By Scott Ross
Richard Amsel’s artwork, evocative of earlier eras but infused with a modernist’s wit and self-conscious sense of style, graced the posters for many of the iconic American movies of the 1970s. His magazine cover art, for TV Guide especially, shimmered and his book covers gave his subjects an eloquence to match their own achievements. He died, a victim of the AIDS pandemic, at the obscenely early age of 37, but his best work is a timeless reminder of his own, particular and unduplicable, genius.
I first encountered this signature, as distinctive as the work it ornamented, on the poster for Murder on the Orient Express in 1974. It became a talisman for me; whenever I saw it, I could feel reasonably sure of a rich visual experience to accompany the signature.
This, almost unbelievably, is the work of the 18-year old Amsel, for his high school yearbook, in 1965.
Amsel’s study for a cover portrait of Lucille Ball, commemorating her retirement from regular series television. As glorious as the finished product was, some hint of soul was lost in the process.
The completed Lucy cover. Amsel said, “I did not want the portrait to be of Lucy Ricardo, but I didn’t want a modern-day Lucy Carter either. I wanted it to have the same timeless sense of glamour that Lucy herself has. She is, after all, a former Goldwyn Girl. I hoped to capture the essence of all this.” He did.
Valerie Harper as Rhoda. Amsel captures the character’s quirky and stylish clothing choices.
The marquee will eventually read “Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart.”
Interestingly, there are no women in it to speak of in this famous memoir; Hart never mentions girls at all.
The unholy marriage of Mucha and Klimt. Sacred (Duse) and profane:
The “star portraits” are a bit of a yawn, but Amsel’s depiction of Selznick captures his intensity, his anxiety, and his essential alone-ness.
Marjorie Rosen’s overview of women in American movies is, to me, infinitely superior to Molly Haskell’s much-better-known From Reverence to Rape, and Amsel’s art for the paperback edition makes it that much more of a treat.
Hello, Dolly!: Amsel captures the “Gay 90s” feeling, filters it through late 1960s “pop,” and adds a Mucha headdress to promote the musical that nearly broke its studio. If only the film had been a fraction as much fun, and had half as much life, as Amsel’s artwork.
Amsel’s first poser art for Robert Altman. The saloon-door plank and the carved filigree to either side capture the Western setting while the portraiture suggests the quirky nature of the leads in this, one of the filmmaker’s masterpieces.
A slightly Bob Peak-ish study, for What’s Up, Doc? Amsel limns both the oddball romance of the thing and its classic face nature (note the keys.) Streisand should have hired this man to be her full-time portraitist; she never looked more radiant than she did in one of his drawings.
Amsel’s jokey portrait of Burt Reynolds here is a humorous nod to his then-recent Penthouse centerfold as well and the total picture a canny evocation of Frazetta’s crime-caper movie posters of the 1960s.
Another one of those “If only the movie had been as distinguished” Amsel posters. That’s Ava Gardner in the background, as Bean’s inamorata Lily Langtree.
A superb Amsel image for Irvin Kershner’s underrated adaptation of the Anne Roiphe novel starring a non-sing Barbra Streisand. Note the integration of the star’s name and the title.
Variations on a theme: Two different Amsel designs for Robert Altman’s seriocomic (and absurdly overrated) take on Raymond Chandler. That cat in the second poster is planning something especially unsavory.
One of Amsel’s most iconic designs, evoking the Saturday Evening Post of the 1930s.
Amsel based his concept for The Sting on J.C. Lyendecker’s “Arrow Collar” ad. That Lyendecker used his male lover as a model adds an interesting, if unintentional, twist to what was perceived by some critics as the movie’s un-articulated homoerotic undercurrent.
A lovely Amsel image for the last Lerner and Leowe musical, best remembered for Bob Fosse’s marvelous “Snake in the Grass” sand-dance.
I’d seen Amsel’s work before, but his brilliant design for Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express was the first that really captured my attention, in 1974. It’s all there: The evocation of the 1930s, the starry cast, the train, and even the murder weapon. Wouldn’t this make you want to see the movie?
Amsel’s splendid design for the Stanley Donen mis-fire Lucky Lady. If the movie had been half as good as this…
An Amsel design for Nashville. Note that he captures the 24 main characters, the country-and-western milieu, and the sense, despite the seemingly amorphous quality of the narrative arc, that something is about to explode.
Amsel’s brilliant artwork for Robert Benton’s nifty semi-comic meditation on the hard-boiled L.A. gumshoe genre starring Lily Tomlin and Art Carney as a very sane kook and the aging shamus she hires.
A striking Amsel design for a very, very bad movie. Elia Kazan directed this supposed evocation of 1930s Hollywood as if he’d never seen a vintage film, let alone directed one. Amsel could have taught Kazan a thing or two about real glamour.
John Wayne’s final movie: The Shootist. One dying legend playing another, framed by Amsel faces on a gold and sepia base.
Amsel’s design for Voyage of the Damned. A great subject undone by tepid filmmaking and overwhelmed by a too-starry cast. On the other hand… Where are the comparable faces today who could fill out that cast-list?
Amsel evokes Fin de siècle Vienna (and, again, Alfonese Mucha) in his original design for the marvelous Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. The final version omits the woman’s arm.
Amsel’s stunning design for Julia. Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman is central, but is dominated both by Jason Robards’ Dashiell Hammett and Vanessa Redgrave’s eponymous figure — less distinct, and idealized, as Julia is for Lillian.
Striking Amsel concept-art for Martin Scorsese’s ill-fated (and somewhat ill-conceived) New York, New York. The final poster used photos of Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli.
Mitchum as Marlowe. Candy Clark clings, damsel-in-distress-like to Chandler’s iconic private detective. A lousy movie (when you’ve seen Bogart and Bacall directed by Howard Hawks, why bother?) but a terrific Amsel design.
Death on the Nile. It’s a variation on Amsel’s own “Murder on the Orient Express” design, but then the movie —charming as it might be — was a bit of a re-tread too.
One of the reasons Stallone had to keep making Rocky and Rambo movies: His “big” brainchildren had an unfortunate tendency to flop, as this one did. That design does make you want to see the movie, though.
Amsel captures the joy of the Muppet’s first movie, along with its highest moment (which came, unfortunately, right at the beginning): Kermit singing “Rainbow Connection.”
Sally Fields’ break-through performance, as Norma Rae Webster. The more well-known posters featured a photo of Fields triumphant, but Amsel’s portrait captures her anxieties and social class.
The unused design for Nijinsky. The golden-hued ballet designs almost overwhelm the central figures (Leslie Browne, George de la Peña and Alan Bates.) Note de la Peña headband, suggesting the sweat behind a great dancer’s art.
The completed Nijinsky design emphasizes the (so-called) love triangle, gives de la Peña sculpted pretty-boy/matinee-idol hair, and opts for a single dance: Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune.
Amsel invokes 1930s screwball comedy, as well as the Damon Runyan characters, for this forgotten remake. Sort of makes you want to shell out your $3.50 to see the movie, though, doesn’t it? And now that Matthau’s gone and Julie is an old lady, I can’t help wanting to see it, on a big screen.
Amsel’s superb design for the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg Raiders of the Lost Ark, capturing the sepia-era quality of those movie serials that inspired it, the derring-do and brooding nature of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, and the desert setting.
Lily and Amsel, together again for The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
Amsel was commissioned, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to create this gorgeous design for the restored, rereleased version of A Star is Born. The pose is from the movie (“Here comes a big, fat close-up!”) and was used in the original 1954 ad campaign. Amsel added the spotlights and a change in Garland’s costume.
Amsel captures an iconic moment in American culture for the laser-disc release of what is otherwise Billy Wilder’s worst movie.
Amsel’s design for this Grahame Green adaptation (also known as Beyond the Limit—as though Green had written some sort of fast ‘80s kiss-kiss/bang-bang techno-thriller rather than a thoughtful examination of the cynical political murder of a minor functionary) incorporates a portrait of Michael Caine: The eyes of God, watching the lovers.
Most of these images, and much of the information, are from Adam McDaniel’s lovely Amsel site: http://adammcdaniel.com/RichardAmsel2.htm
Special thanks to Amsel’s friend Bob Esty for inspiring me to collect, and comment on, these magnificent works.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross