Saul Bass was not only one of the great graphic designers of the mid-20th century but the undisputed master of film title design thanks to his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Martin Scorsese.
Bass was one of the first to seize on the potential storytelling power of the opening and closing credits of a film. He used a number of styles (animation, live action, type treatments) to create credits for a diverse range of films. What he created were opening credit sequences that did not simply announce the credits and open the film but were a logical extension of the film. Each sequence was, in itself, a short film that prepared the viewer for what was to come.
He was a celebrated graphic designer before he ventured into the film world. Born in the Bronx district of New York in 1920 to an emigré family, Bass studied at the Art Students League in New York and Brooklyn College under Gyorgy Kepes, a Hungarian graphic designer who had worked in 1930s Berlin before coming to the USA. Kepes introduced Bass to Moholy’s Bauhaus style and to Russian Constructivism.
After apprenticeships with Manhattan design firms, Bass worked as a freelance graphic designer or ‘commercial artist’ as they were then called. Chafing at the creative constraints imposed on him in New York, he moved to Los Angeles in 1946. After freelancing, he opened his own studio in 1950 working mostly in advertising until Preminger invited him to design the poster for his 1954 film, ‘Carmen Jones’. Impressed by the result, Preminger asked Bass to also create the film’s title sequence.
After ‘Carmen Jones’ he got commissions for two 1955 films: Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Big Knife’ and Billy Wilder’s ‘The Seven Year Itch’ but it was his second project for Preminger, ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ which established Bass as the doyen of film title design.
When the reels of film for Otto Preminger’s controversial new drugs film, ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ arrived at US film theatres in 1955, a note was stuck on the cans ….. ‘Projectionists, pull curtain before titles’…… until then, the lists of cast and crew members which passed for film titles were so dull that projectionists only pulled back the curtains to reveal the screen once they’d finished but Preminger wanted his audience to see this film’s titles as an integral part of the programme.
The film’s theme was the struggle of its hero – a jazz musician played by Frank Sinatra – to overcome his heroin addiction. The titles featured an animated black paper cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm. Knowing that the arm was a powerful image of addiction Bass had chosen it – rather than Frank Sinatra’s famous face – as the symbol of both the film’s title and its promotional poster. That cut-out arm caused a sensation and Saul Bass reinvented the film title as an art form. By the end of his life, he had created over 50 title sequences for Preminger, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Frankenheimer and Scorsese. Although he later claimed that he found the ‘Man with the Golden Arm’ sequence …. ‘a little disappointing now, because it was so imitated’….
Over the next decade he honed his skill by creating an animated mini-film for Mike Todd’s 1956 ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ and a tearful eye for Preminger’s 1958 ‘Bonjour Tristesse’. Blessed with the gift of identifying the one image which symbolised the essence of a film, Bass then recreated it in a strikingly modern style. Martin Scorsese once described his approach as creating ….‘an emblematic image, instantly recognisable and immediately tied to the film’…….
In 1958’s ‘Vertigo’, his first title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock, Bass shot an extreme close-up of a woman’s face and then her eye before spinning it into a sinister spiral as a bloody red soaks the screen. For his next Hitchcock commission, 1959’s ‘North by Northwest’, the credits swoop up and down a grid of vertical and diagonal lines like passengers stepping off elevators. It is only a few minutes after the film has begun – with Cary Grant stepping out of an elevator – that we realise the grid is actually the façade of a skyscraper.
Equally haunting are the vertical bars sweeping across the screen in a manic, mirrored helter-skelter motif at the beginning of Hitchcock’s 1960 film ‘Psycho’. This staccato sequence is an inspired symbol of Norman Bates’ fractured mental state. Hitchcock also allowed Bass to work on the film itself, notably on its dramatic highpoint, the famous shower scene with Janet Leigh.
Assisted by his second wife, Elaine, Bass created brilliant titles for other directors – from the animated alley cat in 1961 ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, to the adrenalin-laced motor racing sequence in the 1966 film ‘Grand Prix’. He then directed a series of shorts culminating in 1968 Oscar-winning ‘Why Man Creates’ and finally realised his ambition to direct a feature in 1974 with ‘Phase IV’.
When the film unfortunately flopped, Bass returned to commercial graphic design. His corporate work included devising highly successful corporate identities for United Airlines, AT&T, Minolta, Bell Telephone Systems and Warner Communications. He also designed the poster for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
To younger film directors, Saul Bass was a cinema legend with whom they longed to work. In 1987, he was persuaded to create the titles for James Brooks’ ‘Broadcast News’ and then for Penny Marshall’s ‘Big’ in 1988. In 1990, Bass found a new long term collaborator in Martin Scorsese who had grown up with his 1950’s and 1960’s titles. After ‘Goodfellas’ in 1990 and ‘Cape Fear’ in 1991, Bass created a sequence of blossoming rose petals for ‘The Age of Innocence’ in 1993 and a hauntingly macabre one of Robert De Niro falling through the sinister neon lighting of the Las Vegas Strip for the director’s 1995 film ‘Casino’ to symbolise his character’s descent into hell.
Saul Bass died the next year. His New York Times obituary hailed him as …‘the minimalist auteur who put a jagged arm in motion in 1955 and created an entire film genre … elevating it into an art’….
Saul Bass’s film credits include: Casino – 1995, Mr Saturday Night – 1992, Cape Fear – 1991, Goodfellas – 1990, War of the Rose – 1989, Big – 1988, Broadcast News – 1987, The Human Factor – 1979, Rosebud – 1975, Grand Prix – 1966, Bunny Lake is Missing – 1965, The Victors – 1963, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World – 1963, Walk on the Wild Side – 1962, West Side Story – 1961, Exodus – 1960, Spartacus – 1960, Ocean’s Eleven – 1960, North by Northwest – 1959, The Big Country – 1958, Bonjour Tristesse – 1958, Around the World in Eighty Days – 1956, The Man with the Golden Arm – 1955, The Seven Year Itch – 1955, Carmen Jones – 1954.