Drive By Movies: Cars and Film Posters, Part 1

Movie posters have long held a fascination. As both a cinephile and a graphic designer, film advertising occupies a shared position in my Venn diagram of interests.

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Like any form of commercial graphics, the compositions of movie posters tread a careful line between any number of competing and often mutually exclusive objectives. Done badly, they are simply more visible clutter plastered on the side of a bus stop shelter, easily ignored as you continue your daily drive to work. Done well, however, then the finest posters blur the distinction between art and commerce until the two become indistinguishable.

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How not to do it. How are you supposed to parse this whilst walking past? Image: Warner Bros.

I could spend a long time ranting about why contemporary movie poster design is in a rut (short version: the rise of computerised desk top publishing and the fall of the classically trained commercial artist, plus actor’s contracts and a liberal dollop of marketing interference). Fortunately more knowledgeable minds than I (plus someone from The Guardian) have already written about this here and here.

Thankfully there are exceptions. I was reminded of this when I spotted a teaser poster for a new movie based on the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, High-Rise (2016), shown above.

The best movie posters often encapsulate a film in a single iconic image: think of the shark rising from below in the poster for Jaws, or Saul Bass’s spiralling vortex in his poster for Hitchcock’s Vertigo. These simple yet artful compositions offer a better flavour of a film than a cluster of Photoshopped vignettes of the leading actors ever could.

The High-Rise teaser is an example of good poster design. We are presented with a smartly framed detail from a Triumph Stag; even without knowing what car it is, the distinctive style immediately places us at the start of the 1970s. A Stag has never looked so beautiful as it does in this poster, the lustrous polish and the richness of the photography immediately connoting luxury and good times. Then we spy the inset detail, a reflection of a falling man. Clearly the good times are not set to last.

And thus in one image the scene is set and our whistles whetted. Job done.

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The astute among you will have noticed that the High-Rise poster adds a third intersecting shape to my Venn diagram of interests: cars.

Unsurprisingly considering the historical love affair between Hollywood and the automobile, cars have often featured prominently in movie posters, to varying degrees of success. In the second part of this article I will discuss some of my favourite examples of cars in movie posters.

Author: chrisward1978

Professional pixel pugilist and word wrangler. Unprofessional pub snug raconteur.

15 thoughts on “Drive By Movies: Cars and Film Posters, Part 1”

  1. That’s a good poster – miles better than the busy schlock Hollywood generally prefers. We could have the same discussion about car magazine covers and indeed we once did.

    1. British and European films often have superior posters, perhaps reflecting the vibrant graphic design community in Europe and a comparative lack of marketing interference. Also, in Hollywood it is a common practice for “the talent” to have clauses written into their contracts regarding how they appear in posters, i.e. that they must appear a certain size and not be obscured, etcetera. Such stipulations have a dampening effect on poster design. It also explains why any film featuring Tom Cruise effectively has the same poster.

  2. An excellent topic, Chris!

    I used to have Gangster No 1’s poster on my living room’s wall, simply because I liked the graphics, as well as that Mk X it depicts. One of the Skyfall posters also used the DB5 to good effect, if I’m not mistaken. But there aren’t that many great posters involving cars around, are there? As a teenager, I found those b-movie posters depicting some kind of random amalgamation sports car highly amusing.

    P.S.: I’ve been looking forward to High-Rise for quite a while, by the way. But I guess I’ll need to be patient until it finally reaches our Teutonic screens.

    1. The value of graphic design can be overstated, quite often by graphic designers. But a well conceived poster can have a value all of its own.

  3. I agree that it’s an excellent poster, but it brings up the question of the cultural coding of cars. They are often used as a convenient (and often lazy) shorthand to establishing character – such as the cop who drives a classic (intellectual) or an banger (no-nonsense).

    The Stag says certain things to me that are very much to do with the knackered, cheesy 70s (though I’m not actually disparaging the car when I say that) and I don’t really associate it with the shattered dream of a perfect modernist world depicted in the Ballard story.

    What else could they have used? A Lancia Gamma?

    1. I considered this also. I am not sure a wedge such as a Lotus Esprit would be shiny enough to connote the required glamour. Besides, exactly what about the Stag and its history does not connote shattered dreams?

  4. And, in the vaguest context, I’m reminded of J G Ballard’s ‘Crashed Cars’ exhibition of 1970. In the era of camera phones, it’s hard to believe how few images there seem to be around of this.

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