Why I Love Italian Gangster Movie Posters

Thanks to the work of one man, Luigi Martinati, Italian post-war movie posters are beautiful, atmospheric and incredibly rare.
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Thanks to the work of one man, Luigi Martinati, Italian post-war movie posters are beautiful, atmospheric and incredibly rare.

This article originally appeared on Philips Love Coffee's Coffee Breaks

The original film poster market is one of the strongest and most exciting areas in 20th Century collectables. The past 20 years has seen a steady and continuous rise in poster prices. One of the most impressive examples of this was the sale of the German Metropolis poster, which in the mid-noughties sold for $690,000 – a world record price for any poster in any genre.

Collectors in the movie poster world range from obsessive movie geeks to cool graphic designers to A-list stars. I was lucky, as I began collecting before it was fashionable, or expensive, and by the early 1990s, my collection became a business when I launched The Reel Poster Gallery with a friend. The first and premiere gallery specialising in original, vintage film posters, it was instrumental in forming some of the world’s leading private and public collections and exhibited worldwide. I also acted as Christie’s (London) consultant for vintage film posters and have authored over 16 books on the subject which have sold over a million copies worldwide and are recognised as authoritative texts. Titles include James Bond Movie Posters, Audrey Hepburn: The Paramount Years, The Godfather in Pictures and Stars and Cars. I also co-authored Hitchcock Poster Art and co-edited a series of books with Graham Marsh on movie poster art by the decade and by genre.

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One particular area which is worth a second look for any potential investors, is Warner Bros Italian posters from the immediate post-war period. During the 1930s and 1940s, gangsters and film-noir were big news at the box office. The screen was populated by G-men and trenchcoats, shadows and betrayal. Many of these films were produced by Warner Bros studio, with accompanying eye-catching posters. During the Second World War and in its aftermath, however, Warner Bros. suffered budget cuts and one of the first places to feel the brunt of this strain was the advertising department, which became almost non-existent overnight. The result was a temporary but shocking decline in the quality of their production. Posters for some of their greatest hits from this period, such as Key Largo, The Big Sleep or The Enforcer, are dull, colourless and nothing more than a collage of photographs. In stark contrast are the Italian posters for the same films – colourful, atmospheric artworks that include some of the most stunning examples of their genre.

Mussolini had placed a blanket embargo on all Warner Bros. releases in Italy, viewing the portrayal of villainous Italian gangsters in so many of their films as a work of insidious American propaganda. It was not until his downfall, therefore, that Warner Bros started releasing their titles onto the Italian market. Because of the backlog, the films were given a very short release, little more than a week or two before the next box-office smash was ushered into the theatre. This, coupled with the fact that Italy had far fewer cinemas than America, meant that very few posters were produced. Paper shortages across post-war Europe also meant that those posters that were produced were printed on low quality paper with a high acid content, which caused the paper to discolour and turn brittle with age. The combined result is that Warner Bros Italian posters from this period are exceptionally rare today and those posters that do surface in good condition are in high demand on the collectors’ market.

Another significant factor adding to the desirability of Warner Bros Italian posters is their beautiful artwork, which was almost exclusively the work of one man: Luigi Martinati (1893-1984). Born in Florence, Martinati moved to Rome in 1911 and began training as an artist's apprentice. He became the manager of one of the leading advertising agencies in Rome, where he worked for a number of film companies but notably Warner Bros. In the mid-1940s, he joined forces with two other giants of Italian film poster design, Anselmo Ballester and Alfredo Capitani, to form BCM – a company devoted exclusively to the production of film posters (and named for their initials). While Ballester and Capitani concentrated on Columbia studios, Martinati focused on Warner Bros, producing a stream of striking, memorable images. He was a gifted portraitist and his personal style was often characterised by one or more large portrait shots that dominated the poster. Because of their delayed circulation in Italy, Martinati also had the privilege of being able to see the films before they were released, which further helped him to infuse his work with an appropriate atmosphere. Even the translation of some of the English titles – G-Men became La Pattuglia dei Senza Paura (direct translation: ‘The Patrol of the Fearless’) – had the result of adding an almost poetic quality to the work, which makes them ideal to sit and gaze lovingly at while drinking a cup of Saeco Coffee. In contrast to the generic, factory-banality of the American posters, Martinati’s posters were beloved and laboured creations that he always proudly signed his name to as the artwork deserved.

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