When Eddie Muller first approached a publisher with his idea for a large-format book on film noir posters, he knew he had a winner. His magnificent book, The Art of Noir (Overlook, $50), is a massive 270-page, 10" x14" gallery of posters from the 1940-1960 high period of Hollywood noir -- 275 full-color illustrations chosen by noir expert and author Muller with his lively, hard-boiled descriptive notes and essays sandwiched in between.
All the classic noir elements are present. A tough guy, usually with a cigarette in his mouth. A bad babe, often sprawled on the furniture or clinging to the tough guy. The full iconography of film noir: a gun, a knife, a cityscape, speeding cars, speeding cars with gunmen firing out of them, speeding cars on fire. And always shadows, plenty of shadows. The English "quad" (poster) for a 1949 actioner called Trapped, with a woman screaming while a hood manhandles a doll, could have been ripped from a pulp. In the German poster for 1950's Highway 301 (renamed Der Panther), tough guy Steve Cochran grins maniacally with a gun in his mitt while casting a shadow over a looming Virginia Grey. One-sheets from H'wood studio "paper" (poster) departments are every bit as sensational as the foreign versions: tease, menace, guilt, crime, and punishment, sometimes all on the same poster.
Muller, who has hosted film noir festivals at Oakland's Parkway Theatre and is preparing an ambitious "Noir City" series at SF's Castro coming up in January, believes the ultra-lurid posters advertised essentially tame movies. Today the obverse is true -- more subdued posters, much wilder flicks. "Back then it was understood there were limits," says Muller from his Alameda studio. "Today there are no limits once you pay your money. One reason the posters in the book are worth a lot is that there's something illicit about them. You don't see anything like them today. People don't enjoy these posters for any postmodern irony; they respond on a gut level." Noirs were originally marketed to a male audience, but that too has changed, says Muller, who also wrote Dark City and Dark City Dames. "Over time, the appeal of noir has evolved. Now there are just as many women noir fans, maybe more. Women today respond to the style of that era. You can see it in 'lounge' culture. They appreciate the attitude of noir women, their brazenness."
If you're a true fan, you'll want to see every movie and buy every poster, but that's easier said than done. Many of the book's posters are being shown at the Posteritati gallery in New York, where they sell for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. You're better off buying the book, visiting Muller's Web site (www.noircity.com), and catching the old films in 35mm at fests or on home video.
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