Saul Bass was a Jewish-American designer, who became famous both for his corporate identity and graphic work as well as for his contribution in the film industry. Born in 1920 in the Bronx, New York, he created some of the most compelling images of American postwar visual culture, such as corporate identity campaigns for AT&T, Quaker Oats and United Airlines (Bass and Kirkham). However, in the late 1950s, Bass extended the limits of his graphic design career by starting to make film titles. Without a doubt, among his best-known works in film are the title sequences for such classic films as Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho (1960), two motion pictures that have played a significant role in the development of this new genre in film industry.
Before the advent of Bass’s title sequences in the 1950s, not much action was happening in the actual titles sequences. Film titles in American movies of the early to mid-1950s generally followed the style of a rather static kind of graphic design mostly found in typical Hollywood title designs at the time. These early title sequences, called “title backgrounds”, consisted of a fairly short list of credits, written in unimaginative lettering, displayed over a static image that often represented the genre of the film (Kirkham). In fact, in an interview with Los Angeles-based graphic designer Pamela Haskin, Saul Bass himself qualified older titles as being made “strictly with typography, mostly bad typography, and constituted the period when people were settling in, going to restrooms, or involved in chitchat” (13). In other words, the projectionists at the time only pulled the curtains once the titles were finished, letting the audience know that the actual movie was starting. Thus, nothing was truly genuine in film sequences before the arrival of Saul Bass in the film industry in the late 1950s.
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 film in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.
– Saul Bass
With Bass’s collaborations in films such as Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm and Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho, the American designer served as a kind of founding figure who paved the way for graphic artists to follow, developing an aesthetic which has the ability to offer a reading of the film and its main theme before the film even begins. The typography combined with the animated graphic elements allow this to happen in Bass’s opening sequences. Needless to say that even today, we still have homages to Bass: the opening sequence for the AMC television seriesMad Men, which combines several elements from Bass’s previous works, is among the most current ones.
Bass, Jennifer, Pat Kirkham and Martin Scorsese (Foreword). Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design. Laurence King Publishers, 2011. Print.
Haskin, Pamela. “Saul, Can You Make Me a Title?” Film Quarterly. Vol. 50, No. 1 (Automn 1966): 10-17. JSTOR. Web. 23 September 2013.
Kirkham, Pat. “Reassessing the Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock Collaboration.” West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring Summer 2011): 50-85. JSTOR. Web. 4 October 2013.