The Art of Noir

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I’m arguing with my 12-year-old son about film noir. Not the movies, just the phrase. .
"Dad, you want to go outside and have a snowball fight?"

"No, it’s too cold and dry. It won’t pack." (My standard excuse.)

"What are you writing about?"

"Film noir." I pronounce it nwahr. "It’s a kind of movie that..."

"I know, gangsters and stuff. But lose the r. You’re supposed to say it nwah."

I stop typing and eyeball him. He seems very sure of himself, though that could just be a tactic. On the other hand, he’s taking Spanish this year, and Spain is pretty close to France, as I recall.

"Are you sure it doesn’t rhyme with choir?" I ask.

He rolls his eyes, leaves.

The catalyst for this exchange, of a type becoming alarmingly more common around here, is Eddie Muller’s gorgeous new book, The Art of Noir: The Posters and Graphics from the Classic Period of Film Noir (Overlook, 272 pages, $50). The San Francisco-based Muller has, in fairly short order, established himself as a ranking expert and promoter of noir (however you say it) filmdom. His first three books—Grindhouse, Dark City and its followup Dark City Dames—were stills-and-text exercises in the explication and appreciation of the black-and-white exploitation and gams-and-gats films of the 1940s and 50s: smart, funny, eminently browsable and not too serious (these are just movies, after all). His first novel, The Distance, a period mystery about a boxing writer turned detective, was published earlier this year, with a sequel due out soon.

But The Art of Noir is in a class of its own: a big, fat folio, sumptuously printed in Spain, it’s a massive compendium of 338 illustrations, mostly full-color reproductions of in-your-face movie posters that were the vanguard advertising vehicles for a deluge of films about crime and death, filled with the images that soon helped to define American culture all over the world.

One thing that struck me right away is that, for the most part, the bigger a film’s stars were, the less compelling its poster. That’s because the studios, in an effort to capitalize on the box office draw of big-name actors, insisted that the faces be foremost in the poster designs, with the atmospheric plot elements taking a backseat (usually in the Ford coupe seen plunging off a cliff over by the left margin). So while a poster for Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, showing only the gazing-at-each-other faces of Bogart and Bacall, may have capitalized nicely on the couple’s electrifying offscreen romance and put scores of asses in the theater seats, it says next to nothing about the movie itself. There are exceptions, of course—the visage of Veronica Lake looming moonlike over Alan Ladd’s shoulder in a poster for This Gun’s for Hire is enthrallingly simple—but for the most part the images that really had me doing double takes were created for grade-B movies, done on the cheap with lesser-known actors (though, as Muller points out, the posters for these were sometimes better than the films).

To cite just one example: In a multi-scene one-sheet for Republic Pictures’ production of screenwriter Steve (I Wake Up Screaming) Fisher’s City That Never Sleeps, two men struggle on a sparking track in front of an oncoming el train, a cop gut-shoots a perp from behind a pillar while another lies dying and another surrenders, three costumed beauties trip the lights at the Flamingo Club, while Gig Young makes out with Mala Powers down in the lower corner. It’s a gangland version of a circus poster.

Modern advertising has become so self-conscious, smug and self-congratulatory that I really thought I’d become completely inured to any kind of pitch for my attention. But I realized halfway through The Art of Noir that I was lucky I wasn’t living near a well-stocked video store—I was starting to make a mental list of the movies I just had to see, based solely on these posters, and it was at least a dozen titles long before I even realized I was doing it. The come-on of the noir posters is so naive, open and thrilled to be about the movies—"Come buy a ticket and here’s what you’ll get"—that I’m defenseless.

Another area where Muller does a great service is in his inclusion of scores of images of posters for the international releases of these quintessentially American films. It sometimes seems as though these often-anonymous artists, especially those laboring in the wreckage of postwar Europe, instinctively grasped the cynicism and violence that were at the heart of so many of these films, much faster than their American counterparts, many of whom were still trying to make the new brashness fit into older, softer, more romantic forms well into the early 1950s.

Take, for example, the four different promos represented here for Otto Preminger’s 1953 thriller Angel Face, starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. Muller rightly calls the American one-sheet "one of the most inexplicable...ever produced, and evidence that RKO boss Howard Hughes wasn’t always in his right mind."

The layout is in quasi-newspaper format, with a headline trumpeting, "Lovelorn Heiress Kills Walkout Mate and Self!" Pedestrian mug photos of the four main characters are paired with captions that, besides being boring, give away the entire plot. The one kinetic element is a small black-and-white drawing of a plummeting, burning convertible in the lower left corner that looks almost like an afterthought.

By contrast, the poster’s Italian counterpart is a big step up: a splashy painting of Simmons and Mitchum in each other’s arms, with the flaming convertible about to drop on their heads (they’re too busy to notice). A Belgian poster takes it a step further, incorporating the same elements but rendering the falling car in jarring detail worthy of Robert Williams, while a Mexican version superimposes a speedometer over the doomed lovers, locked in a Gone with the Wind-style embrace, with the by-now-obligatory fiery ride to hell vividly depicted below.

It’s a lot of fun to note the stylistic differences in poster art from country to country, which mostly bolster the usual stereotypes: the French poster artists seem compelled to add a freshening, fashion-plate watercolor wash to even the seamiest melodrama; the Germans eschew sex in favor of vicious, knife-wielding psychos; while the Italian posters, conversely, fairly drip with lust.

Yet to my mind one of the most eye-catching images used repeatedly in these posters wasn’t a gat, a gam or a gunsel—it was a book. Yes, the thing with pages. It’s hard to imagine any art director nowadays wanting or even willing to stick a depiction of a clunky rectangle with print on it in the middle of the artwork for a megabucks advertising campaign. But one of the more ubiquitous images from these postwar posters is just that: a copy of the bestseller (or even just-okay-seller) from which the film derived—Nightmare Alley, The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, even I Wouldn’t Want to Be in Your Shoes (by Cornell Woolrich). And some authors, like Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett, could get billings equal to or bigger than those of the stars.

One quibble I have is that the book’s layout can range images relating to the same film over 100 or more pages, making comparisons unwieldy (though an index of titles is provided). But you can’t have everything, and Muller’s chosen section arrangements—on Hollywood and international styles, writers, actors and directors—make for compelling perusal. There are a few mistakes, to be sure—Carol Reed’s The 3rd Man is described as an "adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel" (it was an original screenplay that Greene later novelized)—but then this is a reference work like Lizabeth Scott was a librarian. Look, touch, then read if you want.

Like the directors he admires, Muller knows pacing. Two of the most jaw-dropping designs are saved for the book’s closing pages, both for Orson Welles vehicles. In a red-hot poster for the Italian release of The Lady from Shanghai, artist Anselmo Ballester paints Welles hovering over a reclining Rita Hayworth, who’s clad in what seems to be wafer-thin seaweed, while a Chinese dragon rises from the background murk. One page later, and it’s Welles’ eyes peering malevolently above a cowering-on-the-bed Janet Leigh in another Italian promotion, this one for Touch of Evil. Sex and violence are boiled down to essences, with no power lost in half a century.

This may sound like an awful lot of hyperbole, but this book really is a feast. The posters themselves are so vivid and rich that it’s hard to take them in more than a few at a time. I’ve heard it said that a really good book should cost about as much as a good meal; at 50 bucks, The Art of Noir is worth at least a couple of dozen gourmet desserts.

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