The man with the golden pen
CINEMA: Saul Bass turned the humble movie credit sequence into an art form. David Thomson celebrates the work of a master miniaturist
Sunday 21 June 1998
For decades before the 1950s, movie credits had meekly followed whatever standard treatment prevailed at every studio. I am talking about head credits, of course, the very basic information that most movies delivered before the story began - the title, the principal cast, seven or eight technical credits, the writer, the producer, the director. And then into the movie itself as quickly as possible. The music over the credits sometimes had the mood of the picture to come, but the graphics themselves were classical lettering on a bland background. At Twentieth Century Fox, for a while, they even listed the several lead players in alphabetical order.
BORN IN New York City in 1920, Saul Bass was trained at the Art Students' League and Brooklyn College, under Howard Trafton and Gyorgy Kepes. From there, he moved into graphic design for advertising, but when he went to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, he found himself being consulted on posters for movies. That's how he met Otto Preminger. What really turned the corner for Bass was The Man with the Golden Arm, in which Frank Sinatra - it is one of his great performances - plays a card dealer with a heroin habit. In accord with Preminger's version of the Nelson Algren novel, Bass had come up with a riveting image for the poster: a jagged arm with its splayed hand, done in harsh black on white.
Preminger wondered if it might not be the basis for a novel kind of credits sequence. Sure, said Bass, I could animate the arm, make it writhe and crawl. Preminger drew back in alarm, but in the end he agreed. And so the credit sequence features this grotesque but very emotional arm, set to the jazzy music of Elmer Bernstein. Sometimes Bass worked in advance of the music, sometimes afterwards. But when he was at his best, you believed that the images were a true print-out of the music - a sonagram, if you like.
If you want another outstanding example of this, look at the credits to Anatomy of a Murder, where Bass's Identikit outline of a corpse dances to the underrated score by Duke Ellington. Only later, when you've seen the whole movie, do you realise the wit in Bass's work - for he has provided us, in half-comic form, with our only glimpse of the stooge whose murder sets off this brilliant court-room drama. "Barney Quill" he's called in the story, but we never see him, dead or alive, and we're left to wonder whether he was a real rapist , or just an idiot who blundered into the tricky love-hate relationship between the married couple, Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick. In other words, the credits play along with Preminger's sardonic humour in a way that brought extra class and sophistication to the project.
Suddenly, Bass had transformed the level of ambition in Hollywood credit sequences. Everyone wanted him. He did Around the World in 80 Days for Mike Todd, The Seven Year Itch for Billy Wilder, The Big Knife and Attack! for Robert Aldrich. He did West Side Story as graffiti. And he did several lesser movies that didn't really live up to his work - Ocean's Eleven, for instance, where he made Vegas seem cool and witty, whereas the Rat Pack revealed it as a place for ... complacent rats.
BY 1962, with a slow-motion camera and a very handsome cat, he did the credits for a movie called Walk on the Wild Side (from another Nelson Algren novel, and with nice, raunchy music from Elmer Bernstein once again), that left the movie itself as a pathetic anti-climax. Indeed, as far as memory can tell, there isn't even a cat in the film - just a two-minute gem by which cats of all kind measure the world.
By then, however, Bass had fallen in with his natural soulmate, Alfred Hitchcock, who had also begun his working life as a graphic designer, and who had become a film-maker whose most intense creative work, he said, was done in advance, in the storyboarding - envisaging every shot of the movie long before the shooting. Bass, too, worked out his credit sequences in detail, and his storyboards show vigorous lines of force and direction - the same things that propel the stream of images in a Hitchcock film. If you have any doubt about Hitch's characteristic blending of psychology and geometry (or gravity), just recall the title of the movie for which he first hired Bass - Vertigo.
The credits for this film involve four main elements: whirling lacy spirals (created by the artist John Whitney); close-up details of parts of a woman's face, seen head-on (connoisseurs have always known that it was not Kim Novak's face - which only adds to the abstraction, for it is as if both her characters in the film come from a feminine fundamental); colour shifts - Bass had used colour before, but never with the same feeling for passion and trauma; and the music of Bernard Herrmann. These two men - both perfectionists, both inclined to be "difficult", yet both smart enough to have a profound sense of the film as a whole - had an uncanny, symbiotic relationship, so that we feel as though a single mind has done the credits for Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho (three of Hitchcock's finest works).
A re-release of Psycho is not far away, and I look forward to writing about that seminal film more fully then. But no tribute to Bass can pass over it, if only because he has two credits in the picture - for the credits, and as "pictorial consultant". The credits are just words and forms, the words coming in from left and right, the forms from above and below. The effect is not simply elegant, but schizoid and tormented, as fits this movie. Bass was seldom better able to explain or illustrate a film through the use of pure form.
But what did "pictorial consultant" mean? To this day, there is uncertainty. Some say, prompted by Bass, that he did essential work in laying out the storyboards and assembling the pieces for the murder sequence in the shower. But Hitchcock scorned that notion - he was rarely generous to his collaborators, especially if they had claimed any of the things for which he was most famous. Instead, Hitchcock said that Bass actually filmed the elaborate sequence in which detective Martin Balsam enters the Bates house, and climbs the stairs, with the camera climbing to the top corner of the next floor so that it can look down on the ensuing murder without revealing the killer. But, added Hitch, Bass made a mess of it, so that he, Hitch, had to rescue the sequence. We may never know the full answer. But the extra credit has one other, sad corollary - Bass and Hitchcock never worked together again.
As the 1960s went on, Bass gave less of his time to the movies. He stayed loyal to Preminger - though even the great Otto had begun to decline; Kubrick hired him to advise on filming the battle scenes in Spartacus; and he did good work for John Frankenheimer, notably the credits for Seconds, and some montages in his motor-racing picture, Grand Prix.
BUT BASS was married now, to Elaine Makatura, whom he had originally hired as his assistant. Together, they moved back towards commercial art, and did logos and promotional material for such companies as Alcoa, United Airlines, AT & T, Minolta and Rockwell. They did some TV commercials and some short films. There was also an experimental feature film, Phase IV, made in 1972, which this writer has never seen. For well over a decade, they did nothing for movies, except the poster for Kubrick's The Shining.
It wasn't until the late 1980s that "Saul and Elaine Bass" became a movie credit again - on James Brooks's Broadcast News, on Penny Marshall's Big, and Danny DeVito's The War of the Roses. It was at this point that the Basses made their last partnership with a major director - Martin Scorsese, whose sense of film history has always extended to hiring some of the great craftsmen from the past (Bernard Herrmann on Taxi Driver, and designer Boris Leven on New York, New York and The King of Comedy). And so the Bass look had a swansong, on GoodFellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence and Casino.
Of these, the most striking, I think, are Cape Fear and Casino, neither of them great films, but with credit sequences that tell us how to watch the films. On Cape Fear, the Basses simply played with the pattern of light on disturbed water (in splendid reunion, the music was by Elmer Bernstein again), with the threat of faces rising to the surface. There is also a shot in the film - of the street sign "Cape Fear" - growing hard and clear as the water.
Then, on Casino, they used the idea of Robert DeNiro's character, blown out of his car, hurtling over the lightscapes of Las Vegas. There is also an image of highlights on a slowing roulette wheel that is an exquisite embodiment of both the glamour and the cold mechanics of Las Vegas.
Saul Bass died in 1996. No one has ever rivalled him, so do not be surprised if credits revert to some stupefying orthodoxy, especially in the monstrous end-credits, where vanity and bureaucracy can make you miss the last bus home. As Martin Scorsese put it, talking about Bass, "His titles are not simply unimaginative identification tags ... rather, they are integral to the film as a whole." I'd go further. At his best, Bass created credit sequences that prepare us for the great experience to come, and which in hindsight are like the first - and certainly the most cinematic - critical commentaries on the films they honour. And, in several cases, Bass's art helped great directors see and develop their own work.
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