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Images with built-in obsolescence

10 January 2004

12:00 AM

10 January 2004

12:00 AM

Movie Poster Emily King

Mitchell Beazley, pp.224, 25

Film posters are not made to last. They appear on billboards, then they are torn down or pasted over. Sometimes they do not have even that brief visibility. The original 1927 poster for Sergei Eisenstein’s state-sponsored retelling of the 1917 Russian Revolution was dominated by the face of Trotsky. However, just as Eisenstein was getting ready to release October, Trotsky was disgraced. The film had to be cut by a quarter to match a new view of Soviet history; the poster was useless, but it was preserved and is reproduced in Emily King’s book. The odds against the survival of these commercial artworks are reflected in the private market for them. At Sotheby’s New York in 1997, a poster for the 1932 version of The Mummy was auctioned for $453,500. Survival is not guaranteed even for mass-produced material. King reports that there are only three remaining copies of the poster for Casablanca.

That famous poster was designed by Bill Gold, who later teamed up with Clint Eastwood. Fifty-one years after Casablanca, he devised another memorable campaign — for Eastwood’s Unforgiven. King traces this kind of collaboration to the 1950s, when the obsessive Otto Preminger commissioned Saul Bass to design both title sequences and posters for films such as The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder, creating what would be known today as a ‘brand identity’. Bass was the Picasso of the field. His work, with its body-part motifs, has a brilliant directness. Alfred Hitchcock recognised its distinction straight away, and Bass was taken on for Vertigo, North by Northwest and titles for The Age of Innocence and Casino. Bass’s name is well known to film-lovers but he is exceptional. Even in this book, which is carefully researched, roughly half of the posters are not attributed.

Movie Poster is an international survey and the foreign posters are a delight to see. There are luscious Cuban screen-prints and delicate, rather frigid Italian watercolours. Often it seems unlikely that the designers had watched the films they sought to promote. In the Italian poster for On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando’s glowering face has a greenish tinge. He is posed in front of a giant, blood-dripping meat hook, his left hand clenched into a claw: he looks for all the world like a zombie. The image is eye-catching but absurd, like the Czech advertisement for The Birds — a bizarre rip-off of Max Ernst’s Attirement of the Bride, the mutant figures floating in mid-air. The monochrome Polish poster for The Birds is just as incongruous but also fierce and vivid. The word ptaki (‘fear’) is repeated again and again to form a background out of which a winged skull looms. It is first-rate graphic design: simple compositional elements combine to create an impression of threat and terror.

Idiosyncratic, experimental images like these are hardly seen now. Hollywood, in particular, polices the marketing of its products. The upshot is blandness and international uniformity. King bemoans this glibly: ‘those responsible for film advertising need to try harder.’ A few notable careers apart, the story that emerges from this beautifully illustrated book is of designers working ingeniously, independently and without expecting the recognition of posterity. It would be a pity if this story were to come to an end because of modern marketing techniques.

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