Behind the graphic designs of Saul Bass
Saul Bass poster collage

The first time I watched a Saul Bass title sequence, it wasn’t a Saul Bass title sequence at all. Like many of cinema’s greatest auteurs, he has crafted a style and tone of his own that is still echoed some fifty years later.

Often with anything that you love, there is a temptation to delve into its history and find moments that have shaped it into what it is today, events and people that were pioneering and helped evolve it. Amongst the many milestones in modern cinema history, Saul Bass’ contributions are as significant as any.

Until the mid-1950s, it was not uncommon for the lights to dim, the film to roll and for the curtain to not open. What would follow was at times an exhaustive list of each and every cast and crew involved in the film. The murmurings of the audience would not be hushed until the curtain started to open, signaling the anticipated arrival of the opening scene. Then came Otto Preminger’s 1955 film The Man With The Golden Arm. This time projectionists had been informed to draw the curtains before the credits rolled allowing for the first time, audiences to see Bass’s interpretation of a title sequence.

Preminger’s film about a jazz musician struggling to overcome heroin addiction was challenging and controversial subject matter. The obstacle facing Bass was how do you create an image that exhibits intensity and drama without resorting to sensationalism? The easy option would have been to incorporate the star, Frank Sinatra, but instead he created an animated cut-out of an addict’s arm. Abstract in form, Bass had managed to distance the audience from the harsh reality of shooting up, later explaining that “the intent of this opening was to create a mood - spare, gaunt, with driving intensity… that conveyed the disconnectedness and disjointedness of the addict’s life.”

Much like his work on Mr. Saturday Night (1992), Bass’ upbringing was one of brisket, matzo balls and chopped liver, having been born into a Yiddish speaking Jewish family in the East Bronx, New York City. His parents encouraged his early flair for art, going on to study at the Art Students League and Brooklyn College. It would be there that the influences of Bauhaus and European Modern Movement design would help to push him towards graphic design and motion pictures, areas that significantly were less bound by tradition than other art forms.

Although his collaborations with one of New York’s finest would bring his professional story full circle, the young Bass disliked the creative restraints imposed upon him, upping sticks from the city of his birth to Los Angeles in the 1940s.

The move afforded him much sought after creative freedom, and brought him closer to the film industry. Bass continued to work within advertising until 1954 when he was commissioned to design the poster for the film Carmen Jones. Several more collaborations with Otto Preminger preceeded work for films such as Some Like It Hot (1959) and Around The World In Eighty Days (1956).

Throughout the latter half of the Fifties, Bass had already begun to establish himself as an innovator in film poster and title sequence design. A distinct style was beginning to emerge, centred upon the ability to create simple images and pushing them to the limit in abstraction and ambiguity whilst still managing to retain the essence of the film’s ideas and themes.

Alfred Hitchcock had been keenly aware of his work. A subscriber to Graphis and formally an inter title card designer for silent movies, Hitchcock commissioned Bass to work on his next three films, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho.

Vertigo’s title sequence explored the different parts of a woman’s face, resting on her eye from which the title of the film appears. Spiraling light patterns, best imagined as some sort of incandescent, moving spirograph emerge from the pupil, advancing hypnotically toward the audience as the credits appear and disappear in time to Bernard Hermann’s score. The poster employed similar imagery, adding the sketch of a couple being sucked into a vortex with off-kilter and asymmetric lettering. The poster is probably one the most iconic in film history and a worthy edition to any bedroom wall. The sense of vertigo captured in the poster and title sequence are truly astonishing.

North By Northwest was an altogether different proposition. Juxtaposed to James Stewart’s obsessive character in Vertigo, the protagonist Roger Thornhill was a coolly sophisticated executive who suffers from a bad case of mistaken identity. Symmetrical blue lines form laterally on top a simple green screen followed by the credits moving up and down the screen along the plane of the lines. As the title disappears the lines and background start to fade to reveal the glass structure of a New York building. As an audience member there is that wonderful moment as your mind clicks, realising that the coloured lines are really the outline of the building. Coolly sophisticated.

Pleased with Bass’ work, Hitchcock brought him on as a consultant for Psycho as well as performing his usual poster art duties. As part of his new responsibilities he was asked to “do something” with the shower sequence. Having received every section of the script as it was completed, Bass sought to translate it into a highly stylised murder using storyboards. The use of powerful images and a series of fast cuts helped to simulate the frenzy and brutal nature of the murder. Much like his previous work he was able to draw on his strong sense of visual ambiguity to produce results to great effect.

Words by Paul Yoshida

Read the full feature the Film issue of Clash magazine, out 5th April. Find out more about the issue HERE.

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