The Greatest Movie Poster of All Time?
If you’re a regular visitor to this site, and you haven’t seen Chinatown, what the hell are you doing here?
Leave this site immediately, and go watch this classic from 1974. You can thank me later.
Of course, for those of you still here, I’m sure you recognize the poster above. It was done by Pennsylvania-born artist Jim Pearsall, and the poster is almost as iconic as the film itself, with Russ Ryan of meansheets.com, a movie poster site, proclaiming it “arguably the greatest movie poster of all-time.”
I’m not sure about that, but it’s certainly a memorable one. Hell, I had a copy of it (in Italian, no less) hanging in my bathroom for years.
According to J. Kingston Pierce of The Rap Sheet, Pearsall’s depiction of Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway “at risk of being upstaged by a lazy drift of cigarette smoke,” was inspired by the famous 1890s advertisement for JOB cigarette rolling papers (over there, to the right), created by Czech graphic artist Alphonse Mucha.
Which is pretty appropriate, when you think about it, since Chinatown itself harkens back to the past and particularly film noir detective films of the 1940s, a clear homage both in its setting and theme but also in its casting of John Huston, the director of the 1941 The Maltese Falcon, as Noah Cross.
So it makes sense that Pearsall’s poster, too, pays tribute to the illustrators and styles of years gone by. You can see it in the way both relatively simplistic designs are dominated by an alluring, enigmatic woman with hair/cigarette smoke issues (nothing says noir quite like cigarette smoke). Mucha’s advertising poster features what would become known as the “Mucha Woman,” while the Chinatown poster uses Faye Dunaway, but doubles down on the swirling cigarette smoke, allowing it to do double duty for her hair, occasionally breaking the “frame,” as does Gittes’ hat and the flowing water. And then Pearsall pumped up the rather muted earth tones of Mucha’s poster, filling the frame with a bright, eye-catching golden yellow.
In both cases, it’s these thoughtful, small details that bring the message home.
Pearsall created the poster for Roman Polanski‘s noir masterpiece while working for the Diener Hauser Bates agency, a true big shot in film and television promotion. They had offices in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Fort Lauderdale, and helped pioneer the concept of wide releases in film distribution. Their clients included Paramount, Fox, Columbia, Disney, MGM, United Artists, TriStar, Orion, New Line and Miramax, and they ran the campaigns and designed award-winning, iconic posters for M*A*S*H, Serpico, Gallipoli, The Godfather, Saturday Night Fever, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Rocky, Lady Sings the Blues, The Pink Panther, The Graduate and more.
Pearson himself only did a few other movie posters, and none of the posters (or the films) came came within spitting distance of Chinatown. “I guess you could say Jim Pearsall was a one-hit wonder,” opined Russ Ryan, “but what a hit it was!”
- Digging the Art of Chinatown
J. Kinston Pierce looks at various alternative covers of the classic film. (June 2019, The Rap Sheet)
- My Scrapbook: Chinatown Poster by Genzo
An “alternative” poster.