Most books about film posters are aimed squarely at the collectors' market: minimal context, big pictures, a few words about how valuable some of these images have become at auction and how rare some cherished items are.
Designer Bill Gold's 1941 poster for Casablanca , for example, featuring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in colour surrounded by monochrome portraits of the rest of the main cast, is a legendary rarity: only three copies are known to have survived. Such books are likely to remind us that posters for some cult movies (such as The Mummy - the Boris Karloff one, that is - King Kong and Metropolis ) are worth rather more than your apartment. Even pre-Pierce Brosnan James Bond items have become prudent investments, apparently.
One of the merits of Movie Poster by Emily King is that it spreads its net much wider than Hollywood. There are subsections on Soviet films of the 1920s, surreal Polish and Czech film posters of the 1960s, Peter Strausfeld's woodblock and linocut images made specially for the Academy Cinema on London's Oxford Street, the tinselly posters for Bollywood melodramas, Cuban silkscreen prints made under the auspices of the Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry between 1966 and 1979, and the stylish partnership of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and fashion photographer Juan Gatti since Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1987.
King is a critic and historian of modern graphic design and, instead of the usual focus on auction news, she raises interesting questions about how to "read" a film poster: as visual takeaway from a favourite film; as part of distribution rather than production; as an element in a graphic package that may even include the film's credit titles; and as street rather than cinematic imagery. She asks whether the movie poster is integral to the experience of cinema-going or whether it is part of a film's "afterlife".
And why do some posters take on a life of their own while others do not? In rare cases, the posters are very distinguished pieces of graphic design in their own right: Saul Bass' modernist work for Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock - where a strong, stripped-down graphic symbol serves as a summary of the film's plot - or Andrzej Klimowski's quiet poetic posters for the Polish release of Jim Jarmusch's early films (described here as "the last gasp of the Polish film poster") or some of the elaborate Italian watercolour posters of the 1950s and 1960s, which, because they are not restricted by publicity photographs or corporate style guides, tend to part company from the films they promote.
It is a pity that Movie Posters is organised, in roughly chronological order from the Lumière Brothers to Lord of the Rings , around genres, actors, directors, single films and, in a few cases, designers, rather than as a subset of the history of graphic design. Admittedly, as King says, "movie-poster design is a field beset by anonymity and the hunt for designer names can prove frustrating". But it would have been useful to read about the visual context (other posters, developments in fine art, typography, the designers' work in other fields) from which these images emerged. It would also have been useful to have been given the dimensions of the originals: four-sheets, one-sheets, inserts and lobby-cards are all simply described as "poster" throughout.
But there are some unusual and fascinating images here: Marlon Brando looking cross and clutching a gun in an Italian poster for On the Waterfront (1954); a Polish poster for 101 Dalmatians (1961) that represents the puppies as abstract monochrome dots; an illustrated poster for The Graduate (1967) - later superseded by a photographic version - which shows a sketchy drawing of Mrs Robinson's leg, framing a young man in gown and mortarboard. In the end, though, the decline in quality from images such as these to the digital, video and DVD age is sad. Today, movie posters tend to be part of bland global marketing campaigns, with graphic devices that are reusable in a variety of formats. In the process, they have lost their distinctive identity.
Sir Christopher Frayling is rector, Royal College of Art.
Author - Emily King
Publisher - Mitchell Beazley
Pages - 224
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 84000 653 6