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Poster Children 

The New Orleans Film Festival's salute to film noir this week precedes the upcoming release of a vibrant coffee-table book, The Art of Noir.

In Fritz Lang's 1953 film noir classic, The Big Heat, Gloria Grahame lounges seductively on her bed, clad only in a silk robe, cradling a telephone in her right hand with her left raised over behind her shoulder. She is all seduction, pain and uncertainty as Glenn Ford hovers nearby with slumped shoulders, his ever-ready gun dangling in his hand by his side.

And that's just in the movie poster.

Challenged by a new genre that captured the moody cynicism that came with the end of World War II, posters of the film noir genre were often as exciting as the movies they sold. These thrillers of dames, gats and private dicks were presented on paper in rich, bold colors, a neat paradox to the cinematic rendering of chiaroscuro.

But there's also an interesting parallel to consider as the New Orleans Film Festival winds up this week with the presentation of four film noir movies: if you think the genre itself is a lost art, even more so is the poster art that sold its films.

That's one of many things that become vividly apparent in historian Eddie Muller's coffee-table book, The Art of Noir: The Posters and Graphics From the Classic Era of Film Noir (Overlook Press, $50), due out in December. In either situation, they just don't make 'em like they used to. Film fans can find out this week at Canal Place with the screening of classics The Big Heat, In a Lonely Place and Gilda as well as 2000's Gangster No. 1. Posters for all three of the classics are lovingly displayed and critiqued in The Art of Noir, which features 338 full-color illustrations over 271 pages.

Full-color may be an understatement, considering the Technicolor tone of these posters shilling for movies drenched in shades of black and white. But in the studios' push to sell their product, vibrant artistic techniques developed.

The film noir movement itself was one of the pivotal cultural outgrowths of World War II. The triumph over fascism was tempered by a creeping cynicism that followed many war veterans home. Not everything was suburban glee; many felt a sense of disillusionment in the awkward transition back into society. This new culture clashed in Hollywood with some of the great directors of their time -- including European emigres like Fritz Lang who had escaped to America just years earlier.

"The result was a new cultural mythology, a black market that provided an alternative to the gleefully optimistic knickknacks Hollywood traditionally peddled, and poster art needed to be as alluring and dark as the product it was selling," writes Muller, also the author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir.

In the poster art, as in the movies, Jean-Luc Godard was right: all you needed to tell a good story was a girl and a gun. But as Muller proves with his astute writing, there was so much more, and he explains it with a sort of cross-referencing style that looks at varying artistic approaches, the contrast between domestic and international artists, the thematic style of the genre, and finally the genre's great actors, writers and directors.

In The Big Heat, Grahame -- considered by some the femme fatale of her day -- and Ford co-star in a story of revenge and corruption, two key film noir themes. Similar moods are captured in posters from three different countries. The Spanish version features more comic book-like artwork, typical of the Spanish style, with the familiar yellows and reds that dominated film noir posters.

By contrast, the Belgian version, maximizing the tight spaces of the country's restrictive poster formats, hints of Grahame's scarred face (courtesy a vicious pot of boiled coffee from boyfriend Lee Marvin) while reinventing her as a blonde alongside Ford and his gun.

Muller serves up a neat contrast between the domestic and French versions of the delicious Gilda, Charles Vidor's 1946 exploration of loyalty (from all angles) among a gambler (Ford, again), and old flame (Rita Hayworth, never sexier) and his boss/her new husband (George Macready). The more intriguing is the French version, with artist Boris Grinnson pushing Hayworth backward and giving her blue satin gown a soft, yellow-orange warmth -- with just a hint of nipples pressing outward -- and Ford about to give her the business with the back of his hand.

Of the two versions of Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950) -- one of Humphrey Bogart's legendary noir roles -- the Argentinean poster features contrasting images of Bogie's Dixon Steele as he contemplates what to do with Gloria Grahame. The American version is splashed across two pages, a comparatively minimalist effort with the words "THE BOGART SUSPENSE PICTURE WITH THE SURPRISE FINISH!" cutting across Bogie's face with a smaller Grahame seemingly leaning against his chin -- with a sideward glance that spells trouble.

The only thing missing: a gun.

click to enlarge Femmes fatales Rita Hayworth (above) in Gilda get royal treatment in Eddie Muller's upcoming book, The Art of Noir.
  • Femmes fatales Rita Hayworth (above) in Gilda get royal treatment in Eddie Muller's upcoming book, The Art of Noir.
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