Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Chinatown" (1974) Poster: A Nouveau Touch of Noir

Anyone who knows my taste in film knows that I'm a great lover of film noir. I've gone so far to extensively read the work of the great pulp writers: Raymond Chandler (my personal favorite), Dashiell Hammett, and James Cain to gain a greater appreciation for the films. That's why its no surprise that I sought out Roman Polanski's great "neo-noir" Chinatown (1974), which stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.
Originally, my love of noir came from my fascination with the era: the cars, the clothes, the lifestyles. But later, as my film tastes matured, I grew to appreciate the subtle aspects of noir which so many others have learned to appreciate before me: the smokey scenes, the flawed hard-boiled hero, the secretive and seductive femme-fatale, all of it. Chinatown, of course, did not disappoint. In fact, I would say that Chinatown transcends the genre of mere homage-film and serves as a modern noir all to itself. It contains more then the mere trappings of the great noirs of the 40's and 50's because it's more than just a costume drama: it contains that distinct aura of gravitas found only in such films. Maybe, it's just me, but a film like The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Double Indemnity (1944) contains deep philosophical messages about the harsh nature of life on a very accessible medium.
Oddly enough, I was familiar with Chinatown's fantastic poster before I was acquainted with the exploits of Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray and the LA water crisis. But then again, perhaps its not so strange. The design is so striking: beautifully captivating and simple that its hard to forget.

I started doing a little analyzing of the poster, in an attempt to lock into an art genre. It certainly isn't pure Art-Deco because it lacks the linearity of Deco. Which is kind of surprising to me, because I always associate Art Deco with the era of the original noirs. I would say, that the designer and artist (Diener-Hauser and Jim Pearsall, respectively) owe more the posters of the Art Nouveau period.

Granted, it's true, pure Nouveau, but it's closer enough. I'm especially struck by the Japonisme of the piece, which was quite common during the Art Nouveau period. Of course, this is more a reflection on the title (Chinatown) than actual design motifs. But, the flowering, easy, smokey waves and the simple, beautiful woman are clear signs of the Art Nouveau influence. Even the font of the title reminds one of the typeface used by many Art Nouveau graphic art. It's not the elegant, flowing Art Nouveau of Mucha, but despite its simplicity, it's surely belongs on the genre. I'm reminded of the cigarette ads for Job by a lesser-known Nouveau artist Jane Atche. The simplicity of design also echoes a mix of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
What really came to mind was the classic The Great Gatsby original cover art by Francis Cugat. Chinatown evokes Cugat with the faceless features, and smokey ambiance of the design. They're also pieces that reflect the piece that they're advertising. It's really not much of a stretch.
Chinatown is a great film and it deserves the great poster design that it received. I would suggest that among film-fans, Chinatown's poster has become an iconic piece of later movie graphic art and deservedly so. The poster most definitely suggests sensual mystery, which is, in essence, the perfect description for the film itself. And can you get much better than that!

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