Are beautiful movie posters a thing of the past? Of the 100 exquisite, astonishing or ground-breaking designs reproduced in Tony Nourmand’s 100 Movie Posters: The Essential Collection, only three are for films released since 1977.
Among the classic designs are several by the great Saul Bass, whose words are cited by Christopher Frayling in his introduction – good posters exist “at the meeting-point of art, design and commerce”. Where possible, Nourmand gives credit to artists and designers, adds information about legendary figures like Bill Gold (whose poster for Unforgiven launched a trend for figures turning their backs) and reminds us of innovative ad campaigns for films such as Rosemary’s Baby (“We bought ads in the birth announcements section of newspapers saying, ‘Pray for Rosemary’s baby’”, remembered ad man Steve Frankfurt) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (the psychedelic image of the Star Child embryo floating in an iris was not part of the main studio campaign, but was instead pasted guerrilla-style on walls and in subway stations).
It’s hard not to deplore the contrast between this glorious heritage and the posters of today: mishmashes of badly Photoshopped actors who clearly weren’t in the same room together, or tired rehashes of the latest trend; ever since The Social Network it’s been all about faces covered in BIG LETTERING, though the concept was never as original as it seemed – What Price Hollywood? already did that back in 1932. No, the people of the past were regaled with splendid images of Musidora of Les Vampires relaxing in an orange armchair, or Hedy Lamarr looking ecstatic in Extase, or Al Hirschfeld’s jazzy artwork for Cabin in the Sky, or Waldemar Swierzy’s stunning portrait of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
Did passers-by who saw Boris Bilinsky’s modernist Metropolis skyscrapers consider it run-of-the-mill? How about those who beheld the dramatic advertising for “Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter” (director David Lean was relegated to the smaller print, further down)? Did they realise how blessed they were?
“I think the importance of the movie poster as an art form, and its historical importance, is something that has gained and is gaining appreciation in retrospect,” says Nourmand. “But I am sure that its beauty could have and would have been appreciated at the time.”
But perhaps we’re just being nostalgic for the sake of it, and in, say, 20 years’ time, many of today’s film posters will also look like classics?
“I doubt that,” says Nourmand. “They may evoke a sense of nostalgia, but I don’t think they will be remembered in the same way as ground-breaking posters like 2001 or Rosemary’s Baby.”
All we can do is pray that a producer or distributor or marketing director (for it’s they who hold the power, not the artists and designers) sees this wonderful collection, and is somehow inspired by it.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in June 2013 to tie in with the publication of 100 Movie Posters: The Essential Collection, by Tony Nourmand (Reel Art Press)
To get a better idea of the way film marketing departments copy poster memes till you’re sick of the sight of them, check out Les Sibères Affiches, Christophe Courtois’s diligently compiled blog of matchy-matchy movie posters.