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Movie Poster of the Week: The Life and Art of Paul Crifo

Discovering a recently departed, unsung hero of the Mad Men-era advertising world.
Adrian Curry
Above: Self-portrait sketch by Paul Crifo, circa 1970s.
Paul Crifo, who passed away on September 22nd at the age of 98, was one of the great movie poster illustrators and art directors of the ’60s and ’70s, but he was also an unsung hero. Over the course of 40 years he illustrated and designed as many as 140 movie posters for Hollywood studios, but unlike peers such as Bob Peak or Robert McGinnis, Paul Crifo never became a marquee name.
Crifo rarely signed his artwork. If you search his name on Heritage Auctions (as I did after reading his obituary in Variety last week) only one poster comes up: that for In The Heat of the Night (1967). Crifo could have remained nothing more than a footnote in movie poster history were it not for the efforts of his son Peter and his son’s friend Pete Handelman who have given us an invaluable record of Paul’s career and a priceless insight into the work of a mid-century art director. When Crifo retired he moved his entire office, flat files and all (as seen in the photo below), to the basement of his home in Roslyn, Long Island. Years later Peter started sorting through his father’s archives and discovered what an extraordinary collection of movie poster design history he had amassed (Crifo had saved all his sketches and comps). In 2009 he helped produce an exhibition of his father’s work at the Academy in Los Angeles and over the next few years Peter and his friend, actor, director, and designer Pete Handelman, produced an hour-long documentary about Crifo’s life and career called Mr. Movie Poster. The film, which has never been released until now, is a love letter to movie poster art, to Mad Men-era New York and to an often absent, hard-working father who expressed his love for his family through his art.
Above: Paul Crifo in his Manhattan office in the 1970s.
Born in New York in 1922, the son of an Italian tailor, Crifo grew up with nine sisters and one brother on the Lower East Side before moving to Flushing and then Bushwick. Right out of high school he got a job in the advertising division of 20th Century Fox where he assisted Saul Bass (who was then an unknown artist himself and only two years his senior), and attended art classes at Pratt at night. He worked for most of his career in the art department of the ad agency Diener Hauser Greenthal (later Diener Hauser Bates) which, according to Crifo, was “the agency of record” for most of the major studios.
Like Crifo’s basement studio, Mr. Movie Poster is a treasure-trove of movie poster art. Without this film we would have no record of which posters were designed and illustrated by Crifo because agency artists were notoriously anonymous (even when, as Crifo tells his son, you were “the number one art director at the agency” and “got the first shot at everything.”) There are at least 50 published posters that Crifo was the credited author of but between 1957 and 1987 he must have worked on close to a thousand movie campaigns.
For any contemporary poster artist or graphic design student, the most interesting items in the film are the sketches and comp designs that the camera lingers over. We see Crifo—who, even in his 90s, is a sprightly and charming presence throughout the film—and his long-time friend and former studio executive Fred Goldberg reminiscing over comps for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967) and the poster he’s best known for, In The Heat of the Night. The latter, Crifo admits, was done without his having seen the film, working off the script and a couple of black and white stills. He recounts how the artwork was done with markers and sprayed with a fixative which left drip marks, visible on the final poster, as it ran. “I didn’t believe in fixing boo-boos,” Crifo explains. “I would either start all over from scratch or give you what I had.”
We see sketches and process work for some of his more famous posters:
We are shown rough comp designs for films that Crifo did the finished poster for, such as Sidney Lumet’s The Group (1966):
As well as unused comps for films whose final campaigns ended up in different hands, like The Godfather (1972) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957): 
Crifo also discusses doing charcoal drawings for the ever-exacting Kubrick on Paths of Glory (1957) (his artwork made it into the final three-sheet).
As one of his former colleagues says in the film, Crifo was a brilliant conceptualist as well as a talented draughtsman. Of all of his many finished posters, two of his most famous and iconic are simple black and white line art, both for classic comedies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and The Producers (1967). He recounts showing the black and white sketch for Holy Grail to legendary theater owner and promoter Don Rugoff who loved it and when Crifo came back with the color finish told him “I want the original rough,” which is what we have today.
And though most of his best work is illustrated, Crifo also designed a number of posters that were simply ingenious combinations of photography and type.
His work could also be eye-poppingly colorful (his brother Vincent Jr. worked with him for a time as his finisher and colorist).
Some of his work prioritized typography over photography and illustration:
Crifo is also praised for his deft use of negative space, which is evident in many of his designs.
The film offers glimpses of Crifo’s other work, including his fashion illustrations and the hand-made birthday cards he drew every year for his wife.
But one of my favorite pieces in the film is this pre-production ad for American Gigolo (1980) starring John Travolta instead of Richard Gere.
Mr. Movie Poster is available to watch on Vimeo starting today. I recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in illustration and movie poster design. Many, many thanks to Peter Crifo and Pete Handelman, and rest in peace Paul.

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