Drive By Movies: Cars and Film Posters 2

The car has been woven into the fabric of Hollywood since the early days of both. Each is a symbol of a uniquely American brand of mass prosperity, the polished chrome of the American automobile reflecting the bright lights and glitz of showbiz right back at itself.

Given this symbiotic nature, it comes as little surprise that cars have enjoyed star billing on numerous movie posters over the years. Some are great; many more are trash (but a lot of fun). Here are some of my favourites.

We might as well get the ball rolling with a classic. International market posters are often more interesting than their American or British equivalents, and so it goes with this French issue single sheet for Peter Yates’ genre classic, Bullitt (1968). Obviously Steve McQueen has to be the biggest thing on the poster, his gun holster and weary pose telling you everything you need to know about the character he plays.

Fast forward to the car chase, as most people do, and at the bottom there is a superb black and white montage, more texture than image, which renders a palpable sense of excitement with remarkable economy. Even the typography, rendered in a glorious period condensed sans serif typeface, is superb.


Not every great poster hews to the idea of a single iconic image. Often the commercial artist’s task was to bring together a film’s disparate elements into a composite image. George Lucas was very much a fan of this method, reprising the hand painted style used on posters for the original Star Wars trilogy for the later (misguided) sequels, even though that style had in the meantime fallen out of favour. Whilst this poster for Vanishing Point (1971) betrays its low-budget roots, much like the film itself the composition carries itself off with sheer verve. Also note the title word form which tapers away to its own vanishing point. Clever, eh? Besides, who wouldn’t like a poster featuring a bombed out-looking Barry Newman and a flying Dodge Challenger? No-one, that is who.

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Another classic. When I was a lad, the glowing fenders of Christine (1983) could be seen in every VHS rental shop window. By this time the hand painted style had fallen out of vogue, to be replaced by photography. And yet the craft of the designer is still very much evident here, the photographer’s careful use of lighting behind the titular malevolent Plymouth Fury (note the diffusely lit interior showing the absence of a driver and the backlit grille) creating a single iconic image. A shame then that the overly verbose copy gets in the way.

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A poster that manages to handle a surfeit of copy with aplomb is this single sheet for Little Miss Sunshine (2006). The graphic designer really earned their pay here, managing to shoehorn four quotes, the billing block and no less than nine logos into a design that still manages to feel light and airy. An eye-catching yellow background (similar but different in shade to the pictured VW Microbus) helps of course, as does the use of white (okay, yellow) space and the restrained typography, rendered in various weights of every designer’s favourite fall back font, Helvetica Neue. Finally the shadows are boosted to make the contrast pop.

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What surprises about the poster for The Love Bug (1968) is how small Herbie, ostensibly the star of the show, actually appears. Relegated to a couple of tiny petals with the rest of the cast, the composition is possibly a reflection of the creative risk that Disney were taking: no-one had ever made a big budget movie with a thing as its star. But hey man, these were swinging times, and the poster positively radiates the flower power spirit of the age. Of course Herbie’s dominant position is underlined by the car-shaped title word form, a lovely touch.

Fun fact: You might also notice that this particular poster has been folded. One of the ways a serious collector can tell if a movie poster is original or a contemporary reprint is those creases, as the originals were all distributed to cinemas via the post folded in envelopes, not rolled up in tubes. Other tells are the paper stock (reprints are generally too glossy) and the print process used.

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In another case of Hollywood’s penchant for simultaneous invention, the same year as Disney’s The Love Bug also saw United Artists release a film with a characterful car at its heart: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). Indeed, the whole film had something of the Disney about it, featuring as it did Dick “Corblimey” Van Dyke, plus songwriters and choreographers lifted wholesale from Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964). At least United Artists had the conviction to make the car nice and large on the poster, a playful composition that captures the fun of the film.

Fun fact: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the car) was designed by Ken Adam, production designer for the James Bond films, and was built by the Ford Racing Team using a Ford V6 engine. Indeed, the entire film laboured the Bond connection: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was produced by Albert R. Broccoli, erstwhile Bond producer, from a script by Roald Dahl, who had previously scripted You Only Live Twice (1967), both of which were adapted from novels by Ian Fleming. Small world.

Talking about James Bond, which we weren’t…

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With their steadfast aesthetic sensibilities, you would expect French cinema to have yielded some great posters, and you would not be wrong. This single sheet for spy thriller Incognito (1958) reads like a Bond film four years before Bond films were even a thing. All the elements are there: the girl, the gun, the dinner jacket and the car, although in this case we get a ruby-red Corvette and not a silver Aston Martin. Cultural imperialism can be subtle, sometimes not; one wonders if the choice of an American car offended a patriotic French audience?

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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is a genuinely entertaining reboot of the franchise (God, I hate that word) from the director of the original films, George Miller. This teaser poster is a fine piece of misdirection, with Max Rockatansky’s iconic Ford Falcon (“the lahst vee-eight intuhcepteh”) being dismantled within about five minutes of the film starting. Interestingly, the bleached blue-orange aesthetic of the production design and cinematography can be read as playing up the often mocked colour bias of action flick posters. Has George Miller created one of cinema’s biggest movie poster in-jokes? I hope so.

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This poster for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) evokes the hand rendered golden age of car advertising – note for example that the cars on the opposing highway are 1960s and 1970s chrome land yachts, not the anodyne boxes Detroit was churning out by the 1980s. And of course we have the bright red 250 GT California front and centre. I defy anyone not to have a great day off in £10million worth of classic Ferrari.

Fun fact: in the grand tradition of Hollywood Ferraris, the car in the film was one of three specially commissioned replicas, with a real 250 GT being used only for interior shots.

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Finally, considering that I like cars, my hatred for the Fast and Furious films burns surprisingly deep. Perhaps it is the over-stylised macho vacuity of the films (and Vin Diesel), the huge fan-flame-fanning Pokemon-like “gotta catch ’em all” roster of vehicles, or the obvious use of CGI to create impossible shots, but to my eyes the films are less interesting than a YouTube play-through of the latest Gran Turismo game. That said, this teaser poster for Fast & Furious (2009), the fourth instalment in the franchise (urgh, that word again) of EIGHT films, gets it right. A lovely (although crassly modified) Dodge Charger RT fills the frame with its shiny goodness, with the cast of “characters” (I use the term loosely) relegated to a mere reflection in the car’s rippling muscle. Just as they should be, I think.

So there you go. There are plenty more cars on movie posters, of course; the 1960s-1970s exploitation genre served up enough examples for an article all of their own. Do you have your own favourites? If so, I would love to see them in the comments below. (First comment mentioning Taxi Driver (1976) wins a prize.)

Author: chrisward1978

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

42 thoughts on “Drive By Movies: Cars and Film Posters 2”

    1. Saul Bass posters are not uniformly great, it must be said. The graphic is somewhat crude, but it is the typography that really lets this one down.

    2. Ugh, first comment fails to win praise. Should have just chucked Death Proof up there and got on with my evening. Never mind.

    3. It looks like something Bass would’ve done during coffee break, yet it’s still engrossingly bold. Not a masterpiece – I’m with Chris as far as the typography’s concerned – but still noteworthy.

    4. Talking of movie poster legends (and somewhat hijacking the thread): what do you make of Drew Struzan, Chris?

    5. Mark: I did consider Death Proof, but I though the poster to be a bit arch, aping the posters of exploitation cinema but not quite nailing the style.

    6. Kris:

      RE. Drew Struzan: being raised in the time of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, I grew up with his work all around me. Such amazing artistry. You don’t get that sort of textural depth in Photoshop.

  1. Thank you Chris – you don’t want to consider a part 3 do you?

    Here is the poster for the 1956 film Checkpoint.

    It’s standard lurid fare, but although I haven’t seen the film for maybe 45 years, I remember that the cars (the hero’s team ran Astons and Lagondas) made satisfyingly convincing noises – not always the case in movies.

    1. Why were they using paintings of scenes when they had millions of potential negatives to turn into prints?
      I see Maurice Denham is in that film. He was a great character actor.

    2. The reasons were in part technical and artistic. Back in the day it was hard to generate colour separations, so it was helpful to create artwork with this in mind. As for the use of screen shots (or not), it is quite hard to capture the spirit of a movie in one shot. Our impressions of a film are entirely perceptual and are an aggregate judgement of staging, cinematography, scoring and performance ascertained over a film’s length. Besides, shot scenes are termed “footage” for a reason; even in this digital age, picking a few stills that perfectly capture that from the 187,200 frames that make up a film (24 fps x 60 x 130 minute average runtime) would be a herculean task.

    3. I thought there were also stills photographers who took shots during a movie.
      The task of choosing a single frame from a film could be narrowed down a lot: choose a good scene and roll the footage until a good bit comes up and pick from around there.

    4. Stills photographers were on hand to create publicity shots for press packs. Their framing and point of view were by necessity different to that of the shot scene. They could occasionally appropriate the acting talent whilst they were in costume during downtime to create their own compositions – if the talent did not tell them to eff-off, of course.

      Films are not composed of static vignettes but are created almost entirely in motion; thus trying to capture a perfect screen shot becomes an almost impossible task. Results may vary, of course. Some Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott films contain painterly moments, lending themselves to screen shots; ditto films shot by the cinematographer Roger Deakins.

  2. “task was to bring together a film’s desperate elements ”

    disparate?

  3. “Cultural imperialism can be subtle, sometimes not; one wonders if the choice of an American car offended a patriotic French audience?”

    I wasn’t born in 1958 but it’s unlikely. From what I gathered “une americaine” was the dream car back then, so it was quite fitting for this type of film actually.

    1. That bad? I take it you’re not into cartoons then?

  4. I’ve got these to add:

    The quality of the posters’ design doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of each movie.

    1. Some good ones there. I used to love Condorman as a child. Michael Crawford affecting a frankly terrible American accent, and a blatantly pissed Oliver Reed.

    2. Yet isn’t it frankly perplexing that a company with access to the kind of artistic talent Disney employed couldn’t come up with something, well, better? Bob Peak, for example, did some very decent posters in the late ’70s/early 80s. Given the kind of money Ron Miller spent on this and The Black Hole, hiring a top-class graphic artist wouldn’t have broken the bank. In contrast, tiny Handmade Films probably spent more than appeared sensible for that painted poster, instead of a ‘that’ll do’ collage á la Week-end.

    3. Yes the one for Long Good Friday is super. I very much like that hand composed style. Even though the poster is rather busy, it has the depth of a fine painting.

  5. The film Incognito starred the American born Eddie Constantine who became the go-to actor to play hard-boiled Yanks in French films in the 50s and 60s. Jean-Luc Godard hijacked his ‘Lemmy Caution’ persona (great name) from a series of cop films to use in ‘Alphaville’. Which segues to Godard’s ‘Weekend’ and another car poster.

    1. Back in the golden-ish days of TWGCM Online, I remember playing spot the car in the linear traffic jam / car crash from Weekend with AReader. Where are you now AR? We miss you!

    2. I’ve just found my original list which was compiled in a hurry. so some might need correcting – for instance some of those Dauphines might be Ondines. Also, what was the car in the ditch?

      Facel Vega Facellia –
      Peugeot 404 Break –
      Fiat 850 –
      Renault Dauphine –
      Simca 1000 –
      Austin Mini –
      Peugeot 404 –
      Citroen 2CV –
      Peugeot 203 –
      Renault Dauphine –
      Peugeot 403 –
      Volvo 1800 –
      Citroen 2CV –
      Renault Van –
      Volvo 144 –
      Mini –
      Citroen DS (ID?) –
      Simca Aronde –
      Bus –
      Cart Horse –
      Car in ditch –
      Panhard Dyna Z –
      Fiat 600 –
      Simca 1000 –
      Citroen 2CV –
      Peugeot 404 Break –
      Panhard PL17 –
      Simca 1000 –
      Berliet Tanker –
      Hardly Visible Mystery Convertible –
      Fiat 850 Sport –
      Triumph Spitfire –
      Car in Ditch –
      Peugeot 403 –
      Renault Dauphine –
      Renault 4CV –
      Renault 4 –
      Citroen DS –
      Simca 1500 –
      Simca Ariane –
      NSU Sport Prinz –
      Ford Taunus 12M –
      Renault 4 –
      Citroen DS –
      Peugeot 204 –
      Peugeot 404 –
      Renault Dauphine –
      Simca Aronde –
      Peugeot 404 –
      Buick Roadmaster –
      Renault 4 –
      Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider –
      Mini –
      Renault Colorale –
      French Bike –
      Simca ? –
      Renault 16

  6. If you ever wondered what New Zealand was like in 1981 and like cars then watch Goodbye Pork Pie, a roadtrip/car chase movie directed by Geoff Murphy. The poster is from the same ‘illustrated highlights’ school as films like Cannonball Run.

    1. This one and BMX Bandits, starring the young Nicole Kidman, would make for a nice antipodean double bill. Maybe followed by Snowtown and Braindead the following night.

      (I must admit to having only seen one of Geoff Murphy’s works: Under Siege 2. Which wasn’t very good, surprisingly.)

  7. I’m going to get disqualified for not having a car on this poster but the 2001 reissue of Akira had a great poster if you liked Kaneda’s motorcycle

  8. Great subject, Chris, really engrossing (just spent at least 20 mins browsing this at work – sorry boss – without realising). Your insights are really illuminating and, well, keep ’em coming!

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