Rogue’s Gallery: Posters – the good and the bad

ROGUE’S GALLERY – Where three dedicated Noirheads discuss, argue and bat around topics on all things Film Noir.
With Jake Hinkson, Cullen Gallagher and Eric Beetner.

Eric:
Were going lightweight this time.
I’m a poster collector. I think the movie poster images are as integral to the visual style of what we consider Noir as the cinematography. It is also the most direct link between the pulp fiction origins of Noir and the screen.

What I want to know is – what is the title with the biggest spread between great movie and lousy poster? And vice versa, what poster makes you drool but the movie makes you snore?

For me part 1 is The Asphalt Jungle. The film is brilliant, no argument there. But, man, MGM had a way of putting out the most boring cut-and-paste posters on a daily basis and they went all-out ugly for the 1-sheet of The Asphalt Jungle. The bad painting, all words, no images. It means nothing, says nothing about the feel of the film, the cast, the story. It makes me so mad because a film this great deserves a classic poster and we got this crap.


I’m no fan of Warner Bros. generic style with the big red paint brush marks that make every film look and feel exactly the same. But, MGM laid an egg in their poster department. Odd for a studio known for lush and lavish color spectacles on screen.

For a bad film with a good poster there are dozens to choose from. PRC dreck like Dangerous Intruder? A movie like Blonde Ice that would never be known other than the poster with a beautiful dame on it? Jigsaw, Inside Job, Night Without Sleep, Make Haste to Live? Take your pick of Hugo Haas movies.
I’ll have to go Money Madness. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have a soft spot for Hugh Beaumont Noir just because it is impossible to separate him from Ward Cleaver and it still makes me chuckle. I even have affection for Apology For Murder, the most plagiaristic of all Noirs, it being a direct rip-off of Double Indemnity to the point that Paramount sued to have the film withdrawn.


Yeah, I’m going Money Madness for the title and the lurid come-on of the poster. All of it leads you think you’re in for some sleazy fun, but you get a typical Sigmund Neufeld disaster. It’s like an A-List noir that has been photocopied a dozen times until all the edges are blurry and hard to read. ( want to see for yourself? The whole film is on YouTube)
What about you boys?

Jake:

I like the point you make about the connection between noir posters and the pulp covers that directly or indirectly influenced them. As I look back on the films I love, it is odd how often I connect the poster with the film. For instance, I can’t think of Vertigo without connecting it to the orange swirl of the iconic poster. And this is exactly the way I tend to think of books and their covers. (Just as an aside on this: much as I love the old pulp covers of Jim Thompson novels, I can’t really think of his books without thinking of the sheer badassery of the Black Lizard reprints.)

I think the main culprit of bad poster-making during the classic period had to be Warner Brothers. What would I like better than to have a kick ass poster of The Big Sleep? Here you have damn-near the most entertaining movie ever made and the poster is a hopelessly banal visual: the lopped heads of Bogart and Bacall staring at their own names and the title of the movie. Snore.

My vote for most underwhelming poster for a great movie goes to Too Late For Tears. Here’s one of the great underrated noir treasures, showcasing noir goddess Lizabeth Scott’s most chilling performance as an ice-cold femme fatale, and featuring deliciously sleazy work from everyone favorite’s slimeball, Dan Duryea. But the poster art is a creepy glorification of the one scene in the flick where Duryea slaps her around. The reason for this visual is that slapping women around always sold tickets back in the day (see kids, things weren’t better sixty years ago), and Duryea was the king of the womanbeaters in classic Hollywood.

 

The problem with the poster art, besides the misogyny, is that it’s a misrepresentation of the movie’s main appeal, which is the steely turn by Liz Scott. You wouldn’t be able to tell this from the film’s other main poster, which features Liz smiling like she’s starring in a musical comedy.

A far better poster for the film is this weird Danish take on the flick.

(On another aside: the other Scott masterpiece, De Toth’s Pitfall, has one of my favorite posters in all of noir.)

As for a subpar movie with a terrific poster, I have to go with Crime of Passion. This movie was a big disappointment for me: Sterling Hayden, Barbara Stanwyck, and Raymond Burr in a story of adultery and murder. What could be better? Well, a lot of things are better than this middling drama. But man, the poster (THE SIN…THE LIE…THE CRIME OF PASSION) is one of those beautifully simple concepts that seems to herald a far better movie than the one we actually get.

 

CULLEN:
As far as poster art goes, lately I’ve really been into some of these Polish posters that Mark Fertig has posted on his blog, Where Danger Lives. It’s a totally different approach to the films than the original classic Hollywood posters. Those classic noir posters, at their best, capture the romance and the drama of the films. These Polish posters are more symbolic, and take a more oblique approach. They’re strange, all right, but it’s hard to deny that they’re creepy as hell and totally captivating. They touch on the more intellectual and cerebral side of noir, but those elements are totally a natural part of the movies, too. Mark’s first post has an amazing poster for Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window – the image Edward G. Robinson tearing himself apart from his acid-deteriorated mirror is utterly fantastic, and it conveys the inner-drama of his character so perfectly.

Also, the skull used for Vertigo may be blunt, but man, I don’t know if I’ve seen a cooler use of skulls ever before…unless it is the Rififi poster, which uses jewels for the eyes and mouth. Mark’s second post includes some terrific neo-noir posters for Night Moves (that severed hand is just awesome), The Conversation (another skull!), Chinatown (sex, money, and a flower the looks like blood — yup, the movie in a nutshell), and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (a haunting charcoal portrait that might not be specific to the movie itself, but still manages to fascinate me).

As far as classic posters go, I never cared for the Sunset Boulevard poster. Brilliant movie, terrible graphic design. The celluloid strip is sort of gimmicky, the overdose of red is just annoying (and makes Gloria Swanson even more garish than in the movie), and the image of William Holden and Nancy Kelly hugging makes the sexual dynamics seem way more vanilla than in the actual movie.

And for a bad film with a good poster…the only thing that is coming to mind right now is Red Light, with George Raft. Granted, the poster ain’t all that great, but it does promise sex, violence, stealing, femme fatales, and George Raft. And hey, it is called “Red Light,” which might make you think about Red Light Districts…but the movie is far more interested in religious redemption than any of the more fun “sins” that noir typically delights in.

Director Roy Del Ruth is an underrated talent, for sure – and his Pre-Codes are unbeatable, like The Mind Reader, for instance – but Red Light is certainly one of his least satisfying movies. There’s nothing much memorable about the movie at all… I can barely recount the plot. But, I can still remember the poster, years later.

Eric:
Great choices, both of you. Jake, I hadn’t thought of Too Late For Tears mostly because the salacious image is fairly satisfying for me, but you’re right that it is a misrepresentation of the film. Much like The Big Heat is an unfair image to sell the film. Why is Glenn Ford brutalizing a woman? He doesn’t do that in the film.


And Cullen, those Polish posters are brilliant. (loved the Riffifi) We should direct people to visit Mark’s blog and click on the link for his countdown of the top 100 noir posters of all time. I may not have agreed with many of his placements it is a great collection of the classics all in one place.

Jake Hinkson is the author of Hell On Church Street. He blogs at thenighteditor.blogspot.com
Cullen Gallagher writes about all things pulp at www.pulpserenade.com/
Eric Beetner is author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision and co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble as well as appearing in the anthologies D*cked, Pulp Ink, Grimm Tales, Off The Record and Discount Noir. For more visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com

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