The Stylistic Milestones of Saul Bass
This week marks the birthday of Saul Bass, one of the most important and prolific visual artists to ever work in motion pictures. As testament to his enduring significance, Bass has been posthumously honored with one of contemporary society’s highest acknowledgements of cultural achievement – his very own Google doodle based on his famous designs for Anatomy of a Murder (1959). In recent years, the interest in Bass’s career seems to be growing. In October 2011, an elegant 428-page hardcover entitled Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design was released and the book, which is co-authored by the artist’s daughter Jennifer Bass, compiles over 1,400 illustrations with an introduction written by Martin Scorsese.
Now you may be thinking to yourself: Isn’t Saul Bass the guy that Kramer mistakes for Salman Rushdie during the sauna episode of Seinfeld? All funny name jokes aside, Saul Bass is an immensely significant graphic designer and you could probably recognize examples of his work even if you don’t know his name. From the unnerving opening titles of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958) to the corporate logos for AT&T and United Airlines, Bass’ commanding graphic style has left an indelible impact on filmmaking and design as a whole. Bass created unforgettable title sequences for Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Martin Scorsese and, on other projects, often crafted title sequences which artistically surpass the motion picture they precede.
Whether creating work for a psychological thriller or the broadest of comedies, Saul Bass used his visuals to establish the perfect mood and tone for a film without uttering a line a dialogue. In his book, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, film scholar Robin Wood comments, “One aspect of the theme of Vertigo is given us by Saul Bass’ credit designs… Before the film proper has begun, we are made aware that the vertigo of the title is to be more than a literal fear of heights.” The opening titles Bass created for Psycho are deceptively simple and, on the surface, certainly don’t compare to the swirling Technicolor eye-candy at the beginning of Vertigo two years prior. But similar to Vertigo, the roaming horizontal lines and break-apart letters Bass uses in Psycho’s credits effectively relate a dangerous internal world. In the first minutes of Psycho, a palpable sense of anxiety is conjured up as we see familiar words and names crumble to pieces then aggressively grind into one another like a mouthful of grating teeth. Psycho was Bass’ last collaboration with Hitchcock and, in later years, Bass began to assert that he co-directed key sequences of the film, including the famous shower scene and the murder at the top of the staircase. However, it is likely this claim was the designer’s inelegant way expressing that he had more to do with the visual style of Psycho than just the opening credits. Bass received the seldom-used credit of “Pictorial Consultant” for creating 48 drawings which greatly influenced Hitchcock’s photographic compositions for the film’s most memorable scenes.
In home viewing, the overwhelming experience of a title sequence designed by Bass is slightly diminished compared to its original theatrical presentation. Whether in the dizzying spiral patterns from Vertigo which create the sensation of a bottomless drop or the opening and closing of colourful panels which irreverently reveal the credits for The Seven Year Itch, Saul Bass masterfully utilized the immense surface area of the big screen’s canvas. Bass often dismembers elements of his artwork so the audience only sees a few pieces at a time, such as his work for Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder and The Man with the Golden Arm, which again reinforces the experience of encountering his artwork as something several times larger than you are. For example, in the opening of Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, which stars Frank Sinatra as a heroin-addicted card shark, the audience encounters moving horizontal and vertical white lines without any indication as to their significance. Soon an expressionistic arm slides in from the top of the frame and, for me, the meaning of the ominous white lines suddenly changes from the side view of a playing card into the tip of a syringe.
For much of the beginning of his career while working with black-and-white, Bass manipulated static artwork of semi-cubist human forms as seen in the posters for Anatomy of a Murder, The Man with the Golden Arm and also Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960). Projects like Vertigo and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World reflect the designer’s growing command of both colour and movement. Bass’s imaginative credit sequences began noticeable worldwide trend in movies and his stylistic influence can been seen in some of cinema’s most beloved film franchises, including the Pink Panther, The Man With No Name trilogy and James Bond – although Bass surprisingly never worked on a 007 picture. Towards the end of his career, Bass moved away from hand-drawn images in favour of stylized photography overlay sequences best exemplified in his work with his wife Elaine on Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993) and Casino (1995).
That particular feeling created by Saul Bass visuals is still very much in demand even after the designer’s death in 1996. In the last decade, the title sequences for Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002) and Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004), as wells as in the advertising artwork for Choke (2008), Precious (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008), have all paid homage to Saul Bass. Isolating Bass’s title sequences apart from the films themselves gives one a strong sense of the evolving style of an exceptional artistic mind. If you, like me, are reverential of masterful animation, design and cinema in its purest form, I strongly recommend watching these Saul Bass sequences on their own. I’m certain your eyes will thank you.
Original artwork by Bennett O’Brian, based on Saul Bass designs