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Poster Master

If you’ve gone to the movies within the past seven decades, chances are Bill Gold had something to do with getting you there. A designer who created the posters for some of the best-known films in history, Gold struck that tricky balance between art and commerce, creating works that won design-world plaudits and enticed audiences to buy tickets.

During his career Gold, 89, created over 2,000 posters, from Casablanca in 1942 to Mystic River in 2003. Along the way he and his firm designed the posters for Cool Hand Luke, The Exorcist, My Fair Lady, Dog Day Afternoon and Alien. A selection of that work has been collected in a sizeable new retrospective book called Bill Gold Posterworks.

“I know what movie posters should look like, instinctively,” said Gold, who lives in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. “I looked at everything that MGM and Paramount and all the companies did, and I never liked anything that I saw. I always found fault with the fact that they showed three heads of the actors, and that’s about all the concept they would use. When I started to work, I thought: I don’t want to just do a concept with three heads in it. I want a story.”

Gold worked on poster campaigns for films by Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Federico Fellini, but his most significant relationship was with Clint Eastwood. The two began working together in 1971 when Gold created the poster for Dirty Harry and continued until he retired in 2004. The following list provides a look at several of his creations over the decades, with commentary from him on the genesis of the designs.

Meet the poster

House of Wax

House of Wax, a cheesy frightfest starring Vincent Price, was the first colour 3-D film from a major studio. “We found this in my file cabinet in the bottom of the drawer when I was locating material for the book,” Gold said of the poster. “The publisher said, ‘We have to show that.’ I said: ‘I’m not really happy with that design. It’s kind of corny and cheap.’ He said, ‘But it’s the first time they ever came out with 3-D in a massive production, and it’s a very important piece of history.’ The design was so silly and obvious. But that’s what we wanted to show. We wanted people to know that things jump out of the screen at you. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s a beginning anyway.”

Casablanca

Gold’s first assignment in 1942 after being hired by the Warner Brothers art department in New York was Casablanca. “I thought all the characters in this film were very important, so I wanted them in the poster,” he said. “I put them in the background and put Ingrid Bergman in front of them on the left side of Bogart, but I wanted her to be looking on behind him. I didn’t want to tip off that there was a love affair.” The studio had but one request: Wanting to sell Bogart as a star, it asked if the poster could be more exciting. “So I went back and put a gun in his hand,” he said. It worked.

Rope

Rope, about two young men who murder a former classmate in their apartment and host a dinner party at the scene of the crime, was the first of seven Alfred Hitchcock films Gold worked on. “The whole trick here was showing Jimmy Stewart holding a piece of rope,” he explained. “What’s going to happen with that piece of rope? That’s me instigating the curiosity of the film idea. At first the lettering was very crisp and casual and typical. And then I felt it needed something to be more active, something to make it move more, so I added the lines.” And about those red clouds? “They bring drama to the sky,” he said. “It’s not a settling sky. The red makes it more imposing.”

Deliverance

The poster used in the domestic campaign for Deliverance showed hands coming out of the river holding a rifle. But executives in charge of the international campaign wanted something more dynamic to represent a movie about a weekend canoe trip from hell. “So I thought, wouldn’t it be great if it had a three-dimensional quality, and it looked like it was coming out of the eye of one of the Southern characters,” Gold said of the Daliesque look.

Mystic River

For the final poster Gold worked on before retiring he wanted to keep things simple. “‘Less is more’ is what Clint would always say,” he recalled. “I went to Boston and stayed there for about a month and shot a lot of pictures.” But rather than using stills for Mystic River, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel, he ultimately decided to go with a silhouette of the three main characters reflected in the water, their lives turned upside down by tragic events. The final image was a composite of a photograph and illustration along with the tag line from the film’s dialogue: “We bury our sins here. We wash them clean.”

Barbarella

To get the space-age feel for this late-1960s poster to promote Roger Vadim’s science fiction romp, Gold experimented with shapes and stills. “The fragments are a design trick,” he said. “You would normally have boxes down the side show all the stills, but this has a bursting excitement to it. Pieces seem to be flying off the centre. So here Jane Fonda is big up top, and then when you come down below, there’s a small sexy little figure with the tag line ‘See Barbarella do her thing.’ What’s her thing? We’d love to see it.”

A Clockwork Orange

For A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian nightmare, Gold spent six months working on black-and-white poster designs before coming to this poster. The illustration, drawn by Ivan Punchatz, fashions the lead character, Alex DeLarge, as a sacrificial figure to science. “It was more of a symbolic design concept,” Gold said. It was never used. “We submitted it to Kubrick, and he didn’t like it. He’s got phenomenal taste. But this didn’t appeal to him. I guess it was too scientific looking. He wanted more of a flesh-and-blood violence look.”

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