We’re all still reeling from the death of Jonathan Demme, one of the most unpredictable, open-hearted and by all accounts best loved of American filmmakers. I was surprised to learn that he was 73 when he died because he, and his films, always seemed so youthful. The fact that his swansong was the beautifully exuberant Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids only added to that impression of vitality.
Many of the posters for Demme’s films are as well known as the films themselves: the Dali-esque death’s head moth for Silence of the Lambs; the cutout of Spalding Gray’s head bobbing in a flat plane of blue for Swimming to Cambodia; an upside-down Jeff Daniels on Something Wild; Pablo Ferro’s Strangelove-esque titles over the Big Suit for Stop Making Sense. And of his later films I particularly like the screen-print look of Man From Plains. But the posters for Demme’s early films, and the films themselves, are less well known.
A publicist before he was a writer and director, Demme had begun working for Roger Corman in 1971, co-writing and producing the Rashomon-riffing biker movie Angels Hard As They Come. He then directed three films in row for Corman’s New World Pictures: the women-in-prison grindhouse flick Caged Heat (1974), the crime spree comedy Crazy Mama (1975) and the rural revenge thriller Fighting Mad (1976). Though all were essentially exploitation films, Demme injected hints of his personality—most notably his progressive politics—into these films. Dave Kehr, an early champion, wrote in Film Comment in the late 70s that Demme “appears to be the one graduate of the Corman school with a deep commitment to his characters, charting their emotional journeys with faith and compassion.”
It was Demme’s compassion, his generosity and his humanity, that became the hallmark of both his features and his documentaries: the first true Demme movie is the 1977 CB-radio comedy Citizen’s Band a.k.a. Handle with Care, which was followed by the 1979 Roy Scheider thriller Last Embrace and 1980’s true-life comedy Melvin and Howard. The acclaim for Melvin and Howard led to his first big budget Hollywood assignment Swing Shift, (poster by Steven Chorney who illustrated the poster for last year’s De Palma), the beleaguered production of which led to Demme’s retreat to smaller more intimate projects, with Stop Making Sense and Something Wild. And the rest is history. Below are the posters for all those early films, none of which are exceptional in and of themselves (though I do love the text-only treatment for Citizen’s Band, below) but which chart a fascinating course of a nascent career.