Movie posters are one of my very favorite art forms – they comprise about 99% of my interior decoration – but my love for them goes beyond aesthetics.
In essence, what I love about them is that they establish a reality for a film outside of itself. They stand as proof that a film was not just made, but was sold, possibly to those who had no knowledge of it or its makers, with the fundamental concept of “Come in. Spend your money. Make this film your evening’s entertainment.” And once upon a time, they exhibited a handcraftsmanship which the current era of Photoshopped portrait-salads too often lacks.
Most fascinating of all to me are the posters for foreign films being given American release. While foreign film has been fairly consistently embraced by the intelligentsia, fairly few films have crossed over to become a true popular success in addition to their critical embrace; only six non-Anglophone films have made more than $25 million at the U.S. box-office, and just 27 have made more than $10 million. The world of foreign film promotion is therefore a rather unique one.
I’ve chosen to highlight 50 separate entries (two of which contain two films) covering a spectrum of foreign cinema as advertised for the American market. The majority of these images I found at MoviePosterShop, which has high quality scans of nearly all the posters they sell. Images found elsewhere will be noted as they come up.
I do not own any of these images.
I decided to begin with 8½, partly because it’s a widely known classic (and one that wholly deserves its status), and partly because I quite like the poster. The rose-mauve tinting is fairly unique, and the message from Fellini is a welcome touch which sets it apart from the majority of posters period, and shows how Fellini himself had become a viable brand. In future entries I’ll delve into this some more.
No, they couldn’t resist showing off a young woman’s rear end (though compared to some of the other posters on this list, the titillation factor is quite mild), but this is still a good poster and one which actually sells the film fairly honestly.
This La Dolce Vita poster is a bit more sensationalist, but awesomely so: the tagiline “The most talked-about – the most shocked-about film of our years” is so crass I love it. The image of a starlet holding a yowling kitten is fairly grabby as well.
The poster for La Strada – Fellini’s first international success – properly highlights Giulietta Masina’s clownish nature, but I have to raise an eyebrow at “Filmed in Italy – where it happened!” (as if it was based on a true story) and “IN ENGLISH!”, denoting that it was dubbed.
Also, the picture of Richard Basehart at the bottom looks like a mugshot.
One of the most renowned films ever made, by one of the greatest directors who ever lived…and a prime first example of what I’ll call “blurb salad” posters – posters which have at most a smidgen of artwork and instead deluge the beholder with critical plaudits. This isn’t the worst example of such a poster, but it is ironic that it doesn’t include the image of Antonius Block playing chess with Death, one of the most iconic images in all of cinema.
Here are two posters for two of Bergman’s comedies, one among his most beloved films (which was of course adapted into the great musical A Little Night Music) and the other one of his most obscure post-50s films. But Smiles is sold as a goofy sex-farce, with the singular phrase “bawdy-nawdy”, an ogling moon, and the billing for “Sweden’s Four Most Beautiful Women”, whereas The Devil’s Eye at least puts Bergman front and center, even if it tosses in a curvaceous, seemingly nude female angel (with a side of blurb salad).
This poster for Seven Samurai features the original American title of The Magnificent Seven (used, of course, for the American remake), and you can even hear Elizabeth Taylor calling it by that name when it lost the B&W Costume Design Oscar (yes, it was an Oscar nominee) to The Solid Gold Cadillac. Not exactly their best choice.
That said, this is actually a pretty good poster, using imagery from the film to convey its action and scope (and the fact that Mifune steals the show, even though he’s not really the lead), while sprinkling in some choice blurbs to position it as a critical darling. A little color would be nice, but on the whole I still like it.
I’m not absolutely sure if this is a poster or the cover of a pressbook, but the use of the whimsical artwork contrasted with the melancholy beggar child at the center nails the tone of the film, and for whatever reason I like the inclusion of the tag “The sound of the trolley”.
There’s also a British poster I really like, which I’ll feature in a future entry.
Kurosawa’s only Oscar winner for Foreign Film (although Rashomon won a Special Award which was the precursor to the present award – the first winner of which was, coincidentally, La Strada), and his only non-Japanese film.
This poster is in a more modern style than most of the others featured here, with the photo of the cast at the bottom, the MPAA tag, and the tagline positioned as it is, but the slightly ethereal portrait of Dersu which dominates the image is a nice indicator of his larger-than-life status.
Few films have frustrated me as much as Grand Illusion – at least where posters are concerned. It’s a major classic of world cinema, the very first film Criterion released on DVD, and worst of all, the first foreign-language film nominated for Best fucking Picture, 31 years before the second! But I have yet to find any poster from its original 1937-38 run in America, or even the UK.
Instead I have this, a poster from a 50s reissue, with no artwork except a Rorschachian smudge which looks like Renoir spilled his glass of wine. Pathetic.
Pather Panchali was the first major appearance of Indian cinema on the international scene, at least in a serious sense (Mehboob Khan’s Aan received international release, but…I’ll get to that another time), and the Apu trilogy remains one of the great masterworks of cinema – I was lucky enough to see the new restoration on the big screen last year.
This poster, though, squeezes only a tiny dollop of art (of Apu’s mother (Karuna Bannerjee), I’m guessing) in between a mass of blurb salad, giving not much sense of the film other than it was critically acclaimed. Too bad.
The third film in the trilogy (and in my opinion, the best) at least allows the artwork to dominate the poster, even if it gives little more sense of the film than the poster for Pather Panchali did. The artwork is nice in of itself, and at least features our protagonist (played by Soumitra Chatterjee) and his tragic bride (played by Sharmila Tagore), even if it says nothing about what happens to them.
To my annoyance, I have yet to track down an American poster of the second film in the series, Aparajito. If I do, I’ll add it to a future post.
I have yet to see Ray’s Devi, but at least I found a poster for it, and a decent one to boot, although it doesn’t mention the central premise – that the female lead is believed by her father-in-law to be an avatar of Kali. Instead, it uses reviews and cites the success of the Apu trilogy (also distributed by Edward Harrison) as selling points.
I know Harrison at least distributed one other Ray film, his first color film Kanchenjunga, and I’d love to find the poster for that, but have so far been unable to.
Luckily, I’ve been able to find American posters for all four of the Hulot films, and it’s interesting to note the differences between them. Since Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday was his first appearance in the American market, the film minimizes him and has a slightly odd sense of Hulot; it feels weird to have the laconic character smiling. In any case, the poster leans on the blurbs a bit, but I give it credit for giving almost equal weight to the art.
The art for Mon Oncle, on the other hand, nails Hulot’s elusive, almost anonymous nature pretty well, but rather than highlighting the film’s satire on modernism and mechanization, tries to sell it as a family-friendly romp. That’s not to say it isn’t…but in retrospect it’s a slightly strange angle.
On the other hand, the poster for Play Time uses a portrait of Hulot (which is at least true to the character) and some blurb salad, but gives no hint of the film’s experimental nature, anti-modernist theme, or even the fact that Hulot himself is only intermittently the protagonist. The original French poster is much better, but the best poster is this delightful Polish piece which captures the film’s theme and humor beautifully.
After the failure of Play Time, Tati backtracked somewhat with the more conventional (though still enjoyable) Trafic, and the poster (which I would assume is the American artwork, but am not absolutely certain) gets the automotive theme across (and at least has some nice coloration – a lot of these early posters are fairly monochromatic), but saddles it with a bland, hacky tagline, which suggests no one involved was terribly enthusiastic about selling it. Too bad.
A monochrome poster for the 1965 Oscar winner, but given its bleak premise (the protagonist becomes the Nazi watchdog of an old Jewish woman’s button shop) it makes sense. And I really like the juxtaposition of the photographic (showing Josef Kroner’s haunted face) and the hand-drawn (showing him and Ida Kaminska in a happier moment).
Two years later, another Czech film won the prize, and given its theme of youthful sexuality, the advertising played it up, even giving it an erotically charged tagline – and not a single critical blurb!
Rather a shift from the norm, but not an unwelcome one. Points also for the use of yellow to highlight the tagline.
The following year, Sergei Bondarchuk’s magnificent adaptation of Tolstoy won the Oscar, and was given a fairly trumpeted release by Walter Reade/Continental – in fact, there are two alternate posters for the American release, which I’ll use in a future post.
This one might not be my favorite of the three, but it’s a nice old-school epic poster which gives you a good idea of just how big a film it is (as if the title didn’t give it away). The hyperbolic tagline and the relative lack of blurbs are icing on the cake.
Nanni Loy’s WWII epic was a big deal at the time (it was even nominated for its screenplay), but it has since fallen to obscurity – I myself have never seen it.
I like this poster though, especially the use of pink watercolor and the pulp-novelish portrait of a tearful woman, contrasting the suffering of the people of Naples with the falling soldier at center.
This poster is also, if not a first for this article, part of an interesting subgenre of foreign films – those created for the releases of foreign films by major studios. Most foreign films were and are released by independent outfits…but this is MGM, baby.
Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan is a gorgeous film, and if this poster doesn’t quite convey that gorgeousness, it’s fairly striking in its own right – I’ve always liked the use of yellow in posters (I think it’s an underrated color, at least as a dominant color), and the blood-red lettering makes a fine contrast. Good job, Continental.
Claude Lelouch followed up his 1966 Oscar winner A Man and a Woman with this 1967 nominee, but where the former film is still remembered (I’ll feature the poster for it in a future article), this has been almost totally forgotten. It’s an interesting example of a poster for a foreign film, released by a major studio, who may not have been all that high on the film in the first place.
It’s not a bad poster, though. I like the black/yellow contrast, and the contrast of photo-realistic portraits of the stars with stylized vignettes of the film’s events is pretty neat.
This isn’t actually the best art for Firemen’s Ball; there’s a piece out there by no less a giant than Saul Bass, but I didn’t find a good scan of it in time to include it in this post. In any case, this poster gives a better indication of how the film was sold, mixing critical blurbs with the image of a striptease (which, in the film, is played not for titillation but for humor).
This Hungarian film from 1968 got a fairly lavish poster, fitting since it too was released by a major studio (20th Century Fox), not only having a richly detailed portrait of youthful combat with a fitting tagline, but smaller portraits of the main characters, each with their own tags. Good stuff.
Ironically, for all the effort put into this poster, the film itself is pretty much forgotten.
Somewhat in the same vein as Live for Life, we have another film which follows a previous, far more successful film by the same direction, in this case Bo Widerberg following up his highly successful Elvira Madigan – whose American poster is, oddly enough, harder to track down, at least in a high quality scan.
Paramount is hardly to be envied for having to sell a film about a Swedish labor strike (hardly an exportable theme), but they made a nice poster, again making use of yellow (this time with red-orange), and putting the focus on romance rather than the politics of the story. Interestingly, they don’t highlight the X rating, instead playing up the critical and awards success of the film (which, like The Boys of Paul Street, is now quite obscure).
This Israeli film, a 1972 nominee, deluges its young lovers in pale blue, crowning them with blurbs and a play on the title. Not bad for a poster which conceals the central premise – the heroine is obliged by law to marry the brother of her late husband…who’s 12.
Another blue-toned poster, this time for a 1982 nominee from Jan Troell, whose 1971 nominee The Emigrants was nominated the following year for Best Picture, Director, and Actress for Liv Ullmann. An odd poster in that it trumpets the presence of Max von Sydow while omitting his face, and plays up the love story even though the film primarily (I think – I haven’t seen it) deals with the ill-fated Andrée expedition to the Arctic.
It reminds me somewhat of the poster for Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Red Tent, a film which deserves a post all to itself.
The history of Soviet cinema in America is an interesting one – Soviet films were regularly distributed in the U.S. from the 30s onward, through companies like Amkino, Artkino, and Sovexportfilm. And yet posters from the pre-Thaw era are tough to find, even when they’re promoting masterworks of cinema.
This is about all I’ve found for Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, and I’m not even positive it’s a poster – it might be a pressbook cover or newspaper ad. The crude artwork doesn’t help, but it’s at least some evidence that Eisenstein’s films were being shown and promoted in theaters. (To be fair, I have found lobby cards from the original release, but I’ve never been fond of lobby cards – I’ve always preferred true posters.)
At least I have this for Ivan Part I. Ivan Part II and Alexander Nevsky artwork, at least for their original releases, has so far proved impossible to track down.
Another MGM poster, this time for Gregori Kozintsev’s 1957 adaptation of Cervantes, starring Nikolai Cherkassov (best known for playing Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky). Read the fine print and you’ll see that MGM distributed the film at the State Department’s request, as part of a culture exchange with the USSR (which was also the case for the following film). The poster itself isn’t that great, but so far it’s the only American poster I’ve found of a Kozintsev film; posters for his Hamlet and King Lear are much more elusive.
This, on the other hand, is a great poster, made for United Artists’ release of Fate of a Man, starring Sergei Bondarchuk and based on a short story by Mikhail Sholokhov (which I’ve actually read). I haven’t seen the film, but the poster would most definitely sell me; from the bold red background to the stark white text (I also like the unusual use of capitalization) to the line drawing of the embattled protagonist and his adoptive son. It’s a really powerful image, and I was delighted to see that it was by Bob Peak, perhaps my favorite poster artist of all time.
On the other hand, this poster for Grigori Chukrai’s Ballad of a Soldier is yet another monochromatic affair, disappointing given its high profile at the time (it was Oscar-nominated for its script, the only Soviet film to be so honored). The quad poster is arguably a little better, but for this article I’ve used almost exclusively one-sheets. I’m also not sure what’s up with the sketchy portrait of the main characters on the left, given the photos of them on the right. A decidedly odd poster.
I’d never even heard of A Summer to Remember, only knowing that it starred Bondarchuk and was apparently released in the States after Ballad of a Soldier. It’s apparently some kind of coming-of-age story, and was picked as one of the best foreign films of the year by my beloved NBR, but beyond that…not much.
The yellow is nice, but otherwise…ugh. Minimal artwork, a weird transliteration of Tarkovsky’s (though it’s less grating than the archaic rendering of “v”s as “ff”s) name, weak graphic design (what’s with all the slashes?), and a blurb salad on top of it. Hardly worthy of so important a film.
This poster for Oblomov is even heavier on the quotes, but the use of red and the charming little graphic of Oblomov (amusing if you know that the story revolves around his inability to get out of bed) redeem it. To a point, at least.
Towards the end of the USSR, companies like IFEX (International Film Exchange) and Sovexportfilm became the main organs of Soviet film distribution in America. They seemed to put a little more effort than most into their posters, and on its own, this is a really nice poster for a film which was briefly a classic; the only film of Alexander Askoldov, suppressed for 20 years until it was finally seen in the late 80s.
But if you know anything about the film, you’ll realize that the woman at the center of the poster looks nothing like star Nonna Mordyukova and the poster suggests an action film, rather than the character-driven drama it actually is.
Another short-lived classic, this at least boasts an awesome poster (albeit one which, I believe, simply repurposes the artwork from its release in the USSR), with the grotesque visage of a dictatorial Soviet mayor slashed by a subversive blade and bearing a bleeding cell window which speak to his oppressive rule.
The tagline is a bit much, though, claiming Tengiz Abuladze as Russia’s “foremost modern director” when this was the only film of his to make any real international impact, or be at all remembered outside of Russia.
This is actually an Anglophone film – the first feature from the National Film Board of Canada – but since it’s a truly Canadian film, an industry which is rather obscure even in the U.S. (here’s a handy analysis of how and why), I’ll allow it. The poster itself is fine (I like the yellow), but it’s the obscurity of the film and Canadian film in general that got it on here.
I’ve seen the film, too (and so can you); it’s okay – probably a low ***, mostly because the second half is far too heavy on stock footage – but it has its place in film history. It’s worth 69 minutes of your time.
I’m thinking this was Herzog’s first film to see American release (Aguirre was released a couple of years later). The use of the title to split Hauser’s face is kind of neat, though otherwise it’s nothing special as a poster. His subsequent films would receive much more distinctive art.
Pasolini’s most unanimously acclaimed film, and the only one to receive Oscar attention (three nominations: B&W Art Direction/Set Decoration, B&W Costume Design, and Scoring of Music – Adaptation or Treatment). Something of a blurb salad, though the art in the corner is at least well done.
I was looking for a poster of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1983 film of La Traviata (Oscar nominated for its sets and costumes), when I came across a poster for the 1968 version. I actually like the poster for the 1968 version a bit better – it’s brighter and has a little more genuine artistry, especially the line-drawn figures at the bottom and the peach-cream background. The poster for the 1983 film merely has a photo of Placido Domingo and Teresa Stratas in a passionate embrace, which was doubtless enough for the opera lovers it was aimed at.
Buñuel’s masterpiece (or at least one of them) gets quite a good poster, from the contrasting pale yellow and maroon to the semi-abstract figure (an attempt to represent the titular angel, perhaps?) at the center. Easily one of my favorites on this list.
Like Ådalen 31, this seems to be an instance of a major studio selling a film they had no great interest in, since the subject matter (the murder of an Italian businessman who built up his country’s oil industry in opposition to the “seven sisters”) can hardly have traveled well.
The result: a poster which offers one little reason to care if they are not already familiar with Mattei. The use of a fairly generic image in the center doesn’t really help.
Not a poster, but the VHS cover of a film for which I have yet to find an American poster – Peter Watkins’ The Gladiators, a film whose premise (a televised battle to the death for the purpose of population pacification) prefigures Battle Royale and The Hunger Games by over 3o years.
The cover art (found here) has a charm of its own, as old VHS covers often do; it suggests (contrary to everything I know about the film) that it’s set in space and has half-naked women wandering around. And is that supposed to be Han Solo at center?
You also have to miss the days when 1994 was a viable date for the fall of society.
The most successful Norwegian film ever made: a puppet-animation feature about a car race (think Wacky Races or The Great Race), here receiving its American release years after first appearing in Norway. The poster itself is a touch crude (I can’t imagine N.W. Russo or G.G. Communications had a huge advertising budget), but it’s neat to have, given that this is a film was a monumental hit in its home country and is still beloved there, but is almost totally unknown here.
I’ve known about the Czech parody-Western Lemonade Joe for years, and here’s proof of its American release – which makes no mention of its country of origin. Presumably it was dubbed; I image its release was at least partly a cash-in on the success of the American Western spoof Cat Ballou (which is a terrible film, but…that’s a matter for another time). At least it’s a nice, colorful poster.
On the other hand, this poster trumpets its origins and the fact that it was suppressed for political reasons (thanks to the Commies, of course). I also like the towering pink figure, though otherwise it’s not an incredible poster. But as I said at the top, I’m just glad to have this evidence of its release. It contextualizes the film in a way few other resources can.
Roger Corman, his reputation as a schlockmeister aside, was responsible for quite a few foreign films receiving American release, including Fantastic Planet, a film whose reputation remains strong (the Criterion Collection will be releasing it in June), and who got a fairly good poster out of the deal; being an animated film, the poster rightly highlights the film’s distinctive visual style with a minimum of text.
Another Peter Watkins film, and a poster I actually discovered long before I had the idea for this article. I like the orange-yellow backdrop and stark lettering, and really – for a film about Munch, is there any way you couldn’t use The Scream?
I’ll finish with this one, because it’s so bright and happy and colorful. An Israeli musical given American release by MGM, the poster strives to evoke the mood with a riot of color, dance, and happy faces. Sadly, it seems to be totally unavailable in the U.S., but at least we have this reminder of the days when Israel was “the miracle country”, and when musicals were a fact of life.