OBITUARY : Saul Bass
Tuesday 30 April 1996
Bass founded Saul Bass Associates in 1946, pioneering graphic design. Initially trained as an animator, he had studied art under Howard Trafton at the Art Students League in New York and under Gyorgy Kepes at Brooklyn College. He achieved instant recognition within the film industry when in 1954 the director Otto Preminger approached him to create a leitmotif for the advertising, trailer and titles of Carmen Jones; his rose symbol proved that movie art could contain an image that both evoked and defined the film itself, and need not be the elemental trash generally beloved of Hollywood's studio publicity departments.
The following year Bass produced a magnificent symbolic fractured angular hand, again for Preminger, for The Man with the Golden Arm (1956), and other directors - invariably those who were their own producers - were quick to employ him. For Billy Wilder he designed The Seven Year Itch, and for Robert Aldrich The Big Knife (1955) and Attack (1956).
The poster art for Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), designed for the producer Mike Todd, was as imaginative as the reel-long title sequence that concluded that Oscar-winning epic. But perhaps the work that was to achieve lifelong professional acclaim was Bass's remarkable collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, including the superb deft architectural title-motifs of both North By Northwest (1959) and Psycho.
In Psycho, Bass not only designed the titles but also consulted creatively with Hitchcock on the now notorious shower sequence, storyboarding it for Hitch and advising on the shoot. Indeed, a legend, almost certainly self-perpetuated, has evolved that perhaps Bass actually directed the shower sequence. In Janet Leigh's recently published account of the making of Psycho, the actress states emphatically that this was not the case, and accuses Bass of inflating his own role. Nevertheless, Bass's unique credit as Pictorial Consultant in addition to Title Designer on Psycho indicates that he certainly played a major and under-recognised part in its production.
Saul Bass's style became immediately recognisable and subsequently immensely influential. The single tear of Bonjour Tristesse (1957), the burning screen of Exodus (1960), the stalking cat from Walk on the Wild Side (1962) all led audiences to expect a better movie, based on the superb construction of the title sequences.
Out of fashion for much of the Seventies and Eighties, Bass and his wife Elaine instead produced documentaries and worked on features. Bass made his directing debut with Apples and Oranges in 1962 and won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Short Film with Why Man Creates. His sole feature, shot in England, was the interesting but unexceptional science fiction opus Phase IV in 1973.
He continued to make documentaries until he was rediscovered by a new generation, whereupon he designed the brilliantly witty opening titles for That's Entertainment Part II in 1976, followed by such films as Broadcast News (1987), and The War of the Roses (1989), which led to him and his wife being hired by that ardent movie fanatic Martin Scorsese to creating title work for GoodFellas (1990), then Cape Fear and ultimately the sensuous and evocative floral titles of The Age of Innocence (1993) and the clever and grandiose gaming titles of Casino (1996).
Last year Spike Lee's Clockers "borrowed" the dissected corpse motif from Ana-tomy of a Murder (1959): the original Bass source was recognised, and the offending ad redrawn.
Saul Bass continued to exert tremendous influence over title art, and much of his work, notably the Roman coinage of Spartacus and the urban graffiti of West Side Story (1961) remain brilliant examples of matching both the mood and style of the film itself in clever and inventive graphic design, suggesting and evoking a sales image for the movie that has invariably outlived the design of the film itself.
Saul Bass, title designer: born New York City 8 May 1920; married 1961 Elaine Makatura (two sons, two daughters); died Los Angeles 25 April 1996.
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