Film posters are invitations. A good film poster is your ticket through the magic door of cinema. To love cinema is to love to share it, and there is nothing that communicates that love as swiftly or as evocatively as an artful poster. If film was the medium of the 20 th century, then the film poster was the middleman: the portal through the magic door of cinema.
Bill Gold, who created posters for Casablanca, Dial M for Murder, A Clockwork Orange, Alien and hundreds of other films, died this week aged 97. His posters popped with a dynamism and motion that wildly distilled the drama, mystery, and intensity of a film with a single image.
His posters adorned marquees from 1942 to 2011: seven decades of work that informed the collective memories of generations of moviegoers.
We live in a time where the large studios have agreed on a think-tank aesthetic: big studio posters are photoshopped templates, crowded with every character who has an adjacent franchise and toy-line. In the age of the rebrand, the reboot, and the retcon, posters can’t communicate much other than “this product is familiar, and will numb you to the outside world for its running time.”
But Bill Gold’s posters, on the other hand, were as bold as their subjects. He mainly worked for Warner Brothers, and later Clint Easton’s Malpaso Productions. His second ever assignment was Michael Curtiz’s Cassablanca (1942). The poster says so much about the film while giving away little: Bogart is colourised, and stands in contrast to the supporting cast who are drawn in foggy blood reds. Somehow, mysteriously, Gold is able to allude to the thing that made Cassablanca so unique: an existential noir, with the grand-scope and excitement of a typical war/adventure film. The gun in Bogart’s hand could almost be considered a spoiler, if Gold hadn’t emphasized the glossy hopelessness in his and Ingrid Bergman’s eyes.
After returning from WW2, Gold became art director of Warner Bros New York advertising department. His posters in this period captured the essence of the dread and desperation that defined American cinema of the postwar era. Postwar prosperity was coupled with cynical reality and the otherworldly threat of atomic annihilation. The visual language of film, and thus the film poster, had to shift with the traumatised, disillusioned, and increasingly young imagination of postwar America.
Gold’s posters of this time are eerie in how well they reflect this mood. He produced training films during the war, and his art in the 1950s is almost cynical in how it lifts propagandistic design ideas. His Dial M for Murder poster rings out like a “Reds Under the Bed” paste-up on a brick wall. It oozes knowing menace.
Gold founded Bill Gold Advertising in the early 60s, and along with illustrators like Bill Peak, created some of the most iconic films of the decade. His work became technicolour dreamscapes: the fauvist brush strokes made way for Paisley curls and pop fuzz brightness. His posters for My Fair Lady (1964) and The Music Man (1962) sparkle with the brash energy of the early 60s.
But it was in the new wave of the late 60s and early 70s—when the big studios were merging with the alternative sensibilities of independent American cinema—that Gold’s work merged the moment and the mood, with the movie. His poster for Bullitt (1968) has Steve McQueen leaning rakishly against mondo-cool vertical lines, the image of modernity and the meanness that follows it.
He captured the rabid desperation of late 60s cool with his posters for Cool Hand Luke (1965) and the seminal Bonnie and Clyde. As such, his work was forever tangled with the semiotics of youth culture, as well as future markets’ way of selling it.
His 70s work was stripped back: punkish, efficiency. His poster for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) uses the simple jagged enveloping triangles to tell that this film is horny, violent, and horny for violence.
To me, it is Gold’s translation of unexplainable terror that is the most striking. His Poster for Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) is a simple image of a man standing before a house, under a streetlight, in stark black and white. Yet, in the immediate halt of the shadows, in our uncertainty as to where the man is heading (even facing), there is that same unknowable horror that underlies the film.
We see this also in his poster for Deliverance (1972) if in a totally different style. Burt Reynolds and co ride a canoe out of a bright hyper detailed eyeball—an eyeball that is once stalker, and witness. In his poster for Alien (1979) we’re given just the word as it drops four times down the page to frame the red outlines of the human characters—it’s so simple, but it exudes the same basic dread that makes the film itself so overwhelming.
Gold’s catalogue charts the arc of studio film from its golden age to its decline to its resurgence to its suffocating omnipresence. We see few posters from the big studios that dare to have the flourish and ferocity of Gold’s work. It’s rare that a studio like Warner Brothers will put out a film that isn’t based on an existing property—the PR wonks birth these movies as products, the posters are to be nullifying stepping stones in the vertical marketing nightmare.
Gold was of another time. The way we consume media now is blurred not just by process but by the sheer expanse of content. Gold notched the signage of so many of my key movie memories. I can still remember walking through the isles of Jumbo Video as a boy and seeing the VHS with his poster for Dirty Harry (1971) for a cover. What the hell was this pink snarl of an image? And why could I hear the gunshot?
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