Poster impressionists

Matthew Valentine flicks through a new book of film posters from the Seventies and finds that many fail to live up to the quality of the films they advertised.

A glance through Film Posters of the 70s – The Essential Movies of the Decade, could give the impression that the period consisted chiefly of a fascination with gangsters, cops, guns and violence, rather than disco, flares and interesting knitwear. The front section of the book gives us Dirty Harry and his Magnum, Steve McQueen’s Colt.45, Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Gene Hackman shooting a villain in the back. The summer of love it isn’t.

The book, a companion to a selection of Sixties’ film posters, brings together examples of film art rescued by private collectors. As such, it can’t hope to be a definitive collection. But, on the basis of this selection, the decade which gave us glam rock and decimalisation also brought some truly dire film artwork. Considering the high quality of the films represented, it is nothing short of tragedy.

To be fair, there is a good selection of classic images, such as the posters for Jaws or The Man Who Fell to Earth. Every depressed teenager used to have a copy of the poster from The Exorcist or Eraserhead on their bedroom wall. But there is also a depressing sameness in the selections of cartoon-style art used to promote the mid-ground of popular, commercial films. The foreword explains that during the decade major US studios began to insist on greater control over how their films were promoted abroad. This lead to far smaller variations in the style and quality of posters produced.

The viewers were the ones to suffer. Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation, a movie buff classic, was advertised with the predictable artists’ interpretation of movie stills. Except in Poland, where Jerzy Flisak created a Saul Bass-style diagram far more in keeping with the film – which is about the main character’s ethical dilemma.

Creating oil paintings of Clint Eastwood with a beard and a stetson seems to have been a cottage industry, and disaster films such as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure seem to have used an agreed format for their posters, just as they did for their plots.

It is independent and low-budget films that provide some relief. Posters for the films of John Cassavetes, who, according to legend, took roles in The Dirty Dozen and television detective show Johnny Staccato just to finance his own films, have aged far better than those for, say, Roger Moore-era James Bond episodes.

Any poster for a film by bad taste King John Waters has to be worth collecting, and there are posters for “porno-chic” movies such as Deep Throat and Emmanuelle which would swell mailbags for the Advertising Standards Authority if used today. But in the Seventies, when vigilante Charles Bronson was a movie hero, who bothered to write letters? It seems no problem couldn’t be solved with a warm gun.

Film Posters of the 70s – The Essential Movies of the Decade is published by Aurum Press, edited by Tony Nourmand and Graham Marsh, priced 14.95.

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