SAUL BASS: AN APPRECIATION

Saul_Bass_wallLet’s say films are like flying. The opening credit sequence can keep you bogged down at the check-in desk, forced to tap your feet until a long line of people have got their names and job titles out of the way. Or it can take you straight up there into the air. The best credit sequences do more than just tell you the name of the film and the people who made it. Sometimes they fill in the back-story, sometimes they give you a sneak preview of things to come, sometimes they’re mini-films in their own right, small but perfectly-formed synopses of what we’re about to receive.

Even if the name of Saul Bass means nothing to you, you will almost certainly be familiar with his work. For Bass, the subject of an exhibition starting 17 July at the Design Museum, was nothing less than the godfather of the modern credit sequence. Many of the credits he designed for Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese are now recognised as classics, and his shadow still looms large – you can see his graphic influence in posters, CD artwork, magazine layouts and pop videos such as Robbie Williams’ Supreme, a homage to Bass’s split-screen montage work on the 1966 racing film Grand Prix.

And of course you can still see the Bass effect at the movies: Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, to name one recent example, kicks off with a Bass-style animated sequence that sets the scene in jaunty graphic style.

It takes talent to design a good credit sequence, but it took a special kind of genius to design a credit sequence when the credit sequence as we know it didn’t even exist. Up until the early 1950s, the standard approach was to present a series of names and titles printed on static cards, like relics from the age of silent pictures, or set against an unmoving backdrop.

‘I had a strong feeling that films really began on the first frame,’ Bass said in an interview with the graphic designer, Pamela Haskin. ‘This was, of course, back when titles were strictly typography – mostly bad typography – and constituted the period when people were settling in, going to restrooms, or involved in chit-chat. I just felt that this was a period that could work for the film. Otto Preminger agreed with me and we took a shot at it.’

For Whirlpool (1949) Preminger was still cleaving to tradition with bog-standard type against a static background. One year later, in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) there are signs the director was chomping at the bit; this time the title is splashed across – what else? – a busy sidewalk, filmed from above. But it wasn’t until he hired Bass to jiff up the credits of Carmen Jones (1954) with an animated flaming rose effect, that things really started to change, and it wasn’t until the following year and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), starring Frank Sinatra as a drug-addicted jazz drummer, that the old static card style was blown out of the water.

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‘I felt that people certainly wanted or deserved more than a long list of names that didn’t mean anything at the beginning of a movie,’ said Bass, whose modernist-inspired sequence of animated white lines rearranging themselves into a junkie’s twisted arm didn’t just introduce The Man With the Golden Arm in an innovative (and – for the era – rather shocking) fashion – it also provided the production with a stark defining image, a corporate logo if you like, and a strong graphic style that could be carried over into cinema marquees and posters.

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‘The notion that a single visual element, good, bad or indifferent, could become a statement for a film is not a notion that existed before The Man With the Golden Arm,’ said Bass. It was the first hint of the sort of film marketing we now take for granted – the modern blockbuster house-style as seen in the Batman bat motif or Men in Black’s acrostic MiB.

Bass was born in the Bronx in 1920, the son of an émigré furrier, and studied at the Art Students’ League in New York and Brooklyn College, where he encountered the Hungarian designer Gyorgy Kepes, who had worked with the pioneer art and deign teacher Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. It was Kepes who introduced Bass to the Bauhaus, Modernism and Russian Constructivism.

Bass’s later distinctive style is a perfect illustration of the Modernist archictectural maxims, ‘form follows function’ and ‘less is more’. His work was never designed to be pretty, though it often has a breathtaking elegance and simplicity. He approached his commissions not as an artist but as a graphic designer – as problems to be solved. ‘Making a main title was like making a poster,’ said Bass. ‘You’re condensing the event into this one concept, this one metaphor… a backstory that needs to be told or a character that needs to be introduced.’

bassanatomy_of_a_murderIn 1946, after winning awards as a freelance graphic designer in New York, Bass moved to Los Angeles, opened his own office and worked, with some success, in advertising and film posters before hooking up with the notoriously despotic Preminger in what was to be a stormy but fruitful relationship, both men stubborn as mules but working together to change the course of film history. In all, Bass designed 11 credits sequences for Preminger, including Anatomy of a Murder, whose jagged corpse motif was copied so shamelessly 40 years later by the publicists for Spike Lee’s Clockers that Bass complained, and the poster was withdrawn.

Bass worked with other directors, such as Billy Wilder on The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Michael Anderson on Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), and in 1958 Alfred Hitchcock hired him to design the credits for Vertigo. The resulting sequence is one of the most haunting in cinema: a nervously blinking woman whose eye leads us, urged on by Bernard Hermann’s sublime music, into a vortex of whirling spirals, a semi-abstract mini-movie that sums up James Stewart’s mental state in the film. Bass’s distinctive orange Vertigo poster artwork still adorns everything from the DVD to the soundtrack CD.

Two other collaborations with Hitchcock followed. For North by Northwest (1959) Bass’s intersecting lines are transformed into Manhattan skyscrapers. In Psycho (1960) he gives us more lines, but this time they’re vicious ones that slash across the screen. Bass is also credited as the film’s ‘pictorial consultant’ and storyboarded the notorious shower murder.

‘My intent was to create a bloodless murder – the blood going down the drain at the end of the sequence was to be the only blood in the scene. Hitch then wanted to have a shot with a spray of blood on Janet’s chest. He also insisted on the shot with the knife in her belly… I felt these shots ruined the purity of the sequence.’ at one point he even claimed to have directed it. The real extent of his Bass’s contribution is still a matter of film-buff debate, but the collaboration with Hitchcock ended there.

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There were other memorable projects, such as the graffiti-on-the-wall, this time at the end of the film, for West Side Story (1961). Bass didn’t just design the title sequence for Spartacus (1960), he is also credited as design consultant, and developed the concept for the final battle scene. ‘Saul Bass is brilliant,’ says Kirk Douglas, the film’s star, executive producer and (pace its two directors, Anthony Mann and Stanley Kubrick) its driving force. ‘I think he’s one of the greatest artists I ever worked with.’

Then there was Gregory Peck crossing the country by stagecoach to reach The Big Country (1958) and – for Preminger again – petals transformed into tears for Bonjour Tristesse (1958). ‘I saw the titles as a way of conditioning the audience,’ said Bass, ‘so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.’ Of course, this approach has its risks, in that an inspired title sequence can end up overshadowing the film.

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So it is with Walk on the Wild Side (1962), where the credits roll against against footage of a prowling black cat, prompting the critic Andrew Sarris to suggest that the feline gave a better performance than the film’s female star, Jane Fonda. There’s no cat in the rest of the film, incidentally, though Fonda’s character goes by the beguiling name of ‘Kitty Twist’, and she does work in a ‘cathouse’. Bass’s work wasn’t just effective – it was also witty.

In the1960s, credit sequences exploded all over the place in a riot of writhing Bond girls and animated Pink Panthers. Credits designers started throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, and Bass’s more ascetic ‘symbolize and summarize’ approach fell out of fashion. He concentrated on corporate design for companies such as United Airlines and AT&T, and later on designed the poster for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

He and his second wife, Elaine, made several short films, one of which won an Oscar. In 1974, he directed his first feature film – Phase IV, a sci-fi yarn about ants taking over the world – which was visually dazzling but failed to impress critics and public. He designed the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Bass found himself back in favour in Hollywood and designing title sequences for mainstream productions such as Broadcast News (1987) and Big (1988).

Now co-credited with his wife, he and Elaine began to design credits for Martin Scorsese. Goodfellas (1990) opens with type zipping like speeding traffic across the screen; Cape Fear (1991) is full of menacing watery reflections and The Age of Innocence (1993) begins with lacy flowers unfurling.

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Bass died in 1996 at the age of 75, but he went out with a bang. His last credit sequence was for Casino (1995) which kicks off with Robert De Niro blasted into the air by a car bomb. It’s a tour de force, prefiguring the character’s descent into metaphorical hell by showing his body hurtling through a raging inferno of Las Vegas neon. It’s such a stunning sequence that even Scorsese, firing on all cylinders, fails to do it justice with the film that follows.

‘His titles are not simply imaginative identification tags,’ said the director. ‘When his work comes on the screen, the movie itself truly begins.’

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This article was first published in the Sunday Telegraph, in June 2004.

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ADDENDUM: Saul Bass’s Oscar-winning short film, Why Man Creates (1968) Saul Bass’s Oscar-winning short film, drected by Bass and conceived & written with Mayo Simon.

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See also:
IS THIS THE UGLIEST MOVIE POSTER TYPOGRAPHY EVER?
THE TOP TEN WALLPAPER MOVIES
THE THING: FIGURES IN THE FRAME
VOUS SEREZ NUE MERCREDI SOIR: FRENCH GENRE PAPERBACK COVER ART
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