SAUL BASS (1920-1996) 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.
When the reels of film for Otto Preminger’s controversial new drugs movie, The Man with the Golden Arm, arrived at US movie 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 movie 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 The Man with the Golden Arm’s titles as an integral part of the film.
The movie’s theme was the struggle of its hero – a jazz musician played by Frank Sinatra – to overcome his heroin addiction. Designed by the graphic designer Saul Bass 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 movie’s titles and its promotional poster.
That cut-out arm caused a sensation and Saul Bass reinvented the movie title as an art form. By the end of his life, he had created over 50 title sequences for Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, John Frankenheimer and Martin Scorsese. Although he later claimed that he found the Man with the Golden Arm sequence “a little disappointing now, because it was so imitated”.
Even before he made his cinematic debut, Bass was a celebrated graphic designer. Born in the Bronx district of New York in 1920 to an emigré furrier and his wife, he was a creative child who drew constantly. Bass studied at the Art Students League in New York and Brooklyn College under Gyorgy Kepes, an Hungarian graphic designer who had worked with László Moholy-Nagy in 1930s Berlin and fled with him to the US. 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 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 movie, Carmen Jones. Impressed by the result, Preminger asked Bass to create the film’s title sequence too.
Now over-shadowed by Bass’ later work, Carmen Jones elicited commissions for titles for two 1955 movies: Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife, and Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. But it was his next Preminger project, The Man with the Golden Arm, which established Bass as the doyen of film title design.
Over the next decade he honed his skill by creating an animated mini-movie 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 movie, 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 movie 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 Psycho. This staccato sequence is an inspired symbol of Norman Bates’ fractured psyche. 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’s Walk on the Wild Side, to the adrenalin-laced motor racing sequence in 1966’s Grand Prix. He then directed a series of shorts culminating in 1968’s Oscar-winning Why Man Creates and finally realised his ambition to direct a feature with 1974’s Phase IV.
When Phase IV flopped, Bass returned to commercial graphic design. His corporate work included devising highly successful corporate identities for United Airlines, AT&T, Minolta, Bell Telephone System 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 1988 Big. In 1990, Bass found a new long term collaborator in Martin Scorsese who had grown up with – and idolised – his 1950s and 1960s titles. After 1990’s Goodfellas and 1991’s Cape Fear, Bass created a sequence of blossoming rose petals for Scorcese’s 1993’s The Age of Innocence and a hauntingly macabre one of Robert De Niro falling through the sinister neons of the Las Vegas Strip for the director’s 1995’s 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…and elevated it into an art.”
1920 Saul Bass is born in the Bronx district of New York
1936 Wins a scholarship to study at the Art Students’ League in Manhattan
1938 Employed as an assistant in the art department of the New York office of Warner Bros
1944 Joins the Blaine Thompson Company, an advertising agency, and enrolls at Brooklyn College, where he is taught by the émigré Hungarian designer and design theorist Gyorgy Kepes
1946 Moves to Los Angeles to work as an art director at the advertising agency, Buchanan and Company
1952 Opens his own studio, named Saul Bass & Associates in 1955
1954 Designs his first title sequence for Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones
1955 Creates titles for Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife and Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. The animated sequence he devises for Preminger’s The Man with a Golden Arm causes a sensation
1956 Elaine Makatura joins the studio as an assistant
1957 Devises titles for Michael Anderson’s Around The World in 80 Days and Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse
1958 Forges a new collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock by designing the titles for Vertigo. Works with the architects Buff, Straub & Hensman on the design of his home, Case Study House #20 in Altadena
1959 Creates the title sequences for Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder
1960 First title commission for Stanley Kubrick, Spartacus, and the last for Hitchcock, Psycho
1962 Devises titles for Edward Dmytryk’s Walk on the Wild Side and directs his first short film, Apples and Oranges. Marries Elaine Makatura
1963 Stanley Kramer commissions Bass to create titles for It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
1966 Directs the racing sequences and devises the titles for John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix
1968 Wins an Oscar for the short film Why Man Creates and develops a corporate identity programme for the Bell System telephone company. Creates an installation for the Milan Triennale, which is cancelled after a student occupation
1973 Designs the corporate identity of United Airlines
1974 Directs his first feature film Phase IV
1980 Designs the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and devises the corporate identity of the Minolta camera company
1984 Creates a poster for the Los Angeles Olympic Games
1987 James L. Brooks persuades Bass to return to title design by creating the opening sequence of Broadcast News
1990 Begins a long collaboration with Martin Scorsese by creating the titles for GoodFellas
1991 Devises the titles for Scorsese’s Cape Fear and a poster for the 63rd Academy Awards. Bass designs the Academy Awards poster for the next five years.
1993 Creates the title sequence for Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence and a poster for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List
1995 Designs titles for Scorsese’s Casino
1996 Saul Bass dies in Los Angeles of non-Hodgkins lymphoma
Philip B Meggs, Six Chapters in Graphic Design: Saul Bass, Ivan Chermayeff, Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, Ikko Tanaka, Henryk Tomaszewski, 1997
Gerry Rosentwieg and Saul Bass, The New American Logo, 1998
Source: Design Museum