Posted by Susan Doll on July 6, 2015
I love movie posters from the Golden Age, because they were designed and executed by graphic artists and illustrators. They retained the expressive flavor of paintings and illustrations and followed the aesthetics of those artistic mediums. In contrast, today’s photography-based posters, no matter how artistic, are grounded in the realism inherent in that medium. Film noir posters are particularly appealing, because the genre is defined by specific visual characteristics, and the posters echo those in interesting ways.
Most of the posters in this article are from upcoming movies yet to air as part of TCM’s Summer of Darkness. The posters not only depict the noir style and suggest the genre’s themes, but I thought they might entice readers to catch a few of these films on Fridays during the month of July.
The covers of detective magazines and novels as well as posters for gangster films influenced the imagery found on noir posters—big blondes, big guns, and big bad criminals. The suit and fedora worn by the private eyes on the magazine covers became the conventional costume of the noir protagonist in the movies and posters. His hard-boiled nature was suggested visually through the serious, focused expression of the movie’s male lead. The posters also borrowed the color coding for femme fatales and bad girls, depicting them in low-cut red dresses to suggest passion, danger, and violence.
The poster for Red Light (1949) features the typical imagery borrowed from the hard-boiled magazines. George Raft musters his best hard-boiled scowl while wielding his gun, and Virginia Mayo looks fetching in her dark red dress. Though Raft does not don a Fedora and trench coat, other figures in the poster do. It must have been difficult to make blond, small-framed Alan Ladd look hardened, but his darkened eyebrows, shifty eyes, and smoldering cigarette suggest a hard-boiled character. And, in this poster for The Blue Dahlia, all the women are in red. Uh-oh!
More than just sexually provocative women, femme fatales want what men have—power, control, wealth. They enter and survive a man’s world by scheming harder than men and by becoming more ruthless. Contrary to popular belief, guns in film noir are not about violence; they signify power and control. So when the femme fatale gets the drop on anyone, it’s a volatile, intense moment in the film because it is an anomaly—a signifier that something is awry. In other words, a woman has taken control, which is an abnormality in a patriarchal world. In A Woman’s Secret (1949), Maureen O’Hara’s character holds the smoking gun, showing she has taken action.
Femme fatales are definitely sexy and sexual, but it does not usually come from passion or love. Often, sex is a means to an end, so the femme fatale is cold-hearted. Depicting that contradiction—an icy sexiness—is not always easy. Most often, the femme fatale’s expression is hardened, though she strikes a seductive pose. In Roadblock (1951) and Tension (1950), the icy-looking femme fatales are depicted lying back in provocative poses with their chests and/or legs emphasized for maximum effect.
That femme fatales use sex to control or gain power, information, or the upper hand is sometimes indicated by their physical dominance over the male in the composition, as in the posters for Criss Cross (1949) and His Kind of Woman (1951), or by the fact that the women are depicted larger.
As the genre developed, and its visual conventions were established, more film noir posters emulated the unique visual characteristics. In this poster for D.O.A. (1950), the main character’s shadow dominates the composition. This is his doppelganger shadow, which indicates that the character has another side to him, usually a dark side or a facet to his character or situation that he is hiding from everyone else. This convention, which is also used in classic horror films, came from German Expressionism.
Narrative and visual point of view are key elements in film noir. Often, noirs feature a first person, voice-over narration by the detective protagonist, which reflects his perspective on the story and characters. Visually, point of view shots and subjective camera techniques indicate the visual perspective of a character; however, POVs literally put the viewer in that perspective, too. Often, these shots are odd looking or exaggerated in film noir. This POV shot of the gun in the poster for The Hitch Hiker (1953) puts the viewer behind the barrel.
Other visual conventions of film noir include off-kilter angles, claustrophobic compositions, and bar- or web-shaped shadows. Here the posters for Side Street (1950) and Destination Murder (1950) emulate the dutch angle (aka canted angle), also handed down from German Expressionist filmmakers.
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