My post on movie titles left me thinking a good deal about Saul Bass (May 8, 1920 – April 25, 1996), the man responsible for the opening titles of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. An American graphic designer who created some truly fine corporate logos, he did his very best work (if not his best-remembered work) in Hollywood.
Some people sneer at the idea that there are people whose professional life is in the service of corporations, creating the graphic identities that represent to the buying public those businesses, their products and whatever intangibles they’d like to assemble under the vague term of “brand.”
Many of us who don’t sneer actively, only show less animosity because these corporate symbols don’t even register on our consciousness. We take for granted the idea that the abstract offering of a company or an organization can be encapsulated in a simple icon. But of that small group of people who make logos their business and their vocation, there are a few who create works of simple beauty and economy. And once you’ve had a chance to consider some of the best examples of that sort of work, it’s much easier to appreciate how fine this act of communication can be (even if it’s in the service of those engines of commerce whose business is the exploitation of we who buy things).
Of course Bass created many more logos than those I’ve collected here; I’ve just left out those that I don’t especially like (I really like his version of the Bell logo, just don’t like that AT&T globe; I like the very 1970s Warner “W”, just don’t like the very 1970s silhouettes in the Girl Scouts of America identity).
Freed from the burden of representing the really vague offerings behind a corporation’s identity, Bass really begins to shine when his aim is to encapsulate the tone, spirit or plot of a movie. His affection for flat planes of color lends itself well to movie posters. His graphic style in these examples is consistent and recognizable; it feels very much a part of a particular era in American illustration. But that’s the period to which these movies belong. I think they’re really lovely.
When Bass adds the dimension of motion to his 2-D-centric viewpoint, the results can be truly inspired. His ability to create a mood through the simple juxtaposition of colors and form — to suggest lightness, tension or melancholy with the most simple lines — becomes even more expressive when those forms move and change over time.
His abilities as a designer and illustrator are important. But what we might overlook is his keen insight into what an audience should know about a movie before they enter properly into its world. Of course the titles tell us who’s in it and who directed it. But they also act as a kind of doorway from our world — the streets outside the theater, the darkened room that smells of popcorn and cheap chocolate — into the world of the movie. The titles set the tone, they tell us what to expect and, in some cases, they can even tell us a great deal about the story we’re about to enter into.
Bass seemed to have an uncanny ability to boil down the complexities of stories and themes into ideas — or just feelings — he could express in a couple of minutes alongside or underneath the long series of credits he had to provide.
The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955)
The demi-monde of New York in the 1950s: jazz clubs and pool halls, heroin and tenements and cigarette smoke; all over the wail of a trumpet. The stark white bars move in from the edges of the screen in an almost threatening way. It’s wonderfully atmospheric.
But it also tells us right away that this isn’t going to be an easy story. The simplicity of those titles feel very un-Hollywood. They feel real and gritty and a little bit dangerous.
Around the World in 80 Days (Michael Anderson, 1956)
Around the World in 80 Days doesn’t open with titles. Instead we get a very long introduction to the works of Jules Verne from Edward R. Murrow. After much empty explanation (and long clips from Le voyage dans la lune), we’re very grateful to get on with the story.
Rather than opening titles, these are closing credits. And they manage not only to cover the long list of cinema luminaries who lent their participation to the project, but they also remind you of which character each actor portrayed and in which scene.
Besides the thorough catalog of people and places, the titles more fun to watch than the movie: silly, stylized and inventive.
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
But do think about the way Bass deconstructs the pieces of this beautiful woman’s face so that we don’t get to see her in her entirety. It’s very much like the frustration we have when trying to conjure in our minds the face of someone we know: we can pull from memory a small piece of the picture. But when we try to build on to it, the whole image collapses before our mind’s eye and dissolves back into the fog of recollection.
The way those spirals play against the whirling, circling melody of Bernard Herrmann’s score is as lovely as it is dizzying. It, too, seems to describe the vertiginous effects of looking from too high a vantage or too closely at what one is trying to see. This sequence is a thing of pure beauty. It may be Bass’s greatest effort and a perfect match for what may be Hitchcock’s greatest movie.
North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
Rather than tell us this movie is all about a chase — a long chase across a wide area — Bass reduces that simple theme to the graphic tension of angled lines, to movements and intersections that oppose one another. The movie is fun, like a ride at an amusement park. The titles are fun, too. They don’t try to make anything more profound out its sheer delight. What more do we need to say?
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
We started with stark white lines against black. And we come back to them here.
Unlike the opening sequence of The Man with the Golden Arm, Psycho‘s titles are frantic; they’re more driven and maniacal than languid and menacing. Lines that enter quickly and dissect the screen before they rush off the other side. Type that shatters and fragments in a staccato anti-rhythm.
I don’t think there’s a complex idea at work here; these titles convey graphically the same kind of violence the movie’s principal character will experience in a more literal way. And they achieve that violence in much the same way, using graphic collisions to suggest what the mind can elaborate for itself. But more on that in the next post.