A great movie poster is more than just a collector’s item or a splendid marketing tool. Like a great album cover (by Roger Dean, say, or Hipgnosis), or a crisp and elegant movie review (by Roger Ebert, or Pauline Kael)—or a snappy and playful teaser trailer for a film—the ideal movie poster is a handsomely mounted and considered response to its subject—a rich and pleasing statement on its own that makes you want to experience the item it distills. Hand-crafted for the most part, yes, but beautiful, and original. A great movie poster sells the movie, and it sells itself. You can love it on its own terms.
Am I suggesting that movie posters are, as a form and a trade, categorically dead in the water? Of course not. Search the net for what the likes of Tarantino, Rodriguez, and the Andersons (Wes and P.T.) have inspired, at their employ and otherwise, and you will see what I mean. Yet, in a great many cases, fan art, consciously retro and consciously pissed at the botching and slag-heaping some of the great repackaged and remastered movies of our cinematic wonder years have suffered in the home media market, trumps the original art these films had commissioned for them. In sum total, the fan art in question represents a fed-up disavowal of Hollywood’s lazy approach to the form: We are tired, these artists essentially say, of the cheap Photoshopping your marketing and graphic design hacks have slapped together, with little to no imagination or cleverness. Stop using Trajan Pro with which to type everything out. Stop, STOP!, churning out movies and movie-related product that only make us pine for the glories of cinema past! Do something fresh. Do something personal. Stop being lame. Stop gutting us with your glut of movies manufactured by marketing committee and think tank!
Need I remind you, dear, constant reader, of what a lame modern movie poster looks like? For kicks, let us compare and contrast (from inside the rec room of our retirement home for irritable movie snobs) the dull cut-and-paste job Paramount did on a recent DVD (pictured below on the left) with the poster from the year of the film’s original release (pictured below on the right). Now, pardon the high-flown tone of the complaint here, but which poster best conveys the lurid, sinister, spell-like, and dream-like nature of the film? Which one shows a greater command of color, a more evocative take on the film? Which one has more panache? Obviously, the DVD art lifts its lettering primarily from the original hand-drawn poster. Obviously, Paramount was just going through the motions, tacking the design of its “Centennial Collection” version of the film in about as artless and stillborn a manner as the major Hollywood studios seem to make the bulk of their movies nowadays.
Just as bad movies have always existed, so have bad movie posters. As you scroll through the slideshow below of my favorite movie posters, you will see that all of them hail from the long-ago past. All of them are bold and aesthetically pleasing—true to the films they represent and the sensibilities of the artists who made them—committed to exciting the viewer into seeing the films again, or for the first time. These posters are distinctly of their time, too. Even within the dated deco quality of the oldest posters I memorialize, there is an immediacy, a sense that the film’s financial fate rested very much on the power of the artwork. No golden cinematic era truly exists, not really; and I make no claims as to the purported permanent death of movies/movie posters. However, Hollywood used to care more. Of that there can be no doubt. Profit has always been its main driving concern; but there was once a pride, a real pride in the storytelling. And the movie poster used to mean so much more to us, and that had a great deal to do with the role movies used to play in our culture and in our lives. The modern movie poster is largely a perfect, microcosmic illustration of how casual and lazy the film business has gotten at making and selling its product. Once upon a time, even the profiteers seemed to be swept up with the magic of the medium. Am I biased? Is my perspective helplessly limited by the likelihood that yesterday’s junk probably looked a lot crappier to yesterday’s cineaste? I do not know I can assuredly answer that question, sans doubt, sans pretension.
I do know this, though: Strictly in terms of the folks I know and surround myself with, none of us really goes to the movies anymore.
Note: By no means is this lineup meant as a comprehensive compendium of personal favorites, nor is it meant as a primer for the choice artists that once plied their trade in service of the movie poster form.