Celebrating Saul Bass’s centenary: 10 essential title sequences

One hundred years after the birth of cinema’s most famous credit sequence designer, we select 10 of his very best creations. 

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

The most innovative and influential graphic designer in the history of cinema, Saul Bass was born 100 years ago on 8 May 1920. Across half a century, he was responsible for some of the most iconic film posters of all time, and gave birth to the pre-film title sequence as we know it today, all the while continuing his work in the corporate and commercial realm – a unique position to hold in the increasingly fractured studio system of the 1950s and 60s, regimentally designed to keep creatives in their place.

Saul Bass

Saul Bass

Bass’s designs are instantly recognisable, and he was ferociously protective of his creative control. Little surprise he chose to ally himself with the kinds of producer-directors that did their best work independently, far from studio interference. He was equally protective of his legacy, not keen to share credit for his work. When he won his only Oscar for the free-form essay film Why Man Creates (1968), in the best documentary short category, he thanked precisely no one when he took to the stage.

History has come round to the extent of his second wife Elaine’s role in his career, as Bass biographer Jan-Christopher Horak describes: “Saul was all geometry whereas Elaine introduced curves and undulations, like the glistening water’s surface in Cape Fear (1991), as well as long takes that contrasted with Bass’s montage technique.” It’s largely accepted these days that Elaine was the driving force on the Bass’s later collaborations, particularly his work for Scorsese in the early 1990s.

The work of Saul and Elaine Bass remains inimitable, just as the frequent homages – in everything from Mad Men (2007-15) to Catch Me if You Can (2002) via Se7en (1995) – remain plentiful.

Here are 10 of his most iconic title sequences.

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Director Otto Preminger

“As part of my work [as a graphic designer], I created film symbols for ad campaigns. I happened to be working on the symbols for Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and at some point, Otto and I just looked at each other and said, “Why not make it move? It was as simple as that.” One of Bass’s earliest, simplest and most straightforwardly effective title sequences, The Man with the Golden Arm’s sees four lines moving discordantly but with injective purpose; the ‘symbol’ here, revealed at the end, being the titular arm – that of Frank Sinatra’s junkie – whose “jagged form”, according to Bass, “expressed the disjointed, jarring experience of the drug addict.”

Vertigo (1958)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

“Putting it very simply, Saul was a great filmmaker,” said Martin Scorsese, “He would look at the film in question, and he would understand the rhythm, the structure, the mood – he would penetrate the heart of the movie and find its secret. That’s what he did with Vertigo and those spirals that just keep endlessly forming – that’s the madness at the heart of the picture, the beautiful nightmare vortex of James Stewart’s affliction.” Arguably Bass’ greatest title sequence, made in collaboration with pioneering ‘mechanical computer’ animator John Whitney, and designed in tandem with his most iconic film poster (or certainly the one that fetches the biggest bucks these days), Vertigo’s credits are a film unto themselves, epitomising what Bass would describe as “a climate for the story that was about to unfold”.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Director Otto Preminger

Even if you’ve never seen Otto Preminger’s courtroom masterpiece, you’ll likely be familiar with its poster – those Mark Rothko-esque bifurcated swathes of red and orange, home to Bass’s imitable graphic of a corpse. Its seven disjointed body parts (the very same body that’ll undergo forensic examination when the film kicks in) also form the basis of his accompanying title sequence – cut from paper like The Man with the Golden Arm’s – and set to the stabbing trumpets and wah-wah solo of Duke Ellington’s score. Spike Lee would borrow the iconic poster design for his Brooklyn projects drama Clockers some 36 years later.

Psycho (1960)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Bass’s exemplary credits for Hitchcock’s North by Northwest came the previous year, a sequence that begins with the titles speeding onto screen before a dissolve into the geometric surface of a reflective office block and ending with Hitch – in his regular cameo – missing his bus. Yet there’s something about the unnerving simplicity of Psycho’s credit roll, those rushing bars – emblematic of Janet Leigh’s desperate escape from the law – and the fractured dissonance within the typesetting that speaks to the splintered psyche of the film’s protagonist. It’s all accompanied by the alternating violence and lyricism of Bernard Herrmann’s string score, in the running for the most iconic in cinema history.

Spartacus (1960)

Director Stanley Kubrick

Bass’s most famous work for Stanley Kubrick remains his poster artwork for The Shining (1980), on which the director proved, as ever, a notoriously hard taskmaster, even with an artist of Bass’s industry standing. The two had collaborated two decades earlier, along with Bass’s at-the-time girlfriend Elaine, on Kubrick’s sole for-hire gig, on which the design duo provided not only the title sequence but also storyboards for Spartacus’s key set-pieces. By all accounts, Kubrick was no happy camper on the film, but he acquiesced to Kirk Douglas’s demands to shoot Bass’s boards – easily recognisable by their clear geometric lines. The title sequence remains stunningly modern, its iconography rejecting, at Kubrick’s insistence, any Judeo-Christian allegory for its hero’s plight.

West Side Story (1961)

Directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

A rare exception in the early 1960s, the credit sequence for musical smash West Side Story came at the end of the picture. “The film ends with the violent deaths of the major characters,” said Bass. “It was powerful stuff. We thought the audience might appreciate the titles coming at the end, so they would time to pull themselves together before the lights came up. A sort of decompression chamber.” Bass’s approach was to integrate the lengthy credits into the world of the film, panning across and around the graffiti-strewn wall that contained the cast and crew information, accompanied by refrains from Leonard Bernstein’s score. “It grew right out of the visual environment of the film itself,” he said, “and could also accommodate a lot of credit information without palling.”

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

Director Stanley Kramer

Bass’s first animated credits came back in 1956 with Around the World in 80 Days, at the time the most expensive title sequence ever commissioned. He’d return to the technique on occasion, perhaps most bizarrely with a violin-playing, cartoon dinosaur for the Tony Curtis vehicle Not with My Wife, You Don’t! (1966). Stanley Kramer tapped him for his maximalist comic epic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, for which Bass decided to “take a globe of the world and see just how many visual jokes can be squeezed out of it”. Perhaps it was his unwillingness to share credit with his team of workers that led his animators to spell out their own names on screen as those of the stars explode into view – albeit for just three frames.

Seconds (1966)

Director John Frankenheimer

John Frankenheimer’s sensational paranoid thriller sees an older man admitted to hospital for surgery before waking up to find his face completely restructured into that of half-his-age Rock Hudson. Bass’s title sequence is one of his best, returning to the human face for its imagery for the first time since Vertigo. The result is suitably unnerving, and saw Bass – along with his credits for Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965) – move away from the graphic illustrations with which he’d made his name. “Tampering with humanity is pretty scary,” he said, “So in the title, I broke apart, distorted and reconstituted the human face to symbolically set the stage for what was to come.”

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Director Martin Scorsese

Saul Bass had already designed credits for GoodFellas (1990) and Cape Fear (1991) when approached by Martin Scorsese for a third collaboration. The floral time-lapse and layered lace motif came from Elaine Bass, following a viewing of finished scenes and a re-read of Edith Wharton’s novel. It was “deliberately ambiguous and metaphorical,” said Saul, “an attempt to project the romantic aura of the period and still signal its submerged sensuality and hidden codes… a series of metaphorical layers.” Scorsese was beside himself: “Quite honestly, I’d never seen anything like it. I was stunned, because the whole movie was there. I said, ‘This is better than the picture!’ They achieve a certain beauty that I had hoped for, and also a certain unease.”

Casino (1995)

Director Martin Scorsese

Bass’s final work, released just a year before his death in 1996 at the age of 75, Casino proved quite the swan song. Having already given the strip lights of the Vegas skyline a once over with his upbeat title sequence for the Rat Pack jolly Ocean’s Eleven (1960), his opening for Scorsese called for a more melancholic, end-of-an-era approach, given its startling commencement in media res, with De Niro’s casino boss blown into the sky by a car bomb. “Think of Dante’s Inferno and Hieronymus Bosch, set against Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and you begin to get an impression of what we’re after,” said Bass of the protagonist’s silhouetted free fall through the fiery hellscape, at once illustrating the city’s destructiveness and allure, as well as the anti-hero’s moral immolation.

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