Saul Bass: Hollywood’s graphic revolution

Before Saul Bass came to Hollywood, big studios didn’t usually attach too much importance to the opening titles of their productions.

Although European avant-gardes such as German Expressionism had already explored the artistic possibilities of the format, American cinema generally continued to use these initial images in a rather functional way.

As Jan-Christopher Horak, author of Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design, explains, Bass’s work served to define a whole new era of American cinema. This descendant of Jews born in the Bronx, in New York, began working in advertising design, in important agencies and also as a freelance. Soon his talent attracted the attention of the world of cinema. Between the 1940s and 1990s, he designed breakthroughs and groundbreaking posters, credit sequences, or trailers for some Hollywood masterpieces.

Graphic designer Saul Bass in his office in 1985. (Getty)

Bass managed to capture the interest of the general public without giving up the artistic demand. In his works the influence of modernist art, expressionism, Russian constructivism or the Bauhaus school was guessed. Its suggestive typefaces, attractive symbolisms, bold and concise silhouettes and geometries were worthy of appearing in any design museum. At the same time, his pieces were resounding expressions of pure folk art, created to capture the attention of the masses who walked absentmindedly in front of a movie theater canopy.

The Icon Maker

Filmmaker Otto Preminger was the first to give Bass the opportunity to unleash his talent for the big screen, in titles like the daring drama about the threat of drug addiction The Man with the Golden Arm (1955).

Saul Bass showed his talent on the poster for ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’, directed by Otto Preminger. (Public domain)

For this film, Bass conceived a powerful graphic image that would become a true icon, the vision of a grotesquely twisted arm, a pseudo-expressionist symbol of the ordeal experienced by the protagonist, played by Frank Sinatra, due to drugs.

Preminger was eager to overcome the moral restrictions of the so-called Hays code, which contributed to the decisive overthrow of the films The Moon is Blue (1953) and the aforementioned Man with the Golden Arm without the authorization of the government administration. The breakthrough will of these tapes, and of those that would follow, found perfect graphic correspondence in Bass’s vigorous strokes and inventive graphics.

The name of Saul Bass will always be linked to that of Alfred Hitchcock, for whom he created masterful works

Together, the director and designer created a visual imaginary – in titles like the judicial thriller Anatomy of a Murder (1959), with the famous silhouette on the floor of a corpse as a distinctive element of the credits and the poster, or the political drama Tempest Over Washington (1962) – which offered a complex and unwelcoming view of American life.

Two geniuses united

Throughout his career, Bass worked with many important directors, such as Stanley Kubrick (in Spartacus), Robert Wise (West Side Story), Edward Dmytryk (The Black Cat), John Frankenheimer (Devilish Plan) or, already in the last part of his career, Martin Scorsese (in various films, from One of Ours to Casino). But without a doubt, the other great director, in addition to Preminger, to whom his name will always be attached is that of Alfred Hitchcock.

The first collaboration with the British was in Vertigo’s masterful credits (1958), for which he created suggestive spiral-based animation games that the film related to images such as Kim Novak’s bow tie or the abyss to which he was about to rush James Stewart.

One of the most iconic Saul Bass posters was the one he made for the movie ‘Vertigo’. (Public domain)

For With Death on His Heels (North by Northwest, 1959), Bass conceived dynamic credits full of horizontal and vertical lines that burst and disappeared to the rhythm of the music composed by Bernard Herrmann, following the rhythmic procedures of the avant-garde short films of the twenties of the current of “absolute cinema”, based on the representation of geometric or abstract forms.

His contribution has been controversial over the years, especially as a result of statements in which Bass himself claimed almost complete parentage of the scene.

In an interview with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, Hitchcock seemed interested in minimizing the role of his collaborator. According to what he said, one day when he fell ill he decided to give Bass the opportunity to shoot a sequence, but after seeing the material, he had to discard it because none of the shots worked.

Actress Janet Leigh, for her part, told analyst Donald Spoto that “planning for the shower scene was left to Saul Bass, and Hitchcock meticulously followed his scheme.”

Assistant director Hilton Green (who would later become a producer on three sequels to Psychosis) said the designer didn’t even get to be on the set. When he met Bass years later, Hilton snapped at him indignantly, “Saul, how can you say you directed that?” According to Green, Bass was very embarrassed.

The graphic designer had the opportunity to refine his statements from the past somewhat at a seminar at the American Film Institute in 1979. There he explained that Hitchcock let him be on set while filming in the shower. According to him, the magician of suspense “was very generous, and insisted that I direct the shots. I got a short Hitch course in this movie. “

Who was the true author of the famous scene? It was surely a brilliant collaborative work, in which Bass’s sense of planning and Hitchcock’s capacity for staging served to create one of the most indelible moments in film history. Unfortunately, the egos created a subsequent confusion that, however, does not diminish the artistic stature of those involved. To settle the question, Bass would end by adding: “The truth of the matter is that it was and is a Hitch film. It is entirely yours; It doesn’t matter what I did. “

Now that one hundred years have passed since his birth, it is a good time to review Bass’s work for the cinema (in addition to his graphic facet, he directed some short films and an interesting cult science fiction feature, Events in the IV phase, a dystopian world in which a genetic mutation makes ants the owners of the planet). His work on posters and credit sequences served to definitively liberate Hollywood cinema from the academicisms of the past and finally enter it into the exciting era of modernity.

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