Posts Tagged ‘Vertigo’

More Movie Credits: Saul Bass

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

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.

Corporate Identities

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).

sources: LogoDesignLove, Signalnoise, goodlogo!com and Wikipedia

Movie Posters

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.

sources: Citrinitas.com, IMPawards.com, Movie Goods

Movie Titles

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)

VertigoI went on in that last post about the way this sequence communicates all  you need to know about this story of obsession and love.

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)

A pure abstraction of form and motion.

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.

You Can’t Judge a Movie By Its Credits

Monday, April 26th, 2010

I had the television on the other night just in time to catch the opening credits of the 8:00 movie on Turner. It reminded me of just how fine some of those title sequences can be.

Of course one would never buy a movie ticket just because of its titles. But that may be mostly because you’ve already committed to the ticket price of a movie before you ever get to see them. Nevertheless, the best examples do seem to set a tone for what’s to follow, if not really lay out (in some coded way) everything that lies ahead for the next 90 to 120 minutes.

Through most of the 1920s and 30s, American movies followed a style of introduction that was pretty much standardized for the studio that produced them. It was as if the purpose of those introductory screens was to announce the studio’s brand rather than anything too particular about this individual product. That fact makes some examples of title sequences truly remarkable.

Things had changed by the 1940s when each movie seemed more overt in its inclusion of the opening credits inside the world of its story. But even with this shift in norms, there are examples that stand out among their peers. Here’s a sampling from each of the decades up through the 1970s.

1920s

Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927)

SunriseMurnau had made a name for himself as a director of remarkably subtle and expressive movies before he come to Hollywood. Nosferatu (1922) and Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924) push the limitations of storytelling in their inventive uses of framing, movement and multiple exposures.

So it makes sense that his first American movie, Sunrise, wouldn’t be just another product of its studio, Fox. It presents itself as a work of fine art. And that presentation begins with the title sequence, using stylized type, a statement about the nature of the human condition, and a cast of characters without proper names.

And it’s pretty, too.

1930s

Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)

Gold Diggers of 1933Warner Brothers had brought the movie musical back from an early grave with the success of its 42nd Street (1933). The backstage melodrama of that story mixed with the inspired camera work and choreography of Busby Berkley made for a winning combination that the studio would try to recycle several times over.

Gold Diggers has no pretensions to fine art. And, appropriately, its opening credits prepare the audience for what lies ahead, much as the overture to a stage review would. What’s so lovely about this example is the way it slides nearly seamlessly from the static title cards over that overture into its opening number. It blends the cast credits right into the first appearance of the chorus and Ginger Rogers’s inspired delivery of “We’re In The Money.”

(If you’re at all interested, I’ve babbled on at length about this remarkable movie in a series of earlier posts.)

1940s

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)

Mildred PierceA melodrama steeped in the dark shadows of film noir; a woman’s picture crossed with a crime drama; a story of a mother’s love amidst tawdry sexual intrigue. Mix a Hollywood star in the second phase of her impressive career with a really dirty story by James M. Cain and you get this Warner Brothers spin on the original novel.

I love this movie as only a middle-aged homosexual could. But I still can’t decide if these opening credits are inspired or just insane. Whichever it is, they do seem to encapsulate the tone of the movie that follows.

1950s

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

VertigoHas there ever been a darker and more moving dive into the depths of sexual obsession than Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo? Well, I won’t get into all of that just now; this movie is too close to my heart not to bore you with a long series of emotional posts about its majesty and wonder at some later date.

But, for the present, I will ask you to consider how beautiful the opening titles are, crafted by the brilliant designer, Saul Bass (who gave us the corporate logos for Dixie, Geffen Records and United Airlines, as well as the title sequences for Psycho, North by Northwest, The Man with the Golden Arm and Around the World in Eighty Days).

Everything you need to understand about this movie is contained in this opening sequence, encrypted in such a way that it demands your full attention and participation before you can unfold its meaning. The deconstruction of a beautiful woman’s face; the spirals that grow out of and recede back into her iris — abstractions of form, color and movement; and the whirling, circling, haunting score by Bernard Hermann. Hell, it’s worth owning the disc just to play these opening credits over and over again.

1960s

The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968)

The Thomas Crown AffairIt was watching the opening credits to The Thomas Crown Affair that got me started down this path in the first place.

First of all, they’re just so much fun to watch. They’re stylish, they’re inventive and they seem to have about as much to do with a romantic cat-and-mouse crime story as they might with a mid-60s editorial spread in Vogue.

But then you realize that this movie has very little to do with its surface story of Faye Dunaway, the insurance investigator, pursuing Steve McQueen, the rogue-playboy-millionaire-bank-thief and everything to do with sports cars, fabulous outfits and lots of mascara. What circumstance of profession or hobby throws them together is much less important here than how great they look once they find themselves in the same well-appointed rooms, sipping cognac and playing chess.

He in his blue blazers and fast cars. She in her Mary-Quant-inspired dresses and Carnaby-Street eye makeup. The Michel Legrand song performed by Noël Harrison (who, to me, will always be the very well-dressed sidekick to Stefanie Powers, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.) And the multiple frames with the images moving within: the whole sequence is a study in graphic mannerism (carried through in the movie). This is a slice of style out of time that makes me salivate for monkstrap shoes, pegged trousers and long sideburns.

1970s

Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)

NashvilleAt the end of this rather long list is a movie that seems to make fun of popular culture at the very same time as it’s presenting us with a marvelous work of art.

Like most of Robert Altman’s movies, Nashville is a loose and somewhat irregular piece of fabric, woven from an odd selection of individual narrative threads. As those threads pass in and out of view, the whole piece threatens to unravel all together. It’s both satire and a sincere portrait of its characters’ lives. It feels like a snapshot of a specific moment in American culture, and a vivisection of the larger essence of what defines Americans in the 20th Century.

Its story, its structure threaten to come undone, but they never do. And somehow, that possibility that it may all spin out of control keeps us on the edge of our seats. It’s exhilarating and moving and deeply beautiful, even as it makes us titter and guffaw.

These opening credits are somehow part of its message. But to say exactly what message they might contain would somehow cheapen the whole thing. So I’ll just let you take it in.