12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957)

The Posters and Credit Sequences of Saul Bass

"I want to make beautiful things even if no-one else cares"
- Saul Bass


Saul Bass, graphic designer.

Although a graphic designer by name, Martin Scorsese once referred to the legendary Saul Bass as a 'great filmmaker' (2010) , his opening credits for over forty films became stories in themselves; reinforcing the narrative of the picture that audiences were about to see. In addition to opening credits, he often had a role in the whole publicity of a picture, also designing the posters and in the case of Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) storyboarding whole scenes of the film.

A well choreographed credit sequence has the ability to start projecting details about the film before it even starts, as David Bordwell has said, we wouldn't expect a novel's story to start emitting information before the copyright page (98: 2010), but film is capable of much more. It was often the case that actors names would be presented on a background that had little to do with the film itself and would therefore rarely add to the picture. Not all titles completely ignored the potential of credit sequences (see below), but Bass' knack for creating attractive print based advertisements for both films and companies transferred perfectly into creating graphic images onto the moving image, giving them a much more modern design.

Double Indemnity opening credits
 Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1945) foreshadowing Fred MacMurray's
journey to the train


Sunset Bulevard Opening credits
The titles to Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950), the glamous aspects that
 you normally associate with the name of the street contrasts strongly with its
presentation on the kerb above a gutter.  

Casablanca opening credits
Casablanca's (Curtiz, 1942) Morocco setting is demonstrated in
its introductory sequence.

Trouble In Paradise opening credits
 Pre code film Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, 1932) gives you
a taste of the innuendo that was to appear in the picture.

It's clear from these examples that the pre-Bass era did not consist of completely irrelevant introductions; but Bass would elevate film titles from a simple 'realm of graphic play' (Bordwell, 1985 :24) to the 'status of an art form' (Kirkham, 2011: 108) and an 'animated event' (Hall, 2000: 130).

"My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film's story, to express the story in some metaphorical way" - Saul Bass 

Consider how much these two images differ:

Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Vertigo opening credits
                                        Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Capra, 1939) and Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)

Rather than just acting as a means of communication to display who was in a film, Saul Bass made sure that the tone was set early on. The shot from the introduction to Mr Smith Goes to Washington doesn't necessarily give you any inkling at all about what the main themes of the film are, nor its genre; while this didn't necessarily detract from the picture, it just doesn't make use of the opportunities that credits presented. By contrast, this one shot from Vertigo condenses the themes of love, lust and romance in just one shot. Pictures preceding and immediately succeeding the Second World War for instance, often had their credit sequences revealed by the curtains half way through, 'amid audience chatter and popcorn munching' (Billanti, 98: 198).

Bass changed all of this, creating engaging and creative preludes to films that would entice audiences, pull them into the story and make them want to watch on - they were now an essential accompaniment to the experience of movie watching.

Otto Preminger and Saul Bass

Although his work with Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps his most memorable and well recognised, Otto Preminger worked with him on more occasions than any other director and gave him his initial breakthrough when he was chosen to create the credit sequence for Carmen Jones (1954) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). The latter; a film revolving around Frankie Machine's (Frank Sinatra) struggle with heroin addiction heavily challenged the now diminishing Production Code as it was 'in direct violation of explicit code criteria regarding the depiction of crime and drug use' (Lewis, 2002: 114). Bass' stylised depiction of a drug user 'shooting up' was part of his challenge to 'create a symbol that captured the drama and intensity of the film without resorting to sensationalism' (2011: 55).

The Man with The Golden Arm
Gone were the days of names and titles being presented over static images.
Sometimes quite ambiguous, forcing audience to delve into the meanings
of the images being presented; to me this shot seems to represent the injection
of various syringe needles. 
Man With The Golden Arm
The white bars representing the veins of a drug user, morphing into.....
Man with the Golden Arm
an arm, a symbol acting as a 'malignant force reaching down into the
 lives of the characters' (Scorsese, Cited in Boxer, 2000)

Eventually, The Man With the Golden Arm would be credited with helping to bring about the demise of the production code, Bass' work in creating metaphorical, graphic images to show the actual process of narcotics taking became part of a picture that 'led to the only reassessment of Hollywood's Production Code during its thirty six year existence' (Simmons, 2005: 39).

The titles themselves consist of white bars sliding across the screen, rhythmically moving in time with Elmer Bernstein's jazz score (whom Bass also designed album covers for); presenting the names of the actors and crew until the sequence culminates with the image of the aforementioned disjointed arm - an image that was also the centerpiece for the accompanying poster. In one graphic match between the veins and the arm, Bass captured an image that led the whole marketing campaign.

The Man With the Golden Arm poster by Saul Bass

Considering how much star power plays in the role of the marketing of any picture, the fact that the jagged arm took as big a precedence over Frank Sinatra's name for example shows how innovative Bass' thinking was - the meaning rather than the actor of the film was what was important and there existed a sense of uniformity to the advertising campaign because of his work. As a testament to this revolutionary process, reels of The Man With the Golden Arm, arrived at theaters with notices saying 'pull curtains before main titles' (Horak, 2014: 80) - a far cry from the days of popcorn munching and chatter during the intros! Bass would go on to work with Preminger on: Saint Joan (1957), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Exodus (1960), Advise and Consent (1962), The Cardinal (1963), In Harms Way (1965) and Bunny Lake is Missing (1965). Yet again, he maintained consistency, with the main images associated with the posters of Anatomy of a Murder (The Human Body) Exodus (Flames) and Advise and Consent (Capitol Building) being the centerpieces of the credit sequences too.

The work of Saul Bass

Another regular collaborator with Bass, Billy Wilder hired him to work on The Seven Year Itch (1954), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Some Like it Hot (1959) and One Two Three (1961):

Some like it Hot and Love in the Afternoon Saul Bass

Bass' Some Like it Hot posters all hinted at what was to come in the film featuring gangsters in the days of Prohibition - with puns on its Academy Award potential. "Some like it Hot. A hot bet to be liked by all. Also looms to break the drought of comedy contenders for an Oscar".

The connotations of delicate hand closing the blind in the Love in the Afternoon poster, along with the name of the film are obvious; while the colorful and playful font demonstrates its genre as a comedy. This is Billy Wilder's tribute to his hero Ernst Lubitsch & the suggestions presented in this poster are similar to the empty bed in the opening credits of Trouble In Paradise.

Not limited to graphic sequences, his work on Walk on the Wild Side (1962, Dymytrk) proved his skill as a live action filmmaker, the film is itself set in a seedy 1930s New Orleans Brothel, with Bass aiming to capture the sleazy nature of the backstreets of the city. Kyle Cooper, who created the brilliant title sequences for the Spider Man (Raimi, 2002, 2004 & 2007) films stated that this was perhaps his favorite sequence Bass created in the 2004 TCM documentary The Look of Saul Bass.


Walk on the Wild Side opening credits by Saul Bass

It starts as a black cat emerges from some pipes, staring directly into the camera as the titles appear, then as the cats face dissolves into an overhead shot of it walking, the audience can still see the eyes superimposed upon the screen - a technique used again towards the end. Given the subject matter of the film, the repetition of the eyes throughout the sequence appears to suggest both voyeurism and confidence, emphasized by the way the cat coolly slinks around the alleys of the setting. This foreshadows the nature of the characters that would find their way into the picture; the feline star of this opening can be seen as a metaphor for the Barbara Stanwyck's madam of the film 'who stalks the girls much like the cat in the credits' (Dick, 161: 1989). Again working with musician Elmer Bernstein, Bass made sure that the action occurred in time with the music cues; after roughly two minutes of shots separated by slow dissolves, the fight between the white cat (the 2:10 mark on the video) is punctuated by quick editing and a more violent, louder sounding score - Kirkhaim calls this one of the best Bass/Bernstein collaborations. Steven Spielberg later commented that 'I tried to mimic Mr. Bass, using an 8mm camera and my dog on a leash walking along the narrow retaining wall outside my home in Scottsdale, Arizona' (Cited in Kirkham, 2011:205) - That's right, Bass even influenced the great Steven Spielberg!

Saul Bass and cat from Walk on the Wild Side

At times Bass was even at risk of inadvertently out-shining the directors he was meant to be helping, it was a common observation that many film goers and critics alike enjoyed the titles even more than the film that came after, building up so much promise that the movie couldn't hope to live up to. Horak notes that after mediocre reviews for Walk on the Wild Side were released, Bass vividly remembered an extremely awkward meeting with Dmytryk and that he was 'apt to wonder whether any director would want to work with him again' (2014:72).

The most well known director collaboration was without a doubt with Alfred Hitchcock; the aforementioned Vertigo was their first of three films together, followed by North By Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960).

 
Vertigo combined live and graphic action in its opening credits. They key image in this sequence was a spiral, which appears almost constantly throughout intro's three minute running time in different shapes and colours. In the films trailer, Scottie Ferguson's (James Stewart) Vertigo is described as a feeling that plunges him into a 'dizzy whirlpool of terror' - the repeated image of the swirling spiral perfectly encapsulated such a definition. But this symbol also has another meaning and helps to underpin one of Alfred Hitchcock's most explored themes.

Vertigo Opening Credits by Saul Bass

The first image Bass shows us is a close up a a woman's lips, as mentioned before this has a clear significance and demonstrates the obsession of James Stewart's character; if you look closely, the lips tremble at one point which shows us the fear that Judy (Kim Novak) experiences as she is forced to transform herself into Madeline. Like many Hitchcock films, voyeurism is a key aspect of Vertigo - consider the sequences where Scottie tails Madeleine, ten minutes of screen time is filled with no speech at all when the detective first tracks her movements across San Fransisco. In Bass' intro, the spiral emerges from the woman's eye to resemble an Iris, which the camera then closes up on, as if we are entering the mind of the individual - which marks the end of the live action section before its final appearance at the end. Charles Barr has noted the similarity between this opening and that of Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960), another film that prefaces its narrative with a close up of an eye 'as if to announce at once the themes of vision and subjectivity' (15: 2002), while Horak states that the focus on the eye manifests the idea that they 'are a window into the soul' (2014: 184).

Peeping Tom and Vertigo
Bass made sure that color was paid particular attention to in his sequence, much like it had been in the film. If you watch the sequence you'll see that he paints the spirals or the tint of the frame in all the three most important shades that were to come.

Green is commonly used throughout the Vertigo for both the costumes as well as the lighting:

Green in Vertigo




Writing on Roger Ebert's blog, Emerson sees blue as something that signifies Scotties guilt (2012) because of his suit during the trial of Madeline's death and the fact that is features so prominently during the first scene of the film where one of his fellow police officers falls to his death trying to save him.

Blue in Vertigo

And, obviously, red.....

Red in Vertigo

After the spiral images we return once more to the woman's eye as 'directed by Alfred Hitchcock' appears. Along with, in my opinion the best score ever written by Bernard Hermann, Vertigo is an excellent example of Bass' skill as a visual storyteller.

 

On the surface, there may not be much to note about the opening titles to Psycho; there isn't really a cat, a swirling whirlpool, a dead body or an arm visible that is encapsulates the picture. Instead, reminiscent to The Man With the Golden Arm, white/grey bars slide onto the screen, fast paced and in a variety of lengths and angles creating 'jagged' images:



Some of the bars bring into position the names of the actors and then after a few seconds these names are torn apart before the exiting the screen (see the seventh image above). The action usually occurs between two opposite sides of the screen, e.g. Anthony Perkins' name is removed by a set of two bars appearing from the top and bottom, perhaps indicative of the two sides to his characters split personality disorder. The fragmented way that the names are removed from the black background inspire obvious connotations, by leaving it to the audiences imagination, Bass is forcing us to really think about the disturbing reality that befalls Norman Bates' victims - that they are ripped apart by his knife like their names in the credits. It is an aggressive and unpredictable intro and of course, Bernard Herrman's iconic score only extenuates this, Rasmussen sees it as both an 'aural and visual assault on the audience' (2014: 7).

 Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock

Spartacus poster by Saul Bass
The Spartacus poster depicted a gladiator
braking free from the shackles on his hands

1960 also marked the year where Spartacus (Kubrick) was released, like Psycho Bass designed the credits but also contributed a unique vision through his storyboarding of key scenes. For Psycho, he was paid $10,000 to help create one of the most iconic moments in film history - the murder of Marion Crane. This is a topic of debate, for there is some disagreement as to who directed the shower scene, but what ever the answer it's clear when watching the sequence next to the storyboard that Bass' mark is all over the finished product. Vimeo user Vashi Nedomansky created this comparison video to demonstrate how closely the storyboard was translated into the film. For Spartacus, Bass wanted to make an intro that demonstrated the 'duality of Roman rule' (Quoted in Kirkham, 2011: 193) - the oppressiveness, brutality as well as the sophistication. The order of the actor's names in this sequence has clearly been given some thought, as the characters that they play have a relationship with the picture that they're presented over. For example, like the poster on the left, Kirk Douglas' name is shown next hands of a slave, with Lawrence Oliver's credit appearing over the top of a Roman Eagle.



Spartacus and Psycho storyboarding by Saul Bass

Although the Spartacus storyboard doesn't resemble the finished product as much as Psycho, his initial aims for what the battle sequence would look like does still remain; he wanted to detail the difference between the 'mechanised' organisation of the Romans compared to the 'loose' and 'irregular' nature of the slaves which is clearly present.

 "When Kubrick took over as director, he imprinted his own strong mark on the film. Nevertheless, Saul's "hand" is discernible in the final battle - Bass and Kubrick admired each others work" - Kirkham, 2011: 194

Scorsese admired Bass so much that he even convinced him to come out of retirement in the 1990s to work with him on Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993) and Casino (1995) which unfortunately turned out to be his last credit project.


Saul Bass Casino

Legacy

In 2013, Google paid homage to Saul Bass with a brilliant selection of their famous 'doodles' that mimicked some of his best known work:


Mad Men's Don Draper finds himself in a familiar setting to fellow ad man Roger Thornhill in North By Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959). Both titles sequences occur on a graphic caricature of the side of a skyscaper, while the falling man image is extremely reminiscent of James Stewart in the Vertigo poster.


One of the best examples of recent credits in film that clearly have a Saul Bass mark is Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg, 2002) created by Oliver Kunzel and Florence Deygas. It is almost a short film in itself, with quirky and imaginative scene transitions where the animated Frank Abagnale effortlessly moves between different environments while the FBI agent is always one step behind.

Catch me if you can intro
It is, in my opinion most reminiscent of It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Kramer, 1963), Around the World In Eighty Days (Anderson, 1956 - unfortunately not available on Youtube but click here to view this intro on Tumblr) and The Facts Of Life (Frank, 1960). Around the World In Eighty Days has a similar playful, globe-trotting sense of scope and adventure to it & like Spielberg's intro it uses caricatures to directly reference what was about to come in the film, but still managing not to spoil it for the audience! As Kyle Cooper pointed out in the Title Champ documentary, credits can get 'redundant' and boring no matter how clever the initial pun is, this is why all of these credits have constantly changing graphics even if, in some cases the main image is the same. For example, Mad World's globe is constant throughout but it goes through dozens of different iterations to ensure the audience is never bored of whats on the screen, which is something that Catch Me If You Can clearly tried to achieve (and successfully!)
   


Two of the aforementioned documentaries: Title Champ and The Look of Saul Bass




Unused Work 

Bass created several posters that were never released, such as these two for Schindler's List (Spielberg, 1993)

Saul Bass - Schindler's List

Saul Bass - Schindler's List

As well as these rejected projects for The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) along with Stanley Kubrick's hand written notes.

Saul Bass - The Shining
   
Saul Bass - The Shining

Saul Bass - The Shining

Saul Bass - The Shining

Saul Bass fish signature
Bass sent these posters to Kubrick accompanied with a letter that had this
signature on.... because why not. 



References

Barr, C., 2002. Vertigo. London: British Film Institute Publishing.

Bass, J., and Kirkham, P., 2011. Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design. London: Laurence King Publishing.

Billanti, D., 1982. The Names Behind the Titles. Film Comment. 18 (3), pp. 60-70

Bordwell, D., Staigner, J., and Thompson, K., 1988. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge.

Bordwell, D., and Thompson, K., 2010. Film Art: An Indroduction. New York: McGraw Hill.

Boxer, S., 2000. Making a Fuss Over Opening Credits; Film Titles Offer a Peek at the Future in More Ways Than One. The New York Times Online. {Online} 22 April. <http://www.nytimes.com/2000/04/22/movies/making-fuss-over-opening-credits-film-titles-offer-peek-future-more-ways-than.html>

Dick, B., 1989. Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky

Hall, P., 2000 'Opening Ceremonies: Typography and the Movies 1955-1969'. In M. Lamster, ed. 2000 Architecture and Film. New York: Princeton Architectural Press pp.121 -141.

Heller, S., 2011. I Heart Design: Remarkable Graphic Design Selected By Designers. New York: Rockport Publishers.

Horak, J., 2014. Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Kirkham, P., 2011. 'Reassessing the Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock Collaboration'. West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, 18(1) pp. 50-85.

Rasmussen, R., 2014. Psycho, The Birds and Halloween: The Intimacy of Terror in Three Classic Films. Jefferson: Mcfarland & Co.

Simmons, J., 2005. 'Challenging the Production Code: The Man With The Golden Arm'. Journal of Popular Film and Television. 33 (1), pp. 39-48.

Scorsese, M., 2010. 'Martin Scorsese on the Talent of Saul Bass'. The Guardian Online. {Online} 30 October. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/8855960/Martin-Scorsese-on-the-talent-of-Saul-Bass.html>


Saul Bass Walk on the Wild Side.



 Thanks for reading!

 

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