Saturday, January 17, 2009

Saul Bass

Saul Bass (1920-1996) is best known as the graphic designer who pioneered not only a culture-piercing take on both movie posters and their film's corresponding opening credits sequences, but also the sleek appearance of the corporate logos that have become so ubiquitous in our lives. In the 50s and 60s, it became a film critic cliche to state that his credits sequences alone were worth the price of admission. Often, the movies he serviced were pretty good on their own, but it remained true that his instantly recognizable contributions made them that much better. But he didn't just change things on the credits front. His posters for Preminger, Hitchcock, Kubrick and scores of other filmmakers had a ripple effect in film marketing that can still be felt today (just look at the posters for the Coens' Burn After Reading, Schrader's Adam Resurrected, and Tarantino's upcoming Django Unchained for proof)

Bass didn't work with just anybody. It was filmmaker Otto Preminger who first discovered him in 1954. He asked Bass to do the poster art for his musical Carmen Jones, and was so impressed that the idea popped into Preminger's head to have him do the credits for his next movie, the heroin-addiction drama The Man With The Golden Arm. Saul Bass himself, in a foreword to Frank Jastfelder and Stefan Kassels's out-of-print 1997 book The Album Cover Art of Soundtracks, detailed the process by which the sequence was created:

What Preminger wanted from me was a design for print ads, an image that would express the anxiety and disjointed life of the movie's hero. I delivered a rendering of a downthrust arm--almost a lightening bolt--and a crabbed hand. It was exactly what he was looking for. Indeed, he felt the image was so arresting that he wondered aloud if it might work in a sequence at the beginning of the film. Assuming that Preminger meant an animated sequence, that is to say a moving graphic, I added other elements--jagged bars suggesting dysfunction, and the imprisoning of the arm and the hand--and then prepared a storyboard. Otto liked the idea for the titles. But he though it should be a series of non-moving images--stills, just like the individual frames of the storyboard. I thought it had to move. We disagreed. It got hot. I stalked out of Otto's office and went back to my own. Sat down. And sulked. I sat there, upset, still steaming, Time went by. I calmed down. I began to think "Gee, I blew it." I really did want to do that title. I thought a little. Non-moving could have a stylistic emotional effect...static images. Sharp cuts. A sort of staccato kinetic movement. I began to warm up to the idea. I began to like it.

Preminger and Bass battled back and forth a little more, but they came to a compromise in which a new style was born. Before this sequence was first projected, theater owners often kept the curtains closed during credits sequences. Preminger and Bass changed all that. They felt that the credits should be considered an integral part of a movie's effect--in fact, the entire ad campaign for The Man With The Golden Arm was built around Bass's jagged appendage. So, when the film premiered at the Paramount Theater in New York City, Preminger demanded that the theater open the curtains BEFORE the credits rolled. Thus cinema was changed forever:

The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955; music by Elmer Bernstein)

And again, Preminger and Bass collaborated on what is perhaps the director's most well-known film: 1959's Anatomy of a Murder. And, after that, they repeatedly worked together: on Saint Joan (1957), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Exodus (1960), Advise and Consent (1960), The Cardinal (1963), In Harm's Way (1965), Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968), Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), Such Good Friends (1971), Rosebud (1975), right through to Preminger's final movie, 1979's The Human Factor. For all of Preminger's films, from 1955 on, Bass provided poster and credits sequence art. The two men were joined at the hip:

Saint Joan (Otto Preminger, 1957; music by Mischa Spoliansky)

Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959; music by Duke Ellington)

Exodus (Otto Preminger, 1960; music by Ernest Gold)

Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965; music by Paul Glass)

In Harm's Way (ENDING CREDITS; Otto Preminger, 1965; music by Jerry Goldsmith) 

Such Good Friends (Otto Preminger, 1971; music by Thomas Z. Shepard) 

The Human Factor (Otto Preminger, 1979; music by Richard and Gary Logan)

Here at the invaluable Internet Movie Poster Awards, you can see a gallery of Saul Bass 50s/60s-era poster designs for Preminger, Billy Wilder, John Frankenheimer, and Alfred Hitchcock. Seeing them all together, one can really get the feeling that Saul Bass changed the look of the world.

Bass' collaborations with Hitchcock were harmonious, but one controversy did spring from them. First, Bass put forth the following sequences for Hitch:

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958; music by Bernard Herrmann) 

North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959; music by Bernard Herrmann) 

After all this, with Psycho, Bass was upped to "Pictoral Consultant." Why? Because Hitchcock notoriously asked him to provide storyboards for what would become the director's most well-known sequence: the shower murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). Bill Krohn, author of Phaidon Press' Hitchcock at Work, has finally put the matter to rest. Bass did not direct the shower sequence; it was Hitch who was on set coordinating things. But he stuck close to the 48 storyboard drawings Bass provided to him as an outline for the sequence. Save for the music (how can you have the shower sequence WITHOUT Bernard Herrmann's music?), this rotoscoped (that means animation that's traced on top of the original image) version of the scene (unwisely scored minus the Bernard Herrmann music---PLEASE cut the sound off HERE) comes closest to acting as intermediary between the efforts of Hitchcock and Bass:

(SOUND ON AGAIN)  Also, in 1960, Bass provided a titles sequence for another Universal movie. And again, he acted as "Design Consultant." This time, he worked on Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus

Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960; music by Alex North)

And, once more, while getting just credit for the epic film's equally large-scaled credits sequence, Bass also claimed authorship of another famous scene: that of the slave army's monumental confrontation with the Romans. No one says he's wrong, either:

Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960; music by Alex North)

Stanley Kubrick never cared enough about Spartacus to dispute Saul Bass, but it's probable that, again, Bass' storyboards were used as a blueprint for the sequence. At any rate, during this time, Bass also provided like-minded services for directors Billy Wilder (The Seven Year Itch, Love in the Afternoon, One, Two, Three and Irma La Douce), Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days), John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, Seconds, The Manchurian Candidate, and Grand Prix), Edward Dymytryk (for whom he did the arresting cat-walk credits sequence for Walk on the Wild Side), Robert Wise (Bass directed the memorable prologue and ending credits sequences for West Side Story). Here are some of these famous works of the period:

The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955; music by Alfred Newman)

The Big Knife (Robert Aldrich, 1955; music by Frank DeVol)

Storm Center (Daniel Taradash, 1956; music by George Duning) 

Edge of the City (Martin Ritt, 1957; music by Leonard Rosenman)

The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958; music by Jerome Moross) 

Ocean's Eleven (Lewis Milestone, 1960; music by Nelson Riddle)

The Facts of Life (Melvin Frank, 1960; music by Leigh Harline) 

In 1961, the planets aligned and Bass made a huge leap forward, both in simplicity and complexity.  In both, he built the stunning, muticolored yet exceedingly simple and just pre-credits sequence--the likes of which was not seen until Lars Von Trier opened 2001's Dancer in the Dark in an even more abstract way).  As the musical's overture plays (while 1961 audiences are taking their seats, just as if a stage musical is about to start), Bass' jammed-together vertical lines suggests, even to those who've never seen it before, the equally jammed and vertical cut of the Manhattan skyline. The background colors gradually changed into an array of bold wavelengths we're to see in the upcoming film.  All with that know...THAT score? That score that makes ya' wanna cut someone?  And then, after the epilogue, you'll be able to see Bass' more sweeping and graffiti-oriented closing credits, which also are capped with a more romantic score know who!  By the way, if you ever get the chance to see West Side Story on big screen...believe me, you will need to be dragged away from your theater seat.  You will not want to leave.  There will be claw marks on the armrest.  

West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961; music by Leonard Bernstein (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim))

Walk on the Wild Side (Edward Dmytryk, 62; music by Elmer Bernstein)

Here's a brilliant short film narrated in significant part by Bass himself, who takes us through the ideas behind some of his famed pieces. It concludes with more recent works done by other artists (like Seven credits sequence designer Kyle Cooper's brilliant Bass-flavored work for Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can):

In 1963, Saul Bass revealed himself as a full-fledged animator (and co-conspiritor, along with the 100 or so other jokers in the cast) for Stanley Kramer's 3-hour Cinerama comedy epic called It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  In keeping with the film's enveloping, ultra wide-screen scope, Bass' credits sequence was a mammoth four minutes long!  Here is is, in all its hilarious and detailed glory:

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963; music by Ernest Gold)

Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966; music by Jerry Goldsmith; Bass achieved this psychotic effect by simply filming reflections against bending mylar)

Grand Prix (John Frankenheimer, 1965; music by Maurice Jarre). Bass designed the expertly edited racing montages that spice up the film from time to time; the movie won Oscars for its sound and editing. 

In 1968, Saul Bass was awarded the Oscar for directing that year's Why We Create, a largely animated musing on man's artistic drive. This ultra-60s-flavored work, withe wacky and detailed line drawings, and weird live action sequences stands as one of Bass' finest moments, one that seems to have had much influence on many, most notably Terry Gilliam's work with Monty Python.  Here is, the whole 25-minute film:

Why Man Creates (Saul Bass, 68) 

In 1974, Bass was nabbed to direct his one and only feature--a film about an insect uprising--sort of a ant version of Hitchcock's The Birds. Deemed Phase IV, and starring Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy, the film was a critical and financial bomb Bass claimed was tampered with by the Paramount execs. Still, even if it was tampered with, one can feel Bass's exacting hand commanding things in macro-filmed sequences like this:

Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974; music by Brian Gascoigne)

Bass was again nominated for the Best Documentary Short award in 1977 for Notes on the Popular Arts (his final short, Quest, was made in 1983).  In 1980, Robert Redford tapped Bass and his wife, Elaine, to create a film explaining the merits of solar energy. Deemed A Short Film About Solar Energy, it was nominated for a 1980 Oscar as Best Documentary Short, under the title The Solar Film. Again, Bass' way with color, imagery, and animation is, of course, brilliant.

A Short Film on Solar Energy (Saul Bass, 1980) 

And here is something REALLY special! Some clever filmmaker gathered together many of Bass' movie poster designs, and set it to Bernard Hermann's Vertigo score:

After revolutionizing the movie advert art world for the previous three decades, in 1980, Saul Bass' last truly world-shaking movie poster design was delivered as the ubiquitous ultra-yellow, ghostly advertising scheme that would steer Stanley Kubrick's haunted hotel nightmare The Shining into the mass consciousness. Bass worked incessantly with Kubrick on finding the correct final image for the film, eventually settling on a pointillism sketch depicting a terrified child's face peering out from within the confines of the shining. It was positively everywhere in summer of 1980.

It felt like Saul Bass was perpetually branching out. And yet he had long before begun including much more of the larger world in his design scheme.

Movies aside, from the late 1960s on, Bass made a significant portion of his bones off designing corporate and charity logos, and it's here that his images have had perhaps the most intimate effect on our day-to-day lives. They each have their own distinct energy, yet each brings style, color and movement to the eye:

In the late 60s/early 70s, Bass constructed this fascinating film to help relaunch AT&T. This corporate film may be the best of its type ever produced:


And. in the mid-90s, the man even designed four consecutive posters for the annual Academy Awards:

Here, Bass, ensconced at his studio, talks passionately to a documentary filmmaker about the ongoing battle between corporate interests and himself, as designer of the public face:

Then, at the outset of another decade, the movies came calling once again. As a voracious student of film, Martin Scorsese began employing Bass' talents in 1990, in his groundbreaking film GoodFellas. Bass worked alone on these simple but effective titles, but then collaborated with Elaine Bass on three more complicated, mostly digitally-derived Scorsese title sequences:

Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991; music by Bernard Herrmann)

The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993; music by Elmer Bernstein)

And then...this...Saul Bass' final work on film:

Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995; music by Georges Delarue) 

Finally, we leave Bass to give some sound advice to design students:

Even if he himself was modest about his legacy, I'll go ahead and say it for him: Saul Bass most definitely created astounding art in all mediums. He will forever be one of my idols.


ratatouille's archives said...

Hi! Dean,
You know what caught my attention
the 2 Hitchcock posters Psycho and North by Northwest

Dean said,"Bass didn't work with just anybody. It was filmmaker Otto Preminger who first discovered him in 1954. He asked Bass to do the poster art..."

Wow! I am under the "false" impression that Hitch discovered him!
A really interesting review of a man that I admire too!...

Dean said,"Here at the invaluable Internet Movie Poster Awards, you can see a gallery of Saul Bass"
I most definitely will check this website out!
The "Dame"

Paul Kell said...

outstanding post...thanks for giving bass some light.

Ed Howard said...

Great overview of Bass' long and amazing career. He was truly one of the greats, one of the only artists who could have such a powerful impact on a film from such a seemingly inconsequential position as credits designer.

One minor point: I think you unfairly give short shrift to the remarkable Phase IV, which is a really chilling piece of sci-fi/horror with some amazing micro-cinematography of the ant "villains." The acting is uniformly lousy, but there are so many great set pieces and so many creepy sequences at the ants' level that the film as a whole winds up being something really special.

Dean Treadway said...

I have to admit, it's been years since I've seen PHASE IV in full, but as a kid, I only remember liking the parts with the ants. Those sequences are quite well-filmed. I sort of wish the movie had had no humans in it, except as sort of abstract figures. I have to wonder if Bass maybe wanted this, too, but was hamstrung by the studio brass. At any rate, I didn't mean to brush the film off; it's definitely a curiosity that's worth checking out, if you're into Bass' work. Thanks, Ed.

Anonymous said...

Loewy designed the Exxon logo.... Not Saul Bass

Dean Treadway said...

Thanks for letting me know...the correction's been made.

Unknown said...

Saul Bass Google Doodle