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Between Midnight and Dawn:

Midcentury Noir and Crime Film Posters

March 2 - April 11, 2015

film noir poster


SOMETHING IMPORTANT HAPPENED when Parisian movie theaters reopened after the end of the Second World War. Five Hollywood films, released separately stateside, arrived in France simultaneously during the summer of 1946. As those war-weary audiences settled in to watch The Maltese Falcon, Laura, The Woman in the Window, Double Indemnity, and Murder, My Sweet, viewers were struck by a new strain of darkness that had crept into American films during the fighting. These movies were laced with pessimism, hopelessness, and sexualized violence, and they fixated on the troubled psychology of their heroes and villains. Later that year, French film critic Nino Frank would appropriate a term first used in the 1930s, film noir, to describe this startling and subversive new American cinema.

Film noir flourished in Hollywood throughout the 1940s and 1950s, owing to a perfect storm of cultural, political, and industry-specific forces. Some of these were the disillusionment and pessimism lingering from the Great Depression; the popularity of hardboiled writers such as Hammett, Chandler, and Cain; the disconcerting wartime experience of the American fighting man and his difficulty readjusting to domestic life; a new generation of independent, professional, and dissatisfied women; the public’s fascination with Freudian analysis; Cold War fears of the atomic bomb; the perceived threat of domestic communism; the suspect veracity of the American Dream; urbanization brought on by war production, followed by the rise of suburbia and runaway materialism; and many others. Within the movie industry, additional circumstances fostered the development of film noir, including the deterioration of the studio system and an increased need for low-cost, or “B” pictures; advances in film processing and more portable camera equipment; a war-weakened production code; the demands of more sophisticated
ticket-buyers; and most importantly, the arrival in Hollywood from ravaged Europe of a cohort of extraordinarily gifted but cynical filmmakers.

The movie posters included in this exhibition are all theater-used originals from the 1940s and 1950s. They have been deacidified, archivally mounted to acid-free Japanese paper and cotton canvas, and touched up with water-reversible pigments in order to restore them to their original appearance and preserve them for the future. They offer insight not only into Hollywood movie marketing techniques, but also into the gun-waving, cigarette-smoking, fedora-wearing, loot-grabbing, back-stabbing, car-crashing, legs-showing, bare-knuckled glorious iconography of the film noir style. These “one-sheets” offer up a bank vault’s worth of midcentury art and design, featuring stunning illustration, photography, and typography, all too often created in anonymity by studio-employed artists who were unfortunately not permitted to sign their work.