Saul Bass: credit where it’s due

A galaxy of intricate geometric patterns floating hypnotically towards you; a grid of horizontal grey lines stabbing across the screen; the figure of Robert De Niro falling through a sheet of flames that segues neatly into a series of dazzling neon backdrops. The opening credits from Vertigo, Psycho and Casino all bear the distinctive hallmark of designer Saul Bass.

Many movie fans date their obsession from the first time they saw Star Wars. My “light-bulb” moment came when the opening titles of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo first seared themselves onto my consciousness. Unfortunately, I was watching on a tiny b/w portable TV, but the impact was still unforgettable. When I finally got round to experiencing the film in colour, I was blown away.

When Bass died in 1996, he’d created the title sequences for more than 50 films, including works by Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, John Frankenheimer and Martin Scorsese. He directed a handful of his own films and won an Oscar for his 1968 documentary short, Why Man Creates. Sadly, he wasn’t around to see the birth of YouTube — arguably the perfect small-screen showcase for his mini-epics. He didn’t create the opening credits sequence for Star Wars or any of its sequels, but he might have been amused by the phenomenally popular Star Wars vs Saul Bass pastiche that has, inevitably, spawned its own imitators.

This clip and others like it are good at capturing Bass’s use of colourful backgrounds, free-floating type and witty, stylised renditions of the human form. If you’ve seen his work on The Seven Year Itch or the original Ocean’s Eleven, you’ll know what I’m talking about. As one of the most successful and respected commercial artists of the 20th century, Bass certainly knew how to come up with a great logo — a single image that would be indelibly linked with that product or movie.

If all Bass had done was conjure up some colourful animation, or artfully scatter those body parts that accompany the credits to Anatomy of a Murder, he’d still be revered. Any film, no matter how obscure or mediocre, is elevated by the addition of even a few frames of Bass. But his best work continues to attract scholarly analysis and fanboy imitators because it’s not just about beautiful patterns.

The sequences Bass devised to wrap around some of Hitchcock’s finest movies were the cinematic equivalent of a brilliantly designed book jacket or album cover: complementing, enhancing but never undermining the main attraction. In the 60s Bond title designer Maurice Binder produced the cool and colourful intros for movies like Charade and Arabesque. But the same decade saw Bass moving beyond the voguish and decorative, with sequences that draw the viewer into the narrative — setting the mood and perhaps hinting at what is to come. Here are some of my favourites from that period:

Seconds (1966)
Middle-aged banker John Randolph is “reborn” as handsome painter Rock Hudson in John Frankenheimer’s nightmarish and unsettling psychological thriller. The disorientation of waking up with someone else’s face is brilliantly conveyed from the first shot of a weirdly distorted eye, that seems to be recoiling in horror from itself. As the camera pulls in and out, stretching mouth, ears and nose into unrecognisable shapes it’s a bit like watching Edvard Munch’s The Scream brought to life.

West Side Story (1961)
Bass provided a downbeat, yet entirely appropriate set of closing credits for this multi-Oscar-winning update on the Romeo and Juliet story. There’s no hint of a glossy, flashy Hollywood musical in the grimy walls, doors and street signs on which the names of cast and crew are crudely inscribed. It’s a sequence that feels organic and fits well with the film’s use of New York street locations rather than soundstages for some of its celebrated dance sequences.

Spartacus (1960)
Forget the excesses of Spartacus: Blood and Sand — Stanley Kubrick’s epic is still the one to watch, despite its protracted running time. Snails or oysters, anyone? But there’s something very dignified — even imperial — about the procession of Roman artefacts and statues that accompany composer Alex North’s magnificent score. The final shot of a crumbling marble head that signifies the imminent demise of a dynasty always brings a lump to my throat.

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)
The credits of the recent Spanish horror, El Orfanato, probably owe a debt to Bass’s work on one of Otto Preminger’s least bombastic films, a mystery about the hunt for a young girl. A disembodied hand systematically peels backs layers of paper to uncover the credits, until we reach the final image — a paper cut-out of a small child.

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
If you can’t face sitting through Stanley Kramer’s exuberant comedy, you could just settle for the wit and brevity of Bass’s four-minute animated credit sequence. It’s a great example of how to keep things interesting, even when that roll call of comedy giants just keeps on bursting out from every corner of the screen.

(Also published as http://www.soundonsight.org/saul-bass-five-from-the-60s/)

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