It seems as though nowadays, there is a great fascination with the debate of who is the greatest innovator to grace the cinematic landscape. More often than not, the names Hitchcock, Welles, Scorsese, and Kubrick are tossed about. Yet, there is never any mention of individuals outside of the prestigious auteur group.
However, in order to have such a debate, there is one particular visionary who must always be tossed into the pile. That is of course, Saul Bass.
For over 50 years, Bass was considered to be one of the greatest graphic designers of the 20th century, a title which still doesn’t do him the justice his masterfulness deserves.
To put it in to better terms, it’s as the reinventor of the film poster and more importantly, the creator of the movie title sequence that he is most revered for.
Though many have tried to replicate the posters of Bass (and failed), you can easily spot one of his posters from a mile off. In his early years, Bass was mentored by Hungarian designer Gyorgy Kepes, who was a leader of the Bauhaus design movement, a style which characterised the tropes of modernism, simplicity, and geometric experimentation. Bass very much championed these visual qualities throughout his movie poster work.
Aside from his time as a commercial artist for ad companies, it wasn’t until 1955 that Bass was able to showcase his innovative poster designs, creating the lead poster for Otto Preminger’s film, The Man with the Golden Arm (1955).
The thing that really put Saul Bass ahead of the rest in terms of his movies posters was his ability to convey imagery. The Man with the Golden Arm is essentially a story about a jazz musician attempting to deal with the struggles of his heroin addiction.
The key piece of imagery that we gain from the poster here is the jagged, dismembered arm. Not only was this symbol clever in being a way of dodging the strict censors of the time, it subtly nudged the audience into suggesting the themes of the film. You may not have a clue about the synopsis of the film, but from Bass’s poster, you could give a pretty good guess. That sole ability to suggest the key message of a film through such simple imagery exemplified Bass’s genius.
From 1955 onwards, Bass continued to increase his status as one of, if not the best movie poster designer in the industry. His use of key design characteristics such as colour, typography, and negative space proved to be daring yet rewarding decisions. The stark black teardrop from his poster for Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and the fragmented corpse seen on the poster for Anatomy of a Murder (1959) proved that Bass was the Elvis Presley of the graphic design world.
Nevertheless, his creative virtuoso shone even more through his influence on the title sequence.
Ten, even twenty years before Bass, the movie title sequence was a drab, static affair, with images merely fading over each other. They meant nothing. Often, the projectionists wouldn’t even open the curtains at the opening credits.
However, in his natural means of subverting the standard, Bass decided that he was the one to change this.
In his own words, “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. I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it”.
Essentially, Bass saw the title sequence as an opportunity. His title sequences were to act as an overture for the film ahead. He truly believed that the audience should be involved from the very first frame of the film.
Bass was offered his title sequence debut by none other than Otto Preminger in his film, The Man with the Golden Arm. Considering at the time, Preminger was referred to more lovingly by his names “the Ogre” and “the Terrible”, the Austrian-director believed that Bass could take his films in the artistic direction that he had craved for so long.
Though some of the imagery from Bass’s title sequence echoes that of the movie poster, it is the sharp white lines appearing from all angles of the screen, the dismembered arm draping across the frame, and the combined frenetic jazz score that elevates the title sequence. Though it is somewhat simplistic in its style, it is stark in its representation.
Up until 1958, it was already clear to see that Bass was at the top of his craft, yet the maestro wasn’t finished.
In what could arguably be considered his most compelling and psychologically disturbing piece of work, Alfred Hitchcock approached Bass to make the title sequence for his magnum opus, Vertigo (1958).
A film about trauma and psychological turmoil, the term ‘style is substance’ has never rung truer in a piece of Bass work.
The sequence begins with a close-up of Kim Novak’s eye, which then quickly consumes the viewer into a dizzying nightmare of swirling imagery. The whirling forms resonate with the films themes and perfectly express the story in the metaphorical sense that Bass intended.
His final collaboration with The Master of Suspense for Psycho (1960) was a point in time whereby Bass certainly showcased the most creative output. Whilst his title sequence offered up distorted typography and unstable imagery, which complimented the screeching score of Bernard Herrmann, Bass was also assigned as visual consultant for the picture.
Though hard to believe, Hitchcock yielded creative control of the infamous shower scene to Bass in what still seems to this day a rather bizarre circumstance, considering it is easily the most notable scene from his eclectic oeuvre.
However, on reflection, the scene literally has Bass’s hands all over it. The quick sharp cuts, the tendency to dwell on particular points in the scene such as the hand and eye of Janet Leigh, the drain, it interacts with Bass’s idea of creating curiosity and intensity through the most simple means possible.
Even after his death in 1996, Saul Bass’s work still radiates throughout the entire landscape of design. Bass knew how to influence an audience through the means of simplicity, and through the mere concept that less is always just about right.
Bass once said, “I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares”.
Thankfully though, they did care, and more importantly, they still do.