Saul Bass: Vertigo in Design

Art and Literature, Film Review

I wrote the following essay for my Graphic Design class at Watkins. 

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Saul Bass, the man who designed some of my favorite titles for films, was born on May 8, 1920 in New York City, he studied at the Art Student’s League in Manhattan, and he began his time in Hollywood doing print work for films ads, until he collaborated with Otto Preminger for the title designs of Carmen Jones (1954).

The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955)

His fame came later when he designed the title sequence for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). Before Saul Bass, title and graphic designers for films were little known. All by himself, Bass revolutionized the way we think of title design for a film. As Stanly Kubrick once said, “The first shot of a film should grasp the audience”, but for Bass, it was not the first shot but the title design for the film that had to grasp the audience and create a mood for what follows next. Take the example of Otto Preminger’s The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), the first film to openly deal with the addiction to drugs, the title designs is series of simple white lines that come into frame from all direction while the names of the talents are displayed, reflecting the needle and the social pressure that Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) is under, at the end of the title a twisted arm finally appear with crooked lines as if reaching out, asking for help from us the audience.

North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

Bass soon began collaboration with no other than the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Creating some of the most memorable designs, employing simple kinetic typography with vivid background images, with lyrical soundtracks  in such films as North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho. If Bass had only done these three works, he would have still be regarded as one of the greatest title designers for films.

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

A while back, a friend asked me what was my favorite title designs for a film? I told him right away, Saul Bass’s design of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). The title sets the audience  for the film, to take a dive into the unconscious,  if one only watch the opening title of Vertigo, I’m sure one would get the  general theme for the film; the complexity of human memory and recollection of the past. I must have watched that opening title at least 10 times after first discovering the film (the main reason is not only Bass’ title, but the music by Bernard Hermann). I could probably recount by memory all the elements that made up the title: A Close-up of face of a women, only half her face as the camera move in to a close-up of her lips and the name of James Stewart comes up, then the camera tilt-up to reveal her sad eyes, as she moves her eyes to gaze sideways, the name Kim Novak show up on screen; the names and titles comes on screen one after another, in a simple fashion with a tilt or a pan of the camera, while the music of Hermann plays on the background. Then follows a serious of graphic designs of shadows, lines that comes in and out of the frame, different in size and color, it’s a knockout title design for perhaps one of the greatest film ever to have been made.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963)

Another one of my favorite of Bass design is the opening animation for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), a wonderful and childish serious of designs with a central theme, that of a the Globe being abused by all the characters in the film, yet each characters have only a few second to find away to destroy it, only for the Globe to re-emerge and crushes those who tried to conquers it, a satire that fit the  description for the film. A man’s attempt to conquer what is what is unattainable and that is; time. For the earth’s rotation keeps time beyond man’s reach.

Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

Later in his career, Bass collaborated with Martin Scorsese, creating some of his best work in the early digital age. He used the new technology to its simplest form, refusing the over the top 3D designs that flourished in the 80s after the mass marketing of Star Wars, the use of sound effects, bright colors and CGI imagery. Bass went beyond all that; he reached his perfection, a perfection of simplicity. The man who once revolutionized title designing for films, at the end of his career took a simpler attempt at the form that he reached to perfections. Simplicity is perhaps the greatest thing one could achieve, and that what Bass achieved when he made the title for Goodfellas (1990), there are no glamor to the title, simple white fonts over black title card, with the sound of a cars passing by heard over the title. There is still movement with in the frame, as the names of the talents come into the frame from right and left rapidly, only to be replaced by another name, and finally the title of the film appears in Red, in bloody red, a reflection of the film’s obsessions with violence.

Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995)

The simplicity of Goodfellas wasn’t the end of Bass, he left the stage with a style, with the explosive designs for Casino (1995), I remember watching the opening of Casino on a big screen once, even today I could fell the sensation of it, with Robert DeNiro floating in the air from the impact of the car explosion, in the background the orange fires turn into different colors and shapes, with J.S. Bach’s Matthäuspassion, while DeNiro passes from one frame into another in the mid-air, sensational opening.

West Side Story (Robert Wise, 1961)

During his career, Bass designed memorable title different form each others, fresh, complex, and simple at the same time. Titles for such classic films as: Stanly Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) creating a historic title the depict the decline and fall of the Roman Empire by the use of historical figures and statues that are long gone, on top of a simple red background. He crated a another memorable historical title designs for The Cardinal (1963), the bureaucracy within the Church by reflecting the placement of the wardrobes, the standing of members within the Church, all the way to the Pope himself. Watching the opening title for The Cardinal is like watching a fashion show designed in the Vatican.  The mood is difference for title of West Side Story (1961), a musical that is a thriller at the same time. Just like the film, Bass created a thrilling titles with vivid colors, the words are in conflict within each other, fighting for space on the screen. Bass’s work include other notable films as variable as, Ocean Eleven (1960), Walk on the Wild Side (1962), In Harm’s Way (1965), Seconds (1966), and Big (1988).

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Today’s title designing for films owes much to Saul Bass, thanks to him, title designing is essential to Cinema today as any other element in making a film, for the result at the end owe as much to  individual creativeness as to the medium that is used. Who could have thought that in a cinematic medium, a title designer could be remembered today. But we remember Saul Bass.

Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger, 1954)


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