Film students are often instructed to gaze deeply within a movie to discover themes and patterns and those crucial hidden knots that tie the bigger picture together.
But one of the best clues about a film's era, feel, and direction isn't even in the frame; it's out in the lobby, next to the concession counter.
A movie's poster has long been its initial foray into the world, a way to let the public know, initially, "this story is coming your way, get ready." Even before an exciting trailer arrives, a poster is out there, working on a film's behalf.
Now many posters designed for works that have become legendary are now legends unto themselves.
TCM and Bonhams are set to auction off several of these two-dimensional, color-pop, illustration-lovely promotionals on Monday, July 20 at the auction house's Sunset Boulevard headquarters.
TCM, of course, knows its vintage flicks and stars, and Bonhams has been a go-to for starry auction items for decades.
On the block at TCM Presents... Picture Perfect: The Art of the Movie Poster? A few different versions of the "Gone With the Wind" poster. A poster for "Jailhouse Rock" which features Elvis Presley's portrait occupying the full upper half (a real-estate rarity, space-wise, even for the most famous of movie stars). A stark, blocky-cut gem of a "North by Northwest" promotional (hues: red, black, white) is on the block. And also up for auction: The ultra-dramatic "Sunset Boulevard" poster, where the orange-red of Norma Desmond's hair becomes the electric background.
That poster's listed amount is $12,000 to $18,000, but "The Palm Beach Story" starts in the high hundreds. Poster collectors are an enthusiastic bunch -- some focusing on particular decades, some on certain stars, some only on one film -- so it'll be fascinating to see which film fetches top dollar.
Or dollars, plural. Many, many dollars, one imagines.
As for how poster styles have changed, allowing film fans to ferret out clues about the time of the film, the emotion, the meaning, and such? That's an entire seminar, for sure.
Consider how, decades ago, listing the name of a dozen actors, in large font, was the norm. Nowadays a large photo of the main star, or main two stars, is more common, with a lot of fine print below.
But that may be changing; vintage-style illustrations are making a comeback in today's film posters, from the upcoming horror film "Krampus" (which boasts a poster straight out of 1983, completely with faux fold lines) to the recently debuted "The New Girlfriend," which feels like a French New Wave poster.
Are promotional movie posters the most fluid of all film-related artforms? Discuss at Bonhams, cineastes, as you make your July 20 bids.
Pictured: The poster for "Top Hat" (RKO 1935)