than Preston’s; and I don’t think the names integrate well with the rest of the design. They are too heavy, and the poster would improve if they could shift to the bottom, and the artwork could shift up. More importantly though (and don’t get mad at me!), I have issues with the illustration of Lake, it’s fine, but it just doesn’t quite look like her. If you disagree that’s just fine, but Lake had a girlish quality to her beauty that is absent here, not to mention an exquisite delicacy to her features that I also can’t find in the image. As I’m writing this I’ve placed a photograph of her face beside the poster and it just doesn’t stack up. Nonetheless, this is a showstopper, I’ve used the image of Alan Ladd as my internet avatar for many years. This is one of the greatest film posters ever made.
No bleeds, how cool is that! Have you ever seen a film poster without a border? Few have ever been made, and this is certainly the best of them. We’ve seen many limited color palettes, but none this limited — and it’s surprising to think that in the entire body of classic noir this is the only poster that uses black and white to such stunning effect, if at all! An outstanding poster is every regard, from the composition to the quality of the illustration, to the typography, and so forth. The image of Victor Mature perfectly summarizes his character’s frame of mind: world weary and terrified, constantly looking over his shoulder. Note also the way the letter “I” in “Kiss” is used to cleverly integrate type and image. I also love the subtle knife-shaped shadow speeding into Mature’s head from the right. This is pure film noir, the only thing missing is Tommy Udo and the wheelchair.
From the perspective of the graphic designer this is the greatest film poster of all time. No example from another era, nor one in another style, genre, or whatever you want to call it so perfectly (or simply) communicates the content of its film nearly as well as the poster for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. As I said last week, this isn’t a film that I respond to strongly, so I surprised myself a little by placing it here. In the end, doing so was simply unavoidable, and even my personal preferences couldn’t overcome the incredible power of this poster.
And what better kind of film to merit such a compliment as one about the movie industry itself? First, the designer must also be applauded for avoiding the obvious: the street sign. How easy it would have been to simply make a poster with a Sunset Blvd. sign and call it a day — sorry to those involved with the later musical, but there it is. The designer here dug deeper and uncovered the truth, and frankly, no poster solved with a mere street sign could ever do this movie justice. Even Billy Wilder understood this, as he opens not with the title on a street sign, but stenciled on the curb, next to the gutter. The poster itself is extremely simple — even minimal by 1950 Hollywood standards. It’s greatest strength is that unlike other film posters, and in spite of its own simplicity, it attacks the design problem with two concepts: the first is the filmstrip, the notion of which is at first almost a cliché, but it’s less about the filmstrip than it is the knot — making it appear as some sort of noose, drawing ever nearer and ever tighter around the neck of hack screenwriter Joe Gillis. The second is Gloria Swanson, whose Norma Desmond looms over this film like no other character had ever done before. The size relationship of the images is important as well, Desmond is a monstrosity: always present, larger than life, watching, ready to swoop down on Joe should he try to escape the filmic ‘knot’ in which she’s bound him. It speaks to the strength of the tandem concepts here that the poster could succeed conceptually if one or the other were removed — by taking out either he filmstrip or all of the images, yet because of the Spartan presentation they still coexist gloriously.
I’m sad to reach then end, but I can promise more posters and analysis in the future. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did, and I’ll be back soon with more film essays. See you then.
Film Noir 101: The 101 Best Film Noir Posters From The 1940s-1950s
by Mark Fertig
“The 101 Best Film Noir Posters” is an outstanding and beautifully crafted book. It is an oversize coffee table book about the size of an average placemat. The design of the book is clean and purposeful with 101 full-color pages of film noir poster art. There is one poster per page and nothing else on the page but the page number counting backward. This artwork is the best from a clearly defined stylistic studio period which is easily recognizable to nearly every fan of noir. As with all Fantagraphics books, it is nicely bound and it is easy to lay the book flat on the table without damaging the spine.
After the posters, there is a separate section where each film is summarized with short essays in the exact order of their appearance in the book in a countdown fashion from 101 to 1. They are in order of author Mark Fertig’s personal quality meter which seems to be well calibrated. Don’t let anyone spoil the top ten for you in any reviews. As you work your way through the book you will be amazed at the powerhouse films which appear with greater frequency as you turn the pages. You will also be overwhelmed by the desire to dig up many of these films and watch them again or for the first time.
I would also recommend this book as an excellent reference for artists and graphic designers. There are many creative uses of color and image/text placement among these pages. Most fascinating is the way each poster draws you to a single spot then moves your eyes like a cascading waterfall across and down the page. It is interesting to see the creativity needed for a poster artist to adapt to a fairly structured style with many recurring themes. It is especially interesting to study those who clearly achieved a mastery of the style. There are many.
My only regret for this volume was the complete lack of information about the creators themselves. I realize many are unknown but even a history of the art departments of the Hollywood studios would have been an excellent addition to this book. I can’t count this as a negative because it clearly is not the intention of the book. As there is very little information in this area, this would be an interesting avenue to pursue should Fertig choose to do a follow up to this volume.