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Although there are thematic links between many of the movie posters designed by Bill Gold between 1942 and 2003, especially in the talismanic use of telephones (Dial M for Murder, Klute, The Front Page) and guns (Casablanca, Deliverance, the Dirty Harry films), what’s remarkable is the range of styles he used in creating numerous iconic works. It seems unlikely that the designer responsible for the conventional rendering of James Cagney in patriotic garb in Yankee Doodle Dandy (Gold’s debut) could have conceived the frilly pink collage of My Fair Lady, the blobbed, multicoloured hippie images for Woodstock, and the upside-down nocturnal reflections of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (Gold’s last campaign). But he delighted, clearly, in being a visual magpie.

Moving with the times as American graphics began to change in the Fifties, Gold went from relying on traditional illustration to embracing Modernism, Symbolism, Pop Art and psychedelia. Born in Brooklyn in 1921, he didn’t forget his early American influences, having his artists imitate the cool, elegant masculine style of the magazine illustrator J C Leyendecker for The Sting poster and the folksy wit of Norman Rockwell for a poster for On Golden Pond that was much better than the one eventually used. The elaborate poster for Camelot laid Gustav Klimt’s gold leaf around profiles of Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave that might have been painted by Alphonse Mucha.

'It was Gold who hired Philippe Halsman to photograph Eastwood wielding his Magnum 44 with a wide-angle lens, blowing up the gun to surreal proportions'

Bill Gold: PosterWorks, a 450-page limited-edition book newly published by Reel Art Press, celebrates the work of a designer whose special ability was to condense the mood and plot of the films he advertised into compelling, purposefully ambiguous ideas. For The Exorcist he intensified the black-and-white contrast of a still of Max von Sydow waiting outside the bedevilled house; for Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, he placed pink band aids over the throat of a blonde photographed, from open mouth to cleavage, in black and white. It's not only funny and sexy - it's of a piece with the film's camp Gothic.

In 1942, Gold was hired by Joe Tisman to design posters for Warner Bros; he headed the studio’s New York art department from 1948 until it was closed in 1959. He then worked independently until 2003, when his Mystic River poster concluded a run of 35 consecutive campaigns, beginning with Dirty Harry, as the exclusive designer for Eastwood. It was Gold who hired Philippe Halsman to photograph Eastwood wielding his Magnum 44 with a wide-angle lens, blowing up the gun to surreal proportions, for the Magnum Force poster; it was Gold who hired artists to paint the sign and colour the low-angle still of Eastwood, holding six-gun and whip, that comprise the hellish poster of High Plains Drifter. He created his own western iconography, moving from the lurid sunset of his poster for The Searchers (incorporating the great copyline, “He had to find her, he had to find her…”), to the menacing blue-toned image used for The Wild Bunch, to that of Eastwood’s William Munny, head bowed, dangling his gun behind his back, for The Unforgiven - the latter a masterpiece of the poster form.

He was equally at home with the carnivalesque (The Great Race), the frou-frou (The Go-Between), the Warholian (There’s a Girl in My Soup) and the darkly classical (Bird, Goodfellas). Not all his designs worked - a Diamonds Are Forever poster was too fussy, a Steelyard Blues one was vapid given the film’s anti-establishment message - but some of the best are more memorable than the movies they sold.

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The Arts Desk

12 Nov, 2010

Graham Fuller