Here are a few of my favorite examples (obscure in some cases) of the art of motion picture graphic design from the 60s and 70s. This was at a time when the dissolution of the studio system and a shift in public tastes brought about a groundbreaking surge of innovation in the marketing and promotion of motion pictures. Suddenly hyperbole was out, subtlety was in. All are prime studies in the art of condensing a movie’s theme, sometimes its entire essence, into a single, dynamic marketing graphic. Some use bold imagery; others employ clever ways of integrating the film’s title into its graphic. But in every instance, the result is evocative, clever, and eye-catching.
More a subjective collection of personal favorites than a “best of” listing, this sampling is by no means comprehensive. It merely stands as a small representation of the genius behind the art of commercial graphic design in the motion picture industry. Regrettably, I'm unable to ascribe proper credit to all the unsung individuals behind these minimalist works of art, but happily, their work endures and in each and every instance, the images alone really pique my interest in the movies publicized.
1. Chinatown - 1974 Nostalgia was big in the 70s, and this image conveys a noirish sense of period (Jack Nicholson's mode of dress); mystery (the wave at the bottom only makes sense once you see the film); and romance (Faye Dunaway depicted as the quintessential "woman of mystery"...ethereal and elusive as trails of smoke.
2. The Killing of Sister George - 1968 The new permissiveness in films of the late 60s made possible this cleverly suggestive graphic for the controversial, X-rated, lesbian-themed film from the director of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
3. Lady Sings The Blues -1972 In this ingeniously minimalist graphic, retro lettering and bold imagery convey the 30s show-biz glamour of this highly-fictionalized account of the life of jazz singer Billie Holiday (mic, opera gloves,and bracelet), while the startling appearance of handcuffs hints at the film's tragic tone.
4. Foxtrot -1976 (aka The Other Side of Paradise) One of my all-time favorites. This absolutely amazing graphic looks like it could be for a horror film, but Foxtrot is actually an intriguingly grim and violent pre-WW2 allegory on socialism and violence starring Peter O'Toole, Charlotte Rampling, and Max von Sydow (what a cast!). The Germanic Blackletter typeface is era-perfect, as is the depiction of the couple engaged in the popular 1930s dance which forms the title's "X". The faceless partner hints at the dangerous sexual rivalries at the center of the plot which erupt into bloodshed.
5. The Poseidon Adventure -1972 Everything you need to know about the great-granddaddy of all 70s disaster films is summed up in this wittily economical graphic that at the same time manages to be high on drama.
6. That Cold Day in the Park - 1969 In this striking and stark graphic which sums up the central conflict in Robert Altman's psychosexual thriller; the hair of a vaguely sinister, enigmatically-expressioned Sandy Dennis (love the raised eyebrow) becomes a hand reaching out for the cowering, clearly naked, figure of Michael Burns. Fantastic!
7. Jaws -1975 Since this Roger Kastel artwork is a revamp of Paul Bacon's original artwork for Peter Benchley's novel, perhaps this shouldn't be included in this collection of movie graphic art...but it's iconic, outrageously effective, and I've always loved it.
8. The Fox - 1967 Another lesbian-themed drama from the 60s, this one based on a novel by D.H. Lawrence. Very 60s, pseudo-psychedelic graphic nicely intertwines the two women at the center of the story - placing the dominant character of Ellen atop the passive Jill while blending the "masculine" figure of the fox with her hair. Of course, the disruptive male character pictured wields his ax at crotch level. Those 60s, you gotta love 'em!
9. West Side Story - 1961 You can't pay tribute to movie poster art without mentioning Saul Bass and this timeless graphic (designed first for the Broadway production) is one of his best. A skillfully succinct conveyance of urban grit and romantic exuberance.
10. Woman Times Seven - 1967 When the essence of a film can't be easily pinned down (as in the case of an anthology film like this one starring Shirley MacLaine), turning the film's title into a vivid logo is the next best thing. This curvy graphic stresses femininity to whimsical effect.
11. Heaven Can Wait -1978 A brilliant example of the visual strength of a single, masterly image being trusted to convey all that needs to be indicated about a film. Warren Beatty's star-power dominates, while angel wings and heavenly clouds intrigue with the suggestion of fantasy.
12. Casino Royale - 1967 From the outre bouffant hairdo to the psychedelic body paint (often mistaken for tattooing, it references 1964's Goldfinger and is redolent of the hippie-inspired body-painting craze popularized on TV's Laugh-In), everything in the graphic for this psychedelic James Bond spoof shouts "Swinging Sixties" from every painted pore.
13. Fellini's Casanova - 1976 If this bold silhouette feels vaguely anti-sex in its pretty/ grotesque pairing of profiles in the throes of orgasmic/self-centered coitus, then you have a very good idea of how magnificently this image captures Fellini's approach to the exploits of the famed Italian adventurer and lover.
13. Night of the Iguana -1964 Tennessee William's drama of sexual repression and redemption (what else from Williams?) in the jungles of Mexico is turned into a snazzy logo. Wherein the tale's tethered iguana, symbolizing the out-on-a-limb Richard Burton, is shown to be embracing the boxed-in female figure, which can only be assumed to be the spinsterish Deborah Kerr character. Another Saul Bass gem.
14. The Mackintosh Man -1973 The artwork for John Huston's Hitchcockian spy thriller molds the profiles of its stars (Paul Newman & Dominique Sanda) into a pretty lethal-looking gun. Forceful image betrays my weakness for graphics which make use of people's profiles.
15. The Late Show - 1977 Illustrator Richard Amsel references and updates the style of Norman Rockwell's iconic Saturday Evening Post covers to subtly evoke the clash of the old and the new in this generation-gap modernization of the classic film noir. Art Carney plays an aging Phillip Marlow type to Lily Tomlin's New-Age granola version of the noir damsel in distress.
16. The Graduate - 1967 If the success of minimalism is the complex made simple, this classic artwork graduates with honors.
17. Paper Moon - 1973 An instance where even if the poster art relays little about the actual film beyond a sense of period (lettering and attire), the quaintly nostalgic setting of the smiling moon contrasted with the unsmiling faces of the principals (Ryan O'Neal & daughter, Tatum), plus that ostentatiously displayed cigarette, is enough to let you know this is not going to be a sentimental,Shirley Temple-type romp.
18. Entertaining Mr. Sloane 1970 An image as amusingly offbeat as this Joe Orton black comedy about a pan-sexual sociopath and the brother and sister who lust after him.
19. Funny Lady -1975 For this sequel to the 1968's Funny Girl, one might say the poster art preaches to the choir. You'd have to be familiar with the first film (a musical biography of Ziegfeld star, Fanny Brice) to know the significance of the yellow rose (thorny, please note) , and it helps if you're a fan of Barbra Streisand to be lured by the image of the beloved songbird bravely smiling through tears.
20. Mame - 1974 Lucille Ball discovered the words I Love Lucy came with certain caveats when she returned to the big screen in this misguided movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical. While there was little love for the film itself, I've always liked this effervescent, art deco graphic. The market value of Ms. Ball's name and that of the long-running show demand such prominence, this barely qualifies as graphic design at all (more like showy typesetting). But the nicely delineated figure atop the letters achieves a wit (the single roller skate) and sophistication (the sleek lines of the caricature) absent in the film itself.