John Alvin, RIP
February 13, 2008 11:53 PM   Subscribe

His career started with the memorable poster he created for Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, but encompassed so many more iconic movie posters of our time. ET? His work. Blade Runner? His too. The Lion King? Also his. You may not recognize the name, but the body of work speaks for itself. Although I didn't know his name back then, his art (especially this) made me want to design movie posters as a kid. He died last week at age 59. RIP John Alvin.
posted by cmgonzalez (17 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a more extensive gallery of his work, including concept art and other art he did (extensive collection of Star Wars work included). However, I didn't include it in the main post because the link is intermittently down for me tonight. It is worth checking out though.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:55 PM on February 13, 2008

Incredible. I'm sorry to only know of his work after his passing. I didn't even think that movie posters were the kind of thing one could be 'good at,' but I was definitely mistaken. Some amazing artistic work, no doubt about it.

posted by farishta at 12:01 AM on February 14, 2008

Yes farishta, movie posters usually tickle me in the wrong way, with all the predictable layout and rigid faces grinning at you in a totally fake fashion, but Alvin's work IS a little different. Not that I'll start liking advertising now, but I admit he was special at what he did. RIP the man.
posted by Laotic at 1:29 AM on February 14, 2008

Well he clearly had talent, but the heavily 1980s & 1990s Hollywood movie poster style he represents is incredibly aesthetically unappealing to my eye. The kind of depressing covers you find in depressing local video stores.

He did most of the most famous films of the 1980s, and that seems related to the fact that I consider that the (hands down) worst era of movie poster design (and indeed, pretty much all design! From fashion to product). Compare the formulaic and fully representative 1980s garish colors and compositions of Gremlins, Cocoon, and Arachnophobia to the experimental, clean, and coordinated poster designs of older Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, not one of the top 25 movie posters rated by Premiere Magazine comes from the 1980s, and only one from the 1990s and beyond (Silence of the Lambs).

To get a real sense of how far we have fallen, check out Alvin's gallery (or Struzan's, or the other similar artists at that site), scroll through all the latest garish cookie cutter poster designs at Apple Trailers, and then take a look at this site of amazing vintage Polish movie posters.
posted by dgaicun at 2:06 AM on February 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Sand Pirates of the Sahara! Too bad it isn't real, best movie on the page.
posted by jfuller at 2:21 AM on February 14, 2008

And this is of course, dgaicun, why appreciation of art is in the eye of the beholder. I think some of Alvin's work is extremely beautiful, especially that Aladdin poster I linked to. I remember falling in love with that piece at age twelve, not being able to find a large print of it for my wall, and treasuring the small size print from a magazine I had instead.

Those Polish posters to me are less "amazing" and more batshitinsane disturbing. But I'm not going to call them bad or garish because they're just not my style.

Every aspect of modern society has its share of people who always claim things just aren't as good as the old days.
posted by cmgonzalez at 2:43 AM on February 14, 2008

Thank you, dgaicun, for offering counterpoint in a relatively classy fashion. I think there's merit all around, and can easily cherry pick favourites from both your and cmgonzalez's links. Alvin had a good grasp of the physicality of light, but his designs were often rather repetitive -- and given the variety of his other work, I'm guessing he was often quite heavily art-directed and simply produced work to spec.

Nice post all around.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:47 AM on February 14, 2008

It's interesting to compare his posters against a few years of award winners on that IMP site you linked to. What does it say about the state of current design when they have to have a special "bravery" award for not putting the stars' faces on the poster?
posted by patricio at 4:57 AM on February 14, 2008

This one's great. Wonderful movie, too.
posted by mediareport at 7:50 AM on February 14, 2008


Regardless of the artistic value of the posters Alvin made, those images had tremendous impact on my younger self (especially Gremlins).
posted by SageLeVoid at 9:04 AM on February 14, 2008

Unsurprisingly, not one of the top 25 movie posters rated by Premiere Magazine comes from the 1980s, and only one from the 1990s and beyond (Silence of the Lambs).

I realize the irony of me complaining about advertising on a website that's showing the top 25 movie posters of all time, but goddamned that motherfucking website was annoying. So annoying that I'm going to save anyone in the future from having to endure that bullshit.

So without further ado...
  1. Anatomy of a Murder Mark Rothko meets the chalk outline. Artist Saul Bass (also an acclaimed title designer and visual consultant) brought poster design out of the golden age with a bold mix of the abstract and the figurative, of which this poster for the controversial 1959 Otto Preminger thriller is a prime example.
  2. The Sin of Nora Moran Some great posters are from movies you may never have heard of — 1933's The Sin of Nora Moran is a fairly inconsequential B picture, but its poster is an unforgettable image of ravishment. (As for truth in advertising, the film's lead actress was not a blond.) Alberto Vargas, an artist who was a go-to guy for the studios during the 1930s, did the artwork on this Majestic release.
  3. Vertigo The image that Saul Bass — who also created the opening credit sequence of the film itself — designed for Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo is as classic as the movie itself. Perhaps because of his good work or merely because of his growth into one of film's most gifted poster creators, Bass was given a credit on the film, which at the time wasn't customary.
  4. Downhill Racer Downhill Racer's breathtaking 1969 one-sheet is, among other things, a testimonial to just how freewheeling the '60s were — only then were the studios daring enough to advertise a Robert Redford picture without showing Redford on the poster. Steve Frankfurt did the design and while the film was mostly ignored by audiences, the one-sheet is seen as a touchstone for future film posters.
  5. Forbidden Planet The Forbidden Planet artwork (1956), with its decidedly menacing robot and definitely-not-Anne Francis damsel-in-distress, evokes and entire ethos of pulp sci-fi. The prominence of Robbie the Robot also tapped into 1950s hysteria by appearing like some piece of domestic gadgetry.
  6. Gilda The image of Rita Hayworth in the title role of Gilda (1946) epitomizes the femme fatale. Robert Coburn took the picture and art director Jack Kerness did the rest with this sultry image of Hayworth in a Jean Louis gown. This poster touches on the scene that comes after the film's most famous sequence in which Hayworth's character does a striptease.
  7. 42nd. Street The deco-ish cascade of legs for 42nd Street (1933) brings to mind skyscrapers as well as dancing feet. Hubbard G. Robinson and Joseph Tisman, who also created the poster for Busby Berkeley's other 1933 film Footlight Parade, captured the off-kilter attraction of Berkeley's bubbly choreography with the poster's use of sharp angles and an image from the film's most famous (or infamous) under the legs sequence. The result was one of the top ten grossing films of the year for Warner Bros.
  8. Attack of the 50 ft. Woman 1958's Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman is an awful movie — but the poster is memorable. Reynolds Brown, frequently employed by the studios to create horror one-sheets, designed this Cold War-era flick that was intended to lure teens away from their television sets.
  9. The Thief of Baghdad Douglas Fairbanks never looked better than he did in this one-sheet for the 1924 swashbuckler. But as the producer of The Thief of Baghdad, Fairbanks ensured his image would look good by asking illustrator Adrian Gill Spear to create the poster for the United Artists film.
  10. 2001: A Space Odyssey Originally designed, but discarded as a less prominent image to promote the film, this poster for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey became the main focus of the advertising campaign when it was decided that audiences weren't as excited by traditional space age images as they had been during the 1950s. The image of an embryo embaced the film's theme of human evolution and Kubrick had complete authority over the film's marketing.
  11. King Kong Star power being what it is, 1933's King Kong merely needed a big ape to sell itself. Yet S. Barret McCormick and Bob Sisk did the artwork for the iconic ape, based on the production sketches of Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe. The image of the creature terrorizing humans against the backdrop of the New York skyline represented nature versus the machine age at its most extreme.
  12. Straw Dogs The shattering violence of Sam Peckinpah's 1971 Straw Dogs is disturbingly foreshadowed in this cleverly layered image. While the poster does have a closeup of one of the 1970s most famous leading men, the controversial Dustin Hoffman-Sam Peckinpah collaboration about a man forced to his breaking point is perfectly captured.
  13. The Gold Rush The shivering Tramp of 1925's The Gold Rush immediately entered the pantheon of iconic images. As with many of Chaplin's posters, it relied more on Chaplin's bowler hat, mustache and facial expression to grab audiences than a suggestion of the film's comic elements.
  14. The Man With the Golden Arm The stark simplicity of Bass's poster for 1955's The Man With the Golden Arm was perhaps the designer's most daring work. The poster for the film, which stars Frank Sinatra as a man in the throes of drug addiction, conveys the essence of the main character's struggle without being preachy. Other posters were commissioned that featured the faces of Sinatra and Kim Novak, but the twisted arm remains timeless.
  15. The Mummy The poster for 1932's The Mummy remains an auction champ: it once sold for $453,500. P.D. Cochrane was the advertising director at Universal who commissioned the work of illustrator Karoly Grosz which features sultry Zita Johann backed up against a tomb and a mummified Boris Karloff at rest above her.
  16. The Silence of the Lambs The poster for 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, designed by the ad agency Dazu, is as simple and disturbing as they come. Look very closely at the death's head moth covering star Jodie Foster's mouth, there appears to be an image of humans forming a skull on its back. Inspired by the famous Salvador Dali photograph of several naked women posed like a skull, the film's director Jonathan Demme is said to have suggested the surreal augmentation to the moth's natural skull-like markings.
  17. This Gun for Hire Maurice Kallis, who learned the craft of making posters as an assistant to Paramount art director Vincent Trotta, styled the poster for this 1942 Graham Greene potboiler about a hit man who takes money from the wrong man. The presence of Veronica Lake renders the most of the plot irrelevant as far as the poster's concerned; despite the top billing, Robert Preston isn't even part of the image. (That's actually fourth-billed Alan Ladd.)
  18. Breakfast at Tiffany's You don't need to go to great lengths to make an appealing poster when Audrey Hepburn's playing the lead. Yet the image of the actress with a figure as slight as the cigarette that dangles from her mouth cemented Hepburn's iconic status and helped forge the reputation of the now-classic 1961 romantic comedy based on Truman Capote's hit novel.
  19. Sullivan's Travels Maurice Kallis, who also worked on the This Gun for Hire poster, was responsible for the minimalist Sullivan's Travels poster. It emphasizes the beautiful blonde bombshell Veronica Lake in this otherwise seriocomic Preston Sturges film. Kallis had previously worked on The Lady Eve one-sheet for Sturges and Paramount advertising head Robert M. Gillham, and though the classic Lake image is the one that's remembered, the studio also commissioned a less abstract take for their marketing campaign.
  20. Yellow Submarine As the film's art director and man in charge of the advertising art, Czech graphic designer Heinz Edelmann came up with the overall brightly colored, Peter Max-esque look for The Beatles' mostly animated 1968 romp, Yellow Submarine. Incidentally, the film's Blue Meanies were originally supposed to be red, but when Edelmann's assistant accidentally changed the colors, the film's characters took on a different meaning.
  21. Rosemary's Baby Taking a cue from the film itself, the poster for Roman Polanski's 1968 film makes an innocent object, a baby stroller, ominous. For a film where the concept was definitely more emphasized than stars John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow, Rosemary's Baby had a poster that upped the creep factor with its unusual use of dark green as a predominant color.
  22. The Seven Year Itch If the designers of the poster for the 1955 Marilyn Monroe vehicle had substituted, say, Jimmy Durante for Tom Ewell on the right, do you think anyone would have noticed? No way. Monroe's pose in this poster has become an enduring iconic image of the sex symbol. The film was the first collaboration between the film's director Billy Wilder and Saul Bass.
  23. The Hitch-Hiker The poster for 1953's The Hitch-Hiker blurs the line between advertisement and highway safety PSA. The Edmond O'Brien roadside nailbiter had a simple approach to selling its cheap thrills — a gun, a threatening tagline, and the simple, violent colors of red and black.
  24. All About Eve The bouncy, kinetic design of 1950's All About Eve poster mirrors the movie's cocktail shaker wit. Erik Nitsche was the artist who came up with the arrow-filled image that, like the film, features an all-too brief cameo by Marilyn Monroe, here in the bottom left corner of the one-sheet.
  25. Gun Crazy The art for 1949's Gun Crazy represents cinema's obsession with the aberrant, highlighting a thrill-killing dame. The film was originally released as Deadly is the Female with a poster featuring a more seductive Peggy Cummins splayed out across the poster sans guns. But after a new title and poster was commissioned, the femme fatale flick turned into a hit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:31 AM on February 14, 2008 [6 favorites]

Awwww. Incredible work. That is too bad.
posted by tkchrist at 12:04 PM on February 14, 2008

I didn't realise that half these are even paintings!

Not that it's necessarily one of his, but this seems like an appropriate place to highlight just how fucking terrifying this poster is.
posted by 6am at 12:24 PM on February 14, 2008

Wow, I guess I never really thought about it before, but movie posters are really a lost art. I mean, when's the last time you saw a movie poster that was cool enough that you'd want to hang it on your wall? Now they're just completely generic and watered-down, like any other form of advertising. Also, it's kind of sad that this guy created all these iconic images and most of us have probably never heard of him. He probably wasn't after great fame or anything anyway, but still.
posted by DecemberBoy at 12:36 PM on February 14, 2008

Those ET and Bladerunner ones were stone cold classics... Yes, a pity to find out they were even by the same guy after he's died. Some of them were a bit cheesy (Dear god the Stallone Cobra one... ) but they were a huge part of my early adult years, browsing the shelves of the video shop.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:29 PM on February 14, 2008

No mistaking his style.

Wicked dgaicun, those Polish posters. Not to slag Alvin, but they don't show much emotion compared to those Polish ones. No mistaking the tone of the movies advertised. Not quite as obvious, where it's about whom is starring [N/A versions]. I offer more Polish Film Posters from the 70's. Not as scary. And Polish Movie Posters of American Films, so not scary. [That's a hella site, actually]. Totally freaky American Movies — more Polish Posters.

I'm also loving the Russian Movie Posters. heh.

We can't forget Japanese Movie Posters of American Movies.

Not forgetting German Movie Posters of American Movies.

someone stop me, I'm on a roll.

Quite obvious that N/A's don't care much for graphic posters. As in graphic design-y. Bloody shame.

Two of my most memorable movies are "Krzyzacy" [Knights of the Teutonic Order—1960] the battle of Grunwald scene. Another one was Aleksander Nevsky— [Battle on the Ice], Sergei Eisenstein, music: Sergei Prokofiev. No CGI here. Check out other parts of the battle where the heavily armoured knights fall through the ice.
posted by alicesshoe at 5:17 PM on February 14, 2008

I think some of Alvin's work is extremely beautiful, especially that Aladdin poster I linked to.

I agree. I don't want to go too far, and I can see how E.T. and Gremlins (which I think I judged too harshly) are actually interesting compositions. All of his work required great talent, but I think a great poster requires waaaay more than impeccable photorealistic depictions of actors, which seems to be the downfall of poster art in the last 30 years. I don't mean that in some curmudgeon-y "old things were all better" kind of way. There are specific eras that did some things better than others, and some art is at it's peek right now (e.g. IMO, electronics design... thanks Steve Jobs!), but movie poster art really did look way better in the years long before my birth. Some of Alvin's best work, in my eyes, captures this earlier sensitivity toward design, but an unfortunate number seem to lack it entirely. (aargh, and that questionable repeating color scheme!)

Quite obvious that N/A's don't care much for graphic posters.

And, to be fair, I'm a designer, so there's my bias! Premiere's number 1 poster by Saul Bass, is definitely one of those "my kid could do it" pieces, but most people who see it will always remember it. Poster filling, photorealisitic illustrations of Harrison Ford's face... not so much.
posted by dgaicun at 7:44 PM on February 14, 2008

« Older Hungry Russian Students   |   Super-natural. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments