Hey you, come over here, I’m up against the wall. Why don’t you just forget that broken lawn mower and look at me. I have eyelashes. I wear satin. My boyfriend has a gun and he will kill you if he catches us. He’s alienated, just back from the war and a little touchy. No wait, that’s the old one. Earl’s the new one. He’s just out of stir and he wants a ham sandwich. If you come with me we can go to the nightclub and have highballs. And I’ll sing, “Spring will be a little late this year.” For a while, we will be rich but then we won’t. Because the suitcase will break and the money will fly into the wind. Or we won’t tell each other where we buried it. Then I’ll turn on you, you’ll turn on me. And blood will flow. But that’s OK. You can walk out after it’s over. Me, I’ll just be here on the wall. Until somebody takes my two and a half feet of silky gold airbrushed hair and my duotone mouth and burns it in an incinerator.
So speaks the noir film poster if it could. Incineration, writes Eddie Muller in The Art of Noir, was supposed to be the future of many of these posters, “destined for obsolescence” at the end of the theatrical run of films that had their own short insect life—two weeks sometimes. The posters, illustrated by great craftsmen as anonymous as people in a Cornell Woolrich novel, came with studio instructions—return or destroy. “Thankfully, few of the nation’s movie exchanges paid attention,” writes Muller. Then, there were the little boys who ripped them off the walls and took them back to their room.
Almost every one of The Art of Noir‘s 338 color images (1940-60) representing the poetic, angular, and anxious American genre of noir—a mix of pulpy crime, German expressionism, and adultery on wet streets—has a man waving a gun and/or squeezing a woman’s upper arms. The rest have people trapped inside clocks and spider webs, sub-worlds of pearl smugglers, amnesiacs, and smallpox carriers and people saying, “We all want things, Bart.” Fears ranged from non-American governments to nuclear explosions to women in the workplace. Like now. Only the drawings were more hysterical. You can hear them screaming.
Sam Sarowitz, owner of the Posteritati gallery, says, “For the B noirs, studios would often spend more money on the poster than on the film.” Posteritati is having a noir poster exhibit concurrent with Muller’s book (it always has poster shows, since they have more than 12,000 in stock, all genres). Sarowitz should be called Mr. Film Poster, because whenever there is a lobby card at Film Forum, it was probably loaned by Sarowitz (though there are others). He got his start in high school working at his friend’s Film Bulletin magazine in Philadelphia. He spoke of his inventory, ranging from $75,000 for a vintage Frankenstein (the kind rich German collectors who also buy elephant feet can afford) to $300 for Japanese Godzillas to $25 for contemporary posters. “We have people who spend hours here on our computers or on our Web site (posteritati.com). We have graphic artists who steal.”
In The Art of Noir, Muller discusses printing techniques, paper sizes (Belgium had some of the smallest at 14 by 22 inches) and studio preferences (Columbia’s slashing yellow type, Paramount’s looming star images) and what happened to interpretation once the films went abroad, when illustrators were not forced by studios to draw well-known stars, and how excited they got drawing America’s underside. In Germany they went all out, turned the faces green in Double Indemnity, and, in Highway 301, had Steve Cochran baring his white teeth and waving his gun like a madman. Germany had perhaps the deepest understanding of grim and the scream of noir turned inward—many of the great noir directors in the States were German expatriates like Fritz Lang. The French posters, “some of the most highly prized,” were “almost buoyant,” romantic, stylized, Muller writes, and sometimes didn’t even resemble the film. The Italians, ever dark and lush, in drawing Il Romanzo di Mildred, had Joan Crawford compositionally dominating the men. But in Hollywood art, Muller writes, the women are shown “being slapped around.” One does feel a little beat up by the end of the book. Though also delirious—from the color.