The Graphic Genius of Saul Bass: The Man with the Distinctive Title

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The great graphic designer and iconic film TITLE master SAUL BASS

Saul Bass born in my beloved New York City in 1920 is regarded as not only one of the finest graphic designers, was also an illustrator, film producer and director, publicist,and film editor but monumentally known for changing the look of opening sequences in the film industry and as THE man who created the ultimate film titles. Once you’ve seen a Saul Bass opening sequence, title and credits, you feel immediately drawn into the storytelling infrastructure, with just a few symbolic prompts.

Anatomy of a Murder

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He has created film credits and title sequences of over 60 films, and has often worked with directors such as Otto Preminger, Stanley Kramer just to mention a few. Especially notable for his work with Alfred Hitchcock on Hitch’s most memorable film Psycho, of which Bass designed the titles.

His trademark was to contribute Avant-garde title sequences and symbolic posters to a timeless art form, resonant, vibrantly reverberant and memorable, even still. Symbols have been a powerful, motivating and inspiring tool as far back as the creation of Runes. One single image can evoke an entire ethos into the collective consciousness.

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The Victors image

The Victors

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His evocative opening sequences not only draw the audience in but Bass himself theorized that captivating the viewer, bringing the audience in right from the top , would make it so that you could tell what was going to happen in the story within the first few moments of the film.

Walk on The Wild Side
The wonderful opening sequence in Walk On The Wild Side is particularly evocative for me, as it uses the fetish of female sexuality=feline energy. The black cat slinks across the screen as the titles roll-provocative as hell

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He was also integral in helping out with visual concepts, storyboards but most significantly he created the titles for some of the biggest cinematic hit movies of the 20th century. Saul died in 1996.

Some of his other unmistakable title credits are for BONJOUR TRISTESSE, ONE,TWO THREE, THE CARDINAL, NINE HOURS TO RAMA, EDGE OF THE CITY (1957) SOMETHING WILD (1961) and he was uncredited for his work on ALIEN (1979) and the poster design for NO WAY OUT (1950)

Later on in his career he worked with Martin Scorsese on his remake of Cape Fear 1991, and his crime drama Goodfellas 1990.

no way out

So how did he get involved with TITLES? He began as a graphic designer, as part of his work he created many film symbols as part of the Advertising campaigns.

During that period he happened to be working on a symbol for Carmen Jones (1954) and Man With The Golden Arm for Otto Preminger. At one point in their working relationship Preminger and Saul Bass just looked at each other and said

“Why not make it move!And it was really as simple as that….”Saul Bass

Saul thought to himself that initially the audience involvement with any film should and would really start with the very first frame…“You have to remember that until then titles had been a list of dull credits, mostly ignored or used for POPCORN TIME… So there seemed to be a real opportunity to use TITLES in a new way, to actually create a climate for the story that was about to unfold.”-Saul Bass

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Just to show how effective using merely a powerful symbol to define a film’s motivation or theme, you could use the example of Man With The Golden Arm which opened in New York City in 1952. The only advertising gimmick used on the Marquee was the disjointed image of the illustrated arm, to suggest the subject of drug addiction.

When asked how the symbol functioned when translating it to the film’s narrative, Bass answered by saying this “Well you remember that the film was about drug addiction. And the symbol…that is…THE ARM…in it’s jagged form expressed the jarring disjointed existence of a drug addict. Now to the extent that it was an accurate and telling synthesis of the film in the Ad campaign, these same qualities came to it in the theater and of course with the addition of the motion of sound really came alive and set off the mood and the texture of the film.”

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At some point in Bass’s career he made the transition of using a purely static graphic device, to creating movement and a choreography of postulations, evolving with IN HARMS WAY 1965 and SECONDS 1966.

“I started in graphics. Then as you’ve seen I began to move that graphic image in film. Somewhere down the line I felt the need to come to grips with the realistic or live action image which seemed to me at the time to be central to the notion of film… Of course then, a whole new world was open to me.”

“Keep in mind however, despite my fascination with this, I still felt CONTENT was the key issue. I continued to look for simple, direct ideas. For example IN HARMS WAY 1965, the story about the sea war in the pacific, I used the violent and  the eternal qualities of the sea, as a metaphor for the people in the events of the story.”

“In SECONDS 1966, a sixty year old man goes into a hospital, and through advanced surgical techniques is reconstituted in his entirety. And he comes out twenty five years old, and looking like Rock Hudson. Now tampering with humanity that way is pretty scary. So in the title, I broke apart,distorted and reconstituted the human face to set the stage symbolically for what was to come.”

Seconds with Rock Hudson
the opening sequence from John Frankenheimer’s Seconds with Rock Hudson

Titles for William Wyler’s western starring Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons, THE BIG COUNTRY 1958, Carl Foreman’s intelligent war drama THE VICTORS 1963 and John Frankenheimer’s GRAND PRIX 1966 starring one of my favorite guys in the world, James Garner, seem to stretch the action even further toward total integration of the title and credits as they merge into the beginning of these films. With GRAND PRIX Bass uses multiple identical images in one frame, much in the way the split screen is used. He also introduces the notion of the spectator, joining us as spectator.

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Saul Bass, went through an evolutionary process as he embraced the art of ceremoniously attracting us into the story. in his own words, “Absolutely, previously I used title to symbolize, summarize, establish mood or establish attitude. At one point it occurred to me that a title could make a more significant contribution to the storytelling process. It could act as a prologue. It could deal with the time before. For instance in BIG COUNTRY, I tried to establish the notion of an Island of people in a sea of land. The vastness of which is penetrated by a stage coach. After an endless journey it reaches this isolated group of people and only then does the story begin. So THE BIG COUNTRY was the free months before, and THE VICTORS it was twenty five years before. WWI and the middle of WWII, and in GRAND PRIX it was a moment before the preparation for the Monte Carlo race.”

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The end credits utilizing graffiti for the textual content of Jerome Robbins and Robert Wises masterpiece West Side Story. Saul Bass’ brilliant idea to end the film with the long credits in order to ease the audience out of the violent deaths of the main characters in the film.

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TRIVIA:
Bass not only designed the title sequence in Psycho (1960) he has been attributed to helping conceptualize the scene where Arbogast (Martin Balsam) ascends those fateful stairs to his unwitting doom. He also was responsible for drawing  the storyboards for the shower scene under the specific directions of Hitchcock himself. Although as referenced in the book  Truffaut on Hitchcock it is stated that he didn’t wind up using those sketches as they “weren’t right.”

Here are some examples of the moody, the powerful, the evocative, the iconic work of Mr Saul Bass-

It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)-directed by Stanley Kramer music by Ernest Gold

Psycho 196o – directed by Alfred Hitchcock music by Bernard Herrmann using only string instruments.

Anatomy of A Murder (1959) – director by Otto Preminger with original music by Duke Ellington 

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)-directed by Otto Preminger with original music by Paul Glass

Oceans 11 (1960)-directed by Lewis Milestone with music by Nelson Riddle

The Victors (1963)-directed by Carl Foreman music by Sol Kaplan

Seconds (1966) – directed by John Frankenheimer music by Jerry Goldsmith

The Man With The Golden Arm (1955) – directed by Otto Preminger with music by Elmer Bernstein

Walk on The Wild Side (1962)– directed by Edward Dmytryk music by Elmer Bernstein

Vertigo (1958) – directed by Alfred Hitchcock with music by Bernard Herrmann

North by Northwest (1959) – directed by Alfred Hitchock music by Bernard Herrmann

Not With My Wife, You Don’t (1966)-directed by Norman Panama and music by John Williams with lyrics Johnny Mercer

Saint Joan (1957) – directed by Otto Preminger with music by Mischa Spoilansky

Storm Center (1956) – directed by Daniel Taradash music by George Duning

Such Good Friends (1971)-directed by Otto Preminger music by Thomas Z. Shepard

The Big Knife (1955)-directed by Robert Aldrich with music by Frank De Vol

The Seven Year Itch (1955)– directed by Billy Wilder with music by Alfred Newman

Spartacus (1960)-directed by Stanley Kubrick with music by Alex North

PHASE IV (1974)– Saul Bass directing with music by Brian Gasgoigne

West Side Story (1961)– directed by Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise with music by Leonard Bernstein and Irwin Kostal

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