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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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?
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.
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.
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.)