Posted by Richard Harland Smith on March 11, 2011
If you were a young boy growing up in the 60s (and perhaps even a young girl, of the feisty, scratched knees sort, with a bit of the good earth under your nails and a can-do attitude) then chances are more than excellent that you are familiar with the poster art of Frank McCarthy. The New York-born commercial artist and realist painter has a reputation now, nine years after his death from lung cancer in 2002, that rests principally on the majesty of his Old West scenes and landscapes, but it was through his work in feature film advertising that I became familiar with him and maybe the same is true for you. For a while, it seemed as though he was everywhere at once. I first clapped eyes on a piece of his movie art when my parents brought home the long-playing record soundtrack for THUNDERBALL (1965), whose slipcase depicted Sean Connery’s 007 engaged in hand-to-hand combat underwater while all kinds of aquatic Hell breaking loose around him. (Not only is this piece just technically stunning but McCarthy has depicted James Bond as so cool that he doesn’t even need a mask or regulator to fight the SPECTRE submariners… and his hair is perfect!) There’s nothing quite like a McCarthy, whose tableau of action, collision, combustion and annihilation is so vivid, so primal, so 3 to the D, that actually seeing a something blow up or some guy go after another guy with a chainsaw in real life pales by comparison. If you went to the movies at any point between, say, 1956 and 1968, if you loved action and adventure and manly men sun-bronzed and raw-knuckled and the rock-racked women who loved them, damn it — if you felt your heart skip a beat whenever somebody wielded an M3 “grease gun” or pushed down the T-handle on a munitions plunger box then you no doubt had a special place in your heart for Frank McCarthy, the Master of Manly Movie Mayhem.
I think it was impossible for McCarthy to draw a guy with his arms or legs not bent at 90 degree angles. He liked to capture his subjects in medias res, in the thick of it, locking antlers with foes, opponents, nemesises and antagonistas. His best poster paintings seem to take place at the very lip of Hell – just looking at these pictures you can smell the blood, sweat and burning tires. These are the kinds of posters that I would stare at, slack-jawed, as I stood outside my local movie house, waiting for the ticket booth to open. You could do half an hour staring at a poster like this, easy; longer still if you had some Necco wafers or Dots to sustain you. It’s like Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus – there’s so much going on.
I mean, come on – look at this artwork for THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS (1968). It’s got everything guys like: guns, helicopters, mirror sunglasses, gambling, Elke Sommer and fire. I made it big so you can appre-see-ate all the fine details, like the dude reflected in those badass shades and the gas mask on the guy wielding the acetylene torch. (I pause at this point to amend Roger Ebert’s Stanton-Walsh Rule, which states that no movie can be all bad if it features Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role with the rider or a guy wielding an acetylene torch.) This is actually one of McCarthy’s more sedate pieces, which befits, I guess, a caper film that isn’t really all of that. Unlike DARK OF THE SUN (1968)…
Do you even know about DARK OF THE SUN, gentle reader? I grew up with the movie, it’s always been in my vocabulary. My Mom was and is a huge Rod Taylor fan, so we saw all the Rod pieces as they came out… THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT (1966), CHUKA (1967), HOTEL (1967), DARKER THAN AMBER (1970), THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973), THE DEADLY TRACKERS (1973). TV allowed me to catch up with earlier stuff, like SEVEN SEAS TO CALAIS (1962), THE BIRDS (1963) and THE LIQUIDATOR (1965) and to watch Taylor’s short-lived TV series BEARCATS! (1971) and THE OREGON TRAIL (1977), also his 1972 TV movie FAMILY FLIGHT, a survival tale of dysfunctional family whose prop plane goes down in the desert, forcing them to work together to survive. I even stayed up late one weekend night to catch Michelangelo Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) because Taylor was one of its stars. I honestly don’t remember how I first saw DARK OF THE SUN but I suspect it was on TV and that I was alone in the dark, drinking in the incredible parade of violent acts and he-man-isms. But enough about the movie… just look at this alternative artwork. (I don’t know what the industry standard was but McCarthy did a lot of alternate poster work – his stuff for the early James Bond movies is incredible, incredibly detailed; I don’t know what they were paying him but how could it have been enough?) You got jet planes, explosions, a train trestle that’s tipping over like something out of CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965) and Rod Taylor (rocking a Sterling 9mm), Yvette Mimieux (using some kind of sleek automatic pistol – I’d guess a Beretta or Walther) and James Brown (manning the Browning .50 caliber M2), legs akimbo, laying down some serious cover fire even as they seem to be seconds from death. Plus, it appears to be Hat Day.
Everybody knows THE DIRTY DOZEN (1968), the ultimate men-on-a-mission movie (though far from my favorite). All the expected elements are here – the unabashed use of machine guns, the minute details, the fireballs, the voluptuous women, all captured by (to quote my friend, documentary film director Howard S. Berger), “McCarthy’s cartilage-disintegrating artwork.” One of the reasons I love Frank McCarthy so much is that his work in the medium coincides with a particular brand of cinema that existed for a relatively short amount of time and remains so distinctive… major Hollywood studio-backed action extravaganzas that were at once conventional and even conservative in their politics and worldview (with, of course, subtle variations that kept them from feeling dogmatic or polemical) but absolutely merciless in their execution. You just didn’t know what would happen next in these films and, my God, what an education it was.
Instinctively I knew that a lot of the stuff depicted in the posters wasn’t really going to be in the movies. I knew the posters were hyperbolic even without knowing the definition of hyperbole. I knew they were cheating a little… that the baboons in SANDS OF THE KALAHARI (1965) weren’t literally going to be picking up stone axes and thigh bones like Trog but that understanding didn’t get me down because I understood, even as a child, that the posters were communicating a mood, they were staking out headspace for the movie to occupy, preparing the landing pad, you might say. And I was not disappointed. Frank McCarthy’s artwork for SANDS OF THE KALAHARI prepared me for wonder and horror and I got plenty of both in equal measures. Like DARK OF THE SUN, it thwarts audience expectations of heroism and villainy, it confounds the white hat/black hat dialectic, it thumps you in the sternum and boxes your ears and drops you on your ass without the redemptive catharsis of old fashioned derring-do. (SpellCheck just asked me if I meant to type “herring.” Yeah, herring-do… that’s what I meant.) In its cynical (or, perhaps, honest and forward-looking) appraisal of mankind at the end of his evolutionary tether, SANDS OF THE KALAHARI plays like a deathbed confession, an unburdening of all shameful sins, a reconciliation that could only be possible on the last day of man on Earth… and there was Frank McCarthy summing up the soul of the plot. Wow.
I could go on and on but I guess it’s time to wrap this up. Well, except for this: the above illustration for WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968), apart from its vertiginous use of forced perspective and characteristic fine details — I love the distressed metal of the cable car and the little icicles — seems in its human subjects somewhat less specific than McCarthy’s best work, which suggests to me — and I may be wrong — that he was getting tired. He did begin to drift away from movie work around this time, giving up commissions in 1974 and focusing on the pursuit of fine art in his new home in the more tranquil environment of Sedona, Arizona. He was a master of Old West scenes and justly celebrated for the fluidity and realism of his compositions. I urge you to seek out more information and, if you haven’t already, to see all of these movies.
I point you also to this website, which features a lot more McCarthy movie posters and which proved invaluable to me in writing this appreciation for the purposes of confirming my suspicions about certain posters that McCarthy was indeed the man behind the curtain.
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