Big Blondes, Big Guns, and Big Bad Criminals: Fun with Film Noir Posters

posterdangerlivesI 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.

12 Responses Big Blondes, Big Guns, and Big Bad Criminals: Fun with Film Noir Posters
Posted By Arthur : July 6, 2015 3:36 pm

Though film noirs were a departure from the, up until then, traditional Hollywood fare, the hero often paid the ultimate price for straying beyond the norm. He might live if it was just a dalliance, but sex coupled with a serious crime meant death for sure! . . Thanks for the exciting previews of upcoming film noirs.

Posted By LD : July 6, 2015 5:36 pm

It’s unfortunate that blu-rays tend not to have the same cases as DVDs. Several of my film noir DVD cases are smaller versions of their posters. For example the cases of GUN CRAZY and LAURA. I wore out my DVD of LAURA and replaced it with the blu-ray but I kept the DVD case for this reason.

Whenever I see posters like these I am reminded of the covers of the detective magazines that my grandmother was a huge fan of. She was a typical grandmother until evening when she had time to relax. She would sit at her kitchen table with her detective magazine, highball and cigarette. I wonder whatever happened to those? Pulp fiction of the 1950′s. Perhaps I get my love of film noir from her.

Posted By Emgee : July 6, 2015 8:01 pm

“Maureen O’Hara’s character holds the smoking gun” and has shot another woman! How’s that for shock value?

Thanks for the great posters; some new ones for my collection.

Posted By Emgee : July 6, 2015 8:03 pm

“femme fatales are depicted lying back in provocative poses with their chests and/or legs emphasized for maximum effect.”
None of which you will see in those movies; hey, as long as they bought the tickets!

Posted By swac44 : July 7, 2015 12:38 pm

Wish I had more original film noir posters in my collection, but all the reasons Susan lists for their effectiveness also makes them very valuable (and I don’t live in a part of the world where original movie posters are easy to come by outside of online sources). But my favourite is this one for the UK noir Spin a Dark Web (whose original title is the more mundane Soho Incident), which turns out not to be as great a film as its poster would indicate, although it’s never a bad thing to have more Faith Domergue in your life.

Hey, it’s got a ginger dame in a slinky, red dress holding a gun, what more do you want?

Posted By Jenni : July 7, 2015 2:13 pm

While not exactly a noir film, well, on second thought it’s a Noir-Western, I like the film Colorado Territory, starring Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo. I wrote a blog about it for our local newspaper,and for my blogs on classic movies, I like to include the movie posters for the films I write about. The foreign posters for American movies are intriguing to me. The french poster for this film shows Virginia Mayo dominating the poster, it’s all about her, sitting on a rock in the desert, and Joel McCrea is just a tiny figure, in the corner, of the scene. In reality, McCrea’s character is the focus of the movie, and Mayo’s is the secondary one; the love interest, but not the main character. The french also changed the title from Colorado Territory to Pretty Girl of the Desert. I guess they figured more focus on the girl would sell those tickets.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 7, 2015 2:13 pm

Swac44: That is an excellent poster. Very cool.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 7, 2015 2:34 pm

Jenni: I love foreign posters of Hollywood films, too. Sometimes, they are more aesthetically interesting.

PRETTY GIRL OF THE DESERT is sort of funny. I am not sure if I have seen COLORADO TERRITORY. Are there deserts in it? Based on the title, it doesn’t seem like there would be.

Posted By swac44 : July 7, 2015 2:42 pm

Here’s another poster of which I was able to get an original copy (mine is in rougher shape than the one pictures), although I haven’t seen the film itself: Blonde Blackmailer. Not a great image, but gotta love that tagline, “MAN BAIT!”

Posted By Jenni : July 7, 2015 2:42 pm

The beginning of the movie is set in Missouri, where McCrea’s character is from and he’s cooling his heels in jail…no deserts there. Then he escapes and heads to CO, and there are a lot of scenes shot in a mountainous, rocky terrain. The actual setting for the outdoor scenes in CO remind me of the Monument Valley area of UT, where John Ford filmed his westerns, but I’m not sure on that point. CT is a good film; acting in it is all-around well done,from all of the cast, directed by Raoul Walsh.

Posted By swac44 : July 7, 2015 2:45 pm

Huh…Blonde Blackmailer turns out to be another UK production, tarted up with a U.S. star (in this case, Richard Arlen) for the international market. It’s original title was Stolen Time, I’d say Blonde Blackmailer is a definite improvement, at least as far as tempting viewers goes.

Posted By swac44 : July 7, 2015 2:49 pm

I’ve seen Colorado Territory, not bad, although part of me feels it’s weird seeing Virginia Mayo in black & white film, don’t know why. It’s ostensibly a western remake of Walsh’s own High Sierra, although McCrea’s Wes McQueen is noticeably softened compared to Humphrey Bogart’s Roy Earle.

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