The contributions of American designer Saul Bass (1920-1996) initiated a revolution in the film advertising industry. Where motion picture advertising was once an unrefined and artless trade, Bass endowed the craft with the sophistication of a bonafide art form.
In the world of Saul Bass, letters walked, and roses turned to raindrops; analogous correspondence between unrelated objects was a way of life. He was a master of presentation and communication. He extracted simple and unassuming moments in time, raising each to the level of great art. With his great knack for exposing a magic meld between image, typography, and motion, he held seasoned filmmakers in awe as repeatedly he captured the naked essence of a two-hour feature-length film and condensed the emotion of the drama into a brief title track of two minutes or less. Bass possessed a heightened sense of expression and an ability to convey atmosphere, theme, and story line through the preliminary title sequence of a feature film. For four decades he grabbed the attention of the movie going public, holding spectators riveted to the silver screen, eager to follow the title track into the substance of the plot. As an advertising designer he endowed similar extensions of form and perception to products other than motion pictures. With deftly coordinated combinations of advertising and product packaging, he transformed the corporate image into a cohesive personality, poised to seduce the consumer.
Bass was born in New York City on May 8, 1920. He learned his way around the big city and developed a sense of sophistication that accompanies life in a world-class metropolis. From 1936 through 1939, in preparation for a career in graphic design, he studied modernism at New York's Art Students League under the direction of Howard Trafton. Bass worked also as a freelance designer during that time. Near the end of the Second World War, and still freelancing, he enrolled at Brooklyn College where he studied with Gyorgy Kepes in 1944-45. In 1946 he moved to Los Angeles, California, where he established and operated a more permanent business venture, a design firm called Saul Bass and Associates.
Master of Movie Titles
Bass entered the film industry in 1954 when he developed the advertising campaign for Carmen Jones, an Otto Preminger production. The central image devised by Bass for that movie was a simple but evocative rose in flames. The image served as a cohesive motif for the film promotion and led to a successive assignment from Preminger. He was asked to create the promotion motif for a 1955 Frank Sinatra film, called Man with the Golden Arm. Bass developed a graphic symbol for the film's advertising promotion by designing a logo that was shaped like an arm and intended to represent addiction. Preminger approved the logo and requested bass to create the title track sequence for the movie as well. As devised by Bass, the film's title track initially called for a series of animated rectangular shapes that marched into position to form an arm. The arm, continually distorted, accented further the movie's central theme of drug addition. The design of the arm developed into the basis of an advertising campaign, although the smoothly animated quality of the sequence, as it was originally designed, was eliminated from the final track. Interestingly, it was a tug-of-war relationship between Bass and Preminger that resulted in the final version of the movie opener with disjointed animation of the arm. While Bass argued that the sequence fell flat without animation, Preminger stubbornly opposed the idea. The final compromise, staccato-like movements as the arm segments maneuvered through the visual progression, quickly earned a spot in the annals of classic moments in American film.
Decades later, critics concurred that the title sequence of Man with the Golden Arm revolutionized the film advertising industry by selling the film, as a unique and individualized commodity. A new concept emerged, which aligned the title sequence with a symbolic representation of the movie. Prior to the arrival of Bass and his ideas, the title track served little more purpose than that of an announcement posted on a bulletin board. Every new sequence by Bass was an artwork of itself, and a microcosm of the full-length feature to follow. Pamela Haskin said of Bass in Film Quarterly, "His titles are integral to the film. When his work comes up on the screen, the movie itself truly begins." Bass's ingenious use of morphs grabbed filmgoers instantaneously with a micro summary of the story line of the film to follow. The laconically morphing flower-turned-teardrop at the opening of Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse left the audience mesmerized in 1957.
In 1958 the opening sequence of William Wyler's Big Country marked a further evolution for Bass in his unique craft of filming title shots. Bass acted on an inspiration to set the scene of the feature film by creating a video prologue to the movie proper. It was an interesting notion and one that proved highly successful. In the opening moments of Big Country he introduced the premise that the main character left his home for the wide open space of the American West and simultaneously defined the extreme remoteness of the location wherein the story takes place.
Among the more memorable title shots by Bass was an ingenious cacophony of text and graphic fills that introduced Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest in 1959. That same year, when Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder appeared, the Bass-produced title sequence hit hard, with a cartoon-like silhouette of a segmented human body.
After a decade of honing his vocation, Bass's life and career quickened in the late 1950s, when he met and hired Elaine Makatura, an artist and composer. Over the course of several years the two developed an intimate professional relationship, a collaborative effort that endured for over 40 years. As the 1950s merged into the 1960s, Saul Bass and Associates developed title designs for over one dozen films, while critics rained relentless praise on his creative output.
Bass, with his distinctive touch of emotion, created an unsettling display of parallel lines ad infinitum, which served to crank up the audience tension in the opening moments of a 1960 Hitchcock production, a classic horror thriller, called Psycho. The following year brought the acclaimed musical drama West Side Story. With deceiving simplicity, the story unraveled to a disturbing climax. It was at the end of the film that Bass seized the moment of listing the credits in graffiti, to mesmerize and calm the audience from the impact of the story. In 1962, Bass conceived another major mini-hit and film-land classic in presenting the skillfully orchestrated cat fight that consumes the brief preliminary moments of the title sequence of Edward Dmytryk's story of urban vice, called Walk on the Wild Side. In the 1964 title sequence for The Victors, Bass grabbed the viewer with a montage of historical images—with the final image shifting from the potpourri of the montage to become the first scene of the film proper.
Direction of Shorts
Seemingly limitless in creativity, Bass found expression in short film sequences beyond the movie openers, closing credits, and advertising logos that brought him to prominence. His mastery of the understated film short led film directors to consult him in the filming of climacteric moments in movies. In that regard, his input to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was among the most reverberating and dramatic. Bass received recognition in the credits listing with regard to his direction of the filming of the terrifying murder in the shower. Although the entire scope of his role in the filming remained a topic of dispute decades afterward, indisputable was the notion that the scene became an established classic of horror film hysteria and mesmerized generations of movie viewers. That same year, in 1960, Bass assisted Stanley Kubrick in filming the final battle in Spartacus. Later, in 1966, Bass was largely responsible for the filming of the car racing scenes in John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix. Bass used the opportunity to bring the audience to reflect on the race from the first person point of view of the drivers.
Bass, as might seem inevitable, went on to direct complete films, mostly of the genre known as "shorts." In his first such foray in 1962 he produced a film called Apples and Oranges. Six years and five productions later, Bass won an Academy Award for his 1968 short, Why Man Creates. Two others of his films received Academy Award nominations in 1977 and 1979 respectively. In all, Bass and Makatura introduced a steady output of film shorts to the international film festivals throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and for much of the 1990s. They directed a feature length science fiction film in 1973, called Phase IV.
Four for Scorsese
Bass developed title cuts for four of Martin Scorsese's films: Good Fellas in 1990, the ominous Cape Fear in 1991, The Age of Innocence in 1993, and Casino in 1995, which was Bass's final movie title completed before his death. The Casino opener depicts an explosive reverie, wherein actor Robert De Niro transcends earth and symbolically dives into hell. With the surreal imagery Bass created an atmosphere of unscrupulous depravity and greed, intended to characterize the aura of Las Vegas that reveals itself as the movie unfolds. Bass movie title art established clearly and succinctly the theme and emotional premise of each film, and it became clear to film promoters that audiences appreciated the underlying appeal to their sophistication.
More Than a Film Career
Bass and his design firm, which was renamed Saul Bass/Herb Yager and Associates in 1978, earned honors and distinction beyond the film industry, for a variety of corporate designs and promotional campaigns. Major corporations such as American Telephone and Telegraph, Rockwell International, and Warner Communications were numbered among his prominent clients. His logo designs for the Girl Scouts of America, United Airlines, and others were readily recognized in the United States and abroad. For Bass, every project was a concerted effort at cohesive packaging, in keeping with his singular appreciation for detail. Memorable creations from his design repertoire included the 1983 U.S. postage stamp commemorating art and industry, publicity posters for five academy award ceremonies, and the poster designs for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Bass collected an impressive assortment of international honors from both the advertising and movie industries. He was named Honorary Royal Designer for Industry from the Royal Society of Arts of London in 1964, and he received an honorary fellowship from Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem in 1984. Prestigious art institutes such as the Philadelphia College of Art and the Los Angeles Art Center College of Design awarded honorary doctorate degrees to Bass. He held a membership in the Sundance Film Institute in Utah and served as an executive board member of the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado.
Exhibitions of his work appeared at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 1981, at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris in 1982, and at the Zagreb Film Festival in Yugoslavia, in 1984. In 1987, as a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles department of art, he was named a Regents Lecturer for 1986-87, and a retrospective of his work appeared on exhibit at the school. Collections of his work are displayed internationally—at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, at the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in Amsterdam at the Stedlijk Museum, and in Czechoslovakia at the Prague Museum. His writings appeared internationally in publications such as Graphis of Zurich, Switzerland; Film Dope of London; and Banc-Titre of Paris, as well as American Cinematographer of Hollywood and Cinema of Beverly Hills. G. Nelson published a book on Bass, entitled Saul Bass, in 1967. Bass earned listings in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers in 1985 and 1991, Conran Directory of Design in 1985, and Who's Who in Graphic Art in 1982.
Bass died in Los Angeles on April 25, 1996, of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. His wife-and creative partner, Elaine Makatura, survived him. The couple had been married for 35 years; they had two children, Jennifer and Jeffrey.
Film Comment, April 1997, p. 72.
Film Quarterly, Fall 1996, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1996, p. 22. □
Title Designer and Director. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 8 May 1920. Education: Studied under Howard Trafton, Art Students League, New York, 1936–39; under Gyorgy Kepes, Brooklyn College, 1944–45. Family: Married Elaine Makatura, 1961, one daughter and one son. Career: 1936–46—freelance designer, New York; 1946—founded Saul Bass and Associates, Los Angeles (became Saul Bass/Herb Yager and Associates, 1978); 1954—first film as title designer, Carmen Jones; 1962—first film as director, Apples and Oranges; also designed trailers, film posters, commercials, title credits for television, package design, and corporation logos. Awards: Academy Award, for short film Why Man Creates, 1968. Died: 25 April 1996.
Films as Title Designer:
Carmen Jones (Preminger)
The Big Knife (Aldrich); The Man with the Golden Arm (Preminger); The Racers (Such Men Are Dangerous) (Hathaway); The Seven Year Itch (Wilder); The Shrike (J. Ferrer)
Attack! (Aldrich); Storm Center (Taradash)
Saint Joan (Preminger); Edge of the City (A Man Is Ten Feet Tall) (Ritt); Around the World in Eighty Days (Anderson); Bonjour Tristesse (Preminger); The Pride and the Passion (Kramer); The Young Stranger (Frankenheimer)
The Big Country (Wyler); Cowboy (Daves); Vertigo (Hitchcock)
Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger); North by Northwest (Hitchcock)
Ocean's Eleven (Milestone); Psycho (Hitchcock); The Facts of Life (Frank); Spartacus (Kubrick)
Exodus (Preminger); West Side Story (Wise and Robbins); Something Wild (Garfein)
Walk on the Wild Side (Dmytryk); Advise and Consent (Preminger)
The Cardinal (Preminger); Nine Hours to Rama (Robson)
The Victors (Foreman)
In Harm's Way (Preminger); Bunny Lake Is Missing (Preminger)
Grand Prix (Frankenheimer); Not with My Wife, You Don't (Panama); Seconds (Frankenheimer)
Such Good Friends (Preminger)
That's Entertainment, Part II (Kelly—compilation)
Broadcast News (J. Brooks)
Big (P. Marshall)
The War of the Roses (DeVito)
Cape Fear (Scorsese)
Mr. Saturday Night (Crystal)
The Age of Innocence (Scorsese)
Apples and Oranges (pr, + d—short)
From Here to There (pr, + d, co-sc—short); History of Adventure (d—short); Packaging Story (d—short); The Searching Eye (d, + co-sc—short)
Why Man Creates (d, + co-sc—short)
Phase IV (d)
One Hundred Years of the Telephone (d—short)
Notes on the Popular Arts (d—short)
The Solar Film (d—short)
The Quest (co-d)
By BASS: articles—
"Film Titles," in Graphis, vol. 16, no. 89, 1960.
Cinema (Beverly Hills, California), Fall 1968.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1977.
Interview by P. Murat and B. Génin, in Banc-Titre (Paris), April 1984.
Interview with Bass and Billy Wilder by P. Kirkham, in Sight and Sound (London), June 1995.
Interview by Pamela Haskin, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1996.
On BASS: book—
Nelson, G., Saul Bass, New York, 1967.
Morgenstern, Joe, Saul Bass: A Life in Film Design, Santa Monica, 1997.
On BASS: articles—
Print (New York), May/June 1958.
Foster, Frederick, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1962.
Gid, R., in Graphis, vol. 19, no. 106, 1963.
Rondolino, G., in Filmzelezione (Bologna), no. 15–16, 1963.
Allen, Bob, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1963.
Skoop (Amsterdam), March 1968.
Bianco e Nero (Rome), September/October 1968.
Jacobs, Lewis, in The Emergence of Film Art, 1969.
Communication Arts (Palo Alto, California), August/September 1969.
Sohn, David A., in Film: The Creative Eye, London, 1970.
Cinéma (Paris), January and March 1970.
Industrial Design (New York), March 1971.
Film Reader (Evanston, Illinois), no. 1, 1975.
Cinema Papers (Melbourne), January 1977.
Image et Son (Paris), April 1981.
Film Comment (New York), May/June 1982.
Broadcast (London), 18 April 1986.
Rodman, Howard, "The Name behind the Title," in Village Voice (New York), 12 July 1988.
Skrien (Amsterdam), no. 165, April/May 1989.
Woudhuysen, James, "Bass Profundo" in Design Week (London), 22 September 1989.
Kirkham, Pat, "Looking for the Simple Idea," in Sight and Sound (London), February 1994.
Naughton, John, "Credit Where Credit's Due," in Empire (London), March 1994.
Glucksman, Mary, "Due Credit," in Screen International (London), 13 May 1994.
Kirkham, Pat, "Bright Lights Big City," in Sight and Sound (London), January 1996.
Lally, K., "Arresting Images," in Film Journal (New York), March 1996.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 29 April 1996.
Obituary, in Classic Images (Muscatine), June 1996.
Obituary, in International Documentary, June 1996.
Wollen, Peter, and Pat Kirkham, "Compulsion/The Jeweller's Eye," in Sight & Sound (London), April 1997.
Supanick, Jim, "Saul Bass: 'to hit the ground running'," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1997.
"Saul Bass (Commercial Artist)," in Communications Arts, March-April 1999.
* * *
If any one person can be credited with having introduced the idea of "high concept"—the single striking image or pithy phrase that immediately sums up a creative work—to the movie industry, it would have to be Saul Bass. Not that the term existed when Bass, then known as one of America's brightest graphic designers, was called in to create the poster and title design for Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones. Bass preferred to talk in terms of Single Appropriate Image, in contrast to the then prevalent style of selling films, which he drily summed up as "the See! See! See! approach. See the missionaries boiled in oil, see the volcano destroy the island, see the virgins of the temple! The theory was that if you talked about a film in pieces, there would be something for everyone." Instead of crassly duplicating the function of the trailer, Bass saw his task as "finding a metaphor for the film, rather than an actuality from it."
The single image he created for Carmen Jones was a rose, in flames; taken with the title, that said it all. His design for Preminger's next film, The Man with the Golden Arm, was yet more audacious: the jagged diagram of an arm groping downward, contorted with agony. Like so many of Bass's concepts, it relied on the simplest and most effective style of design, a silhouette. Initially Preminger wanted a static image for the title sequence, but after "some towering discussions" Bass won his battle to animate the arm, making it jerk in torment to the rhythm of Elmer Bernstein's doomy, small-hours jazz score. Not for the last time, Bass's title sequence packed a more formidable punch than the movie that followed it. The prowling black alley cat that prefaced Walk on the Wild Side was so patently the best thing in the film that, once word got around, people would come to see the credit sequence, then get up and leave once the film started.
Knowing that nothing is more universally recognizable than stylized images of the human face or body, Bass drew on this primal source for some of his most memorable designs. The paper cut-out doll, suggesting at once childish innocence and the lethal sharpness of a blade, introduced the kidnap drama of Bunny Lake Is Missing. For Exodus, clenched fists grasping at a rifle: anger, desperation, revolt, revenge, all in one charged outline. A voluptuous pair of bare female thighs (in a style borrowed from Matisse) heralded the sophisticated sex comedy Such Good Friends. Bonjour Tristesse was evoked by a made-up face (a nod here to Picasso) decorated with a single fat tear. Most famous of all was the sectioned human body that suggested both a chalked forensic outline on the ground, and the title of the film: Anatomy of a Murder. So potent was the concept that it has been widely plagiarized ever since.
All these organic images were for Preminger films. For Hitchcock and Wilder, two film-makers with a cooler, more analytical eye, Bass often played with abstract designs. For The Seven Year Itch, a sex farce rather than sex comedy, Bass created the abstract equivalent of the multiple doors of a Feydeau intrigue: a patchwork of colored rectangles that one by one slid aside to reveal the film's title and credits lurking coyly behind them. Vertigo's credit sequence started with the close-up of an eye wide with horror, out of which spun dizzying, spidery vortices. Thin lines, criss-crossing each other straight up and diagonally, gave North by Northwest its sense of direction before resolving themselves into the huge impersonal sky-scraper from which Cary Grant is about to emerge. Lines again for Psycho, but this time thick and destructive, bludgeoning in from the sides of the screen to split apart the names of the cast, as Norman Bates is mentally split, as Marion Crane will be split by his knife.
Working in close collaboration with his wife Elaine (whose name deserves to stand with his on many of his films), Bass restlessly began to explore ways in which the title sequence could become part of the narrative itself, acting as a launch pad. "My view . . . was that something could happen during the credits that could help the film, so that the establishing shots aren't carrying the total burden." From encapsulating the film, through setting the mood, it was a small step to using the credits to tell part of the story. In The Big Country, Gregory Peck's journey from the urbane east coast to the frontier is conveyed, vividly and succinctly, in the title sequence. For Carl Foreman's The Victors Bass paid homage to the great montage-maker Slavko Vorkapich with a montage that whisked through the major events of history between World Wars I and II. Sometimes his credit sequences served as epilogue rather than prologue, as in Around the World in Eighty Days, allowing the audience to put names to all the multiple cameos they had seen, or West Side Story, where Bass intended the credits—scrawled as graffiti on tenement blocks—to act as "a sort of decompression chamber, to give the audience a chance to pull themselves together after the terrible denouement."
Having supplied the beginnings and ends of films, Bass made the logical move into directing sequences within the body of the film. Though Hitchcock always denied it, it is widely believed that Bass not only storyboarded but directed the notorious shower murder in Psycho; certainly no one disputes that he directed many of the car-racing sequences in Frankenheimer's Grand Prix and the climactic battle scene in Spartacus. His own foray into feature directing, though, the science-fiction film Phase IV, proved competent but strangely anonymous, as if Bass's creative urge needed the compression and concentration of the brief span to function at full throttle.
Bass's title designs defined a whole era of American filmmaking, and were hugely influential. Among his followers was Maurice Binder, who designed the "walking gun" titles for the Bond films. For a time, perhaps inevitably for the creator of such a specific look, Bass fell out of fashion and concentrated on his industrial design work. Between 1971 and 1987 he designed credits for only a single feature, the compilation film That's Entertainment, Part II. But in the last decade of his life he was back in demand, eagerly embracing new technologies to create intricate title designs for four of Scorsese's films. Beautiful, complex, and hypnotic, this late work lacks something of the stark immediacy of his classic period. But Bass's status as the first and so far the only auteur of title design seems, for the moment, safe from challenge.