A book of classic movie posters from the 1950s shines – their modern-day equivalent don’t make the grade.

When was the last time a movie poster caught your eye? Sometimes a poster will provoke the all important “I’m going to see that” response, but most posters around at the moment are at best informative and at worst a waste of paper and paste.

It wasn’t always like this. Tony Nourmand and Graham Marsh have compiled two books on movie posters of the 1960s and 1970s and they’re just about to release a third.

Film posters of the 50s gives a stimulating insight into movie making of the era. As with the previous books, the production is meticulous; the design by Graham Marsh follows the same formula as before, but a dated 1950s-style typewriter font with clumsy serifs is a nice touch.

TVs were fast becoming ubiquitous for US consumers in the 1950s, so films had to fight that much harder to drag the populace away from game shows. Technicolor and dubious innovations such as 3D were used as the popcorn to attract the movie-going public, and the saturated cinematography seeped into poster design. The melodramatic blockbusters of the era, starring the likes of Rock Hudson, were publicised with posters using garish primary colours and corny illustrations. Perhaps these camp masterpieces had an effect on Hudson’s sexual preferences.

At the other end of the spectrum, Hollywood was producing cheaper B-movies, many with subtle, subversive themes. Invasion of the Body Snatchers may have looked superficially like a sci-fi potboiler, but it was also a critique on the paranoia of the Cold War and the McCarthy witchhunts.

The Body Snatchers poster looks harmless, though vivid colours and a spooky typeface draw you in, until you read the critic’s quote, “The nightmare that threatens the world”. How’s that for Cold War paranoia.

On the other hand, Robert Aldrich’s Attack!, an unflinchingly brutal depiction of the Second World War, was less subtle, and the poster reflected this, promising to “rip open the hot hell behind the glory”.

The cheesier side of B-movie posters portrayed scantily clad femmes fatales and revelled in sexual overtones. For the time, their tactics were even dirtier than the soft porn that is peddled today in the men’s magazine market. The studios didn’t care how exploitative their posters looked, just as long as they got bums on cinema seats.

Abstract imagery was also a key component in poster art. Illustration was still at the time more popular than photography, and many poster artists used potent metaphors to describe the theme of the film. A poster for Twelve Angry Men featured a wavy dagger with the images of the protagonists reflected in it. It looks as if the film is a gripping thriller, but also hides the fact that the entire film takes place in a single room and there’s rather more dialogue than there is action. Undisputed champion of the abstract was Saul Bass, who used simplistic geometric shapes to nauseous effect for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Just as evocative is a poster for Rio Bravo, Howard Hawk’s freewheeling, good-natured western, which describes the film’s theme perfectly. Tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the characters bring back vivid memories of the film, and when a designer manages to condense the feel of a two- hour feature into an A3 poster that is something very special.

Film Posters of the 50s by Tony Nourmand and Graham Marsh is published by Aurum Press, priced £14.95. An accompanying exhibition runs from today to 4 November at The Reel Poster Gallery, 72 Westbourne Grove, London W2

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