This week’s question comes from reader Karen G.:
What’s your favorite movie poster? Regardless of how you felt about the actual film, what poster stands out in your mind the most?
There are enough iconic Saul Bass designs to fill this entire article, but rather than greedily claim them all, I’ll choose the one that led me to take notice of his work after first spying it on the video store shelf. Bass’ Anatomy Of A Murder one-sheet for Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom drama—which followed his equally simple yet arresting title sequence and poster for Preminger’s The Man With The Golden Arm—is rightly revered as a masterwork of evocative minimalism. As Pat Kirkham explains in Saul Bass: A Life In Film And Design, Bass’ crime scene stencil, spliced and pulled apart in different directions, wryly suggests “the dissection of a body of evidence in a court of law,” while the variation in hand-lettered type sizes nods to “inconsistency… just as every version of events is different” in the trial Jimmy Stewart’s lawyer character undertakes. Like all of Bass’ creations, it’s stark yet cleverly nuanced—and instantly evocative, distilling the essence of the film down to a single image that’s arguably proved more enduring than the movie it hails from.
I’m a big fan of All City Media’s poster for Moon. For such a minimalist piece of design work, it’s able to pack plenty of thematic resonance and subtle hints toward the film’s twists. Set against the black void of space, Sam Rockwell’s lone spaceman is trapped in a deconstructed heavenly body, his body language and the image’s barren composition evoking the movie’s powerful sense of isolation. The concentric circles of that minimalist moon allude to Rockwell’s growing distance—from his past, his family, his reality—and descent into madness. My favorite touch might be the text treatment on Rockwell’s name, which appears to be replicating and fading ad nauseam. It’s not the most attractive bit of design, but it’s a clever little nod that, like the best foreshadowing, only becomes stupidly obvious once you’ve seen the film.
Like the movie it promotes, the poster for William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a surprisingly understated affair. There are no demonic faces, no crab-walking little girls, no gallons of pea soup. Just a man, standing at the verge of something old, mysterious, and extraordinarily dangerous to the mortal soul. The strange thing about The Exorcist is that its title character is only the fourth most important character in the movie—fifth, if you count the demon inhabiting Regan MacNeil. But there’s something both deeply calming, and strangely anxiety inducing, about the poster’s silhouetted shot of Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow) arriving at the MacNeils’ Georgetown home. On the one hand, even in silhouette, Von Sydow radiates a dignity and quiet calm. But it also captures the threshold moment of the battle to come, the film’s last few seconds of peace before the final confrontation between Merrin and Damien Karras, and the demon Pazuzu, and Karras sends it tumbling down to its ultimately lethal end.
You’d think a movie about dinosaurs would want to put them front and center, but like Jaws (the movie, not the poster), Jurassic Park knows that less is more. Rather than advertising the dinos themselves, the poster emphasizes the idea of the park as a real place. The film’s in-world branding becomes its real-world marketing and—much like the guests of Jurassic Park—you know you’ll have to pay if you actually want to see a prehistoric creature in action (don’t worry, there’s a coupon day). Coupled with a plain black background that immediately stands out in a world of overly cluttered posters, the Jurassic Park design offers a nifty bit of world-building that doesn’t give anything away. I’ll take that over Chris Pratt in a raptor motorcycle gang any day.
In terms of a poster that’s actually trying to sell a film, nothing is better than the one for 1986’s Transformers: The Movie. Granted, it’s trying to sell toys as much as the film, but there are so many brilliant layers to this thing that I can’t help but love it. For starters, there’s the not-so-subtle homage to a classic Star Wars poster, one-upping Luke Skywalker and his hero pose with five different robots in five different hero poses. Then there’s the fact that none of the characters from the actual Transformers cartoon are on the poster, which both foreshadows the fact that nearly all of them die in the movie and helps push the toys based on the new characters. There’s even a nice bit of spoiler evasion, since the film’s surprise protagonist—a brash Autobot appropriately named Hot Rod—is barely featured. To top it all off, there’s a delightfully meaningless tagline that tells you nothing about the movie but still somehow makes it seem exciting.
I love illustrated posters for their capacity to be evocative instead of simply informative. Bob Peak’s blood-red masterpiece for Fistful Of Dollars, Jim Pearsall’s art deco-noir Chinatown piece, or Tom Jung’s evocative, dreamlike Star Wars posters are all perfect examples of using illustration to set the mood of a movie experience. But as individually stunning as each of those pieces are, Richard Amsel’s iconic Raiders Of The Lost Ark rerelease poster stands out as the best of the medium. It isn’t just because of Raiders’ status as one of the most beloved adventure movies of all time. Even divorced from the movie, the poster is a masterpiece of composition. It’s lively and kinetic, with Indiana Jones positioned front and center, looking the viewer straight in the eye with the dashing, confident grin that invites you along for the adventure. He swings his whip in a wide arc, the movement reinforced by the stone circle behind him. Incan architecture contains the image, providing a flattened, textural framing device with the supporting characters woven throughout. It’s as mysterious and exciting as any of the forgotten treasures dug up within the movie.
The only movie poster I’ve ever bought is one featuring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard from An Education. I loved the film, and I admired how the poster was able to convey almost the entirety of it. By mimicking the understated beauty and hinting at An Education’s themes of the complications of growing up and how that differs from actually maturing, the poster is as intimate as the story of Jenny Mellor (Mulligan). Mellor is a teenage girl from London who enters into a relationship with David Goldman (Sarsgaard), a man twice her age. Although this may sound worrisome, take note of the strength in Mulligan’s expression, which accurately reflects her character’s outcome. And don’t forget to enjoy the obvious attractiveness of the 1960s aesthetic.
Where do I start with the glorious poster design for Robert Aldrich’s camp-horror classic What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? There’s the identical, merged headshot of the film’s actresses, repeated four times in four different tints, like a rearranged Warhol. There’s the stark black-against-white symmetry of the piece, which suggests the Black Flag logo turned upside down. There’s that wonderfully creepy tagline—Sister, sister / oh so fair / why is there blood / all over your hair?—which captures the movie’s twisted tone. There’s that hideous, shattered doll head next to the title. It’s all perfect, but my favorite detail is the fine print at the bottom, which really works overtime to function as both an honest disclaimer (“If you’re long-standing fans of Miss Davis and Miss Crawford, we warn you this is quite unlike anything they’ve ever done”) and a titillating advertisement (“When the tension begins to build, try to remember it’s just a movie”). What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? is a clever, perverse joke on the personal and professional lives of its aging stars. But its poster stands alone, sinfully funny and unnerving in its own right.
Another entry, another Saul Bass pick: His poster for Vertigo reflects a disintegrating psychological state in a dazzling spiral that leads the eye to the man, silhouetted in black, and the woman, just an outline, at its center. While most posters for films boasting recognizable stars like James Stewart and Kim Novak place their famous mugs front and center, Bass’ clean symbolism favors the spirit of the film over its actors. And because Bass gave Alfred Hitchcock a package deal, his opening credits sequence and visual contribution to the film’s trailer are of a piece with the promotional visuals, creating a unifying through-line and cohesive vision all but lost with today’s practice of hiring individual companies specializing in one or the other but not the whole look of a film’s miscellaneous visuals. Not only do all these spirals symbolize the vortex Stewart’s character falls into, but the poster’s also looks like a pit of madness its characters literally fall into. Like the film, I appreciate the poster more each time I see it again.
It’s been ages since I last saw The Rocketeer. The film persists in my memory due to a handful of striking images and set pieces: The climactic zeppelin fight, the model of the Spruce Goose sailing into the night’s sky, and Billy Campbell blasting into the stratosphere, all done up like the world’s coolest hood ornament. The third item in that list is the focus of the film’s first poster, an art-deco-inspired number that brought a sense of speed and trajectory to theater lobbies in the early ’90s. What it didn’t bring was a sense of who’s behind the mask, and the other movie stars he might be interacting with, which led Disney to issue another, less-inspired one-sheet for the film.
In an attempt to stem the bleeding of The Rocketeer’s box office performance, the studio assembled a paint-by-numbers Tom Jung riff, in which giant versions of Campbell and Jennifer Connelly blithely smile while an airplane hangar burns beneath them. (In a move that could’ve only further confused potential audiences, Rocketeer villain Timothy Dalton is the only one who appears concerned by the blaze.) The redux ignores the brilliant simplicity of the original, which evokes the era-appropriate work of the Federal Art Project and tells you the only things you need to know about The Rocketeer. This is a movie about a guy who flies. Here he is, flying. Everything else is secondary: The femme fatale, the Nazi spy, the Rocketeer’s legs. Legs? Where The Rocketeer’s going, he doesn’t need legs.
Okay, so on closer inspection, the Back To The Future poster doesn’t make perfect visual sense. The fire tire tracks appear to be running parallel to the DeLorean rather than behind it; the car itself is kind of a gray blob with a windshield attached, with only the distinctive gull-wing door making its identity obvious; and Michael J. Fox looks like he’d barely be able to fit in the driver seat. But I don’t care. It’s an arresting image that works regardless of its odd design flaws, one so iconic the franchise would use it as a model for posters for Back To The Future Part II and III. The colors pop, the title looks cheerful and vaguely ominous, and the tag line (“He was never in time for his classes… He wasn’t in time for his dinner… Then one day, he wasn’t in his time at all.”) is just perfect, despite being a bit of a mouthful and kind of ungainly, prosewise. The whole thing does a great job of selling the possibility of adventure without really giving anything away, and there’s a terrific sense of movement to the visual—as though something tremendously exciting just whooshed past, and it’s going to take us all a second to get caught up.
You guys, I don’t want to sound like a creep, but I love the poster for Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, even more than I love the poster for his Out Of Sight or Haywire. In true Soderbergh fashion, it’s both sexily and icily stylish with a touch of retro, abstracting an image of star Sasha Grey’s face with shaded dots—perfect for a movie about the commodification of sex. The dots lend a geometric quality to the below-title tagline, which I also love: “See it with someone you **** ” (those are the poster’s tasteful asterisks, not mine). I don’t have it on my wall at home (movie posters are so expensive to frame nicely, and, again, not a creep, I swear), but it is on my little row of poster-postcards at my desk at work.
I would say that I don’t have a favorite poster so much as I have a favorite style of poster. I love, love, love illustrated posters from the 1970s and 1980s, particularly those drawn by the late, great Jack Davis of Mad Magazine fame. You really can’t go wrong with any of Davis’ insanely detailed, anarchic, and kid-friendly posters, particularly classics like his one-sheet for Bad News Bears. But I am going to go with Jack Davis’ poster for Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, if only because I love the hell out of the movie and the cast that it’s so irreverently yet successfully advertising. I loved this style so much that I used it as a model when working with illustrator Danny Hellman on the covers of first The A.V Club book My World Of Flops and most recently 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane. It’s not Jack Davis, but it’s definitely in the spirit of his amazing and amazingly kinetic yet controlled work.
No poster fires the imagination quite like the iconic black-and-white one for David Lynch’s Eraserhead, with Jack Nance sporting that electrified, vertical hairdo and quizzical, wide-eyed expression. It’s no wonder that this image has graced T-shirts, book covers, and dorm room walls for decades. It’s taken on a life of its own, well beyond the movie it’s advertising. It’s certainly been seen by more people than the movie has. The poster is arresting because it is simultaneously comedic and horrific. The suit Nance is wearing suggests a banker or clerk, but his wild hairstyle and intense eyes make him look like a mad scientist or punk rocker. The expression is tough to discern. Is it terror? Intense rage? Blankness? More importantly, the image gives very little indication what the movie could possibly be about, and the title is similarly unhelpful. The only way to find out what it means is to watch the film itself.