Saul Bass - Writer

Title Designer and Director. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 8 May 1920. Education: Studied under Howard Trafton, Art Students League, New York, 1936–39; under Gyorgy Kepes, Brooklyn College, 1944–45. Family: Married Elaine Makatura, 1961, one daughter and one son. Career: 1936–46—freelance designer, New York; 1946—founded Saul Bass and Associates, Los Angeles (became Saul Bass/Herb Yager and Associates, 1978); 1954—first film as title designer, Carmen Jones ; 1962—first film as director, Apples and Oranges ; also designed trailers, film posters, commercials, title credits for television, package design, and corporation logos. Awards: Academy Award, for short film Why Man Creates , 1968. Died: 25 April 1996.

Films as Title Designer:


Carmen Jones (Preminger)


The Big Knife (Aldrich); The Man with the Golden Arm (Preminger); The Racers ( Such Men Are Dangerous ) (Hathaway); The Seven Year Itch (Wilder); The Shrike (J. Ferrer)


Attack! (Aldrich); Storm Center (Taradash)


Saint Joan (Preminger); Edge of the City ( A Man Is Ten Feet Tall ) (Ritt); Around the World in Eighty Days (Anderson); Bonjour Tristesse (Preminger); The Pride and the Passion (Kramer); The Young Stranger (Frankenheimer)


The Big Country (Wyler); Cowboy (Daves); Vertigo (Hitchcock)


Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger); North by Northwest (Hitchcock)


Ocean's Eleven (Milestone); Psycho (Hitchcock); The Facts of Life (Frank); Spartacus (Kubrick)


Exodus (Preminger); West Side Story (Wise and Robbins); Something Wild (Garfein)


Walk on the Wild Side (Dmytryk); Advise and Consent (Preminger)


The Cardinal (Preminger); Nine Hours to Rama (Robson)


The Victors (Foreman)


In Harm's Way (Preminger); Bunny Lake Is Missing (Preminger)


Grand Prix (Frankenheimer); Not with My Wife, You Don't (Panama); Seconds (Frankenheimer)


Such Good Friends (Preminger)


That's Entertainment, Part II (Kelly—compilation)


Broadcast News (J. Brooks)


Big (P. Marshall)


The War of the Roses (DeVito)


GoodFellas (Scorsese)


Cape Fear (Scorsese)


Mr. Saturday Night (Crystal)


The Age of Innocence (Scorsese)


Casino (Scorsese)

Other Films:


Apples and Oranges (pr, + d—short)


From Here to There (pr, + d, co-sc—short); History of Adventure (d—short); Packaging Story (d—short); The Searching Eye (d, + co-sc—short)


Why Man Creates (d, + co-sc—short)


Phase IV (d)


One Hundred Years of the Telephone (d—short)


Notes on the Popular Arts (d—short)


The Solar Film (d—short)


The Quest (co-d)


By BASS: articles—

"Film Titles," in Graphis , vol. 16, no. 89, 1960.

Cinema (Beverly Hills, California), Fall 1968.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1977.

Interview by P. Murat and B. Génin, in Banc-Titre (Paris), April 1984.

Interview with Bass and Billy Wilder by P. Kirkham, in Sight and Sound (London), June 1995.

Interview by Pamela Haskin, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1996.

On BASS: book—

Nelson, G., Saul Bass , New York, 1967.

Morgenstern, Joe, Saul Bass: A Life in Film Design , Santa Monica, 1997.

On BASS: articles—

Print (New York), May/June 1958.

Foster, Frederick, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1962.

Gid, R., in Graphis , vol. 19, no. 106, 1963.

Rondolino, G., in Filmzelezione (Bologna), no. 15–16, 1963.

Allen, Bob, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1963.

Skoop (Amsterdam), March 1968.

Bianco e Nero (Rome), September/October 1968.

Jacobs, Lewis, in The Emergence of Film Art , 1969.

Communication Arts (Palo Alto, California), August/September 1969.

Sohn, David A., in Film: The Creative Eye , London, 1970.

Cinéma (Paris), January and March 1970.

Industrial Design (New York), March 1971.

Film Reader (Evanston, Illinois), no. 1, 1975.

Saul Bass
Saul Bass

Cinema Papers (Melbourne), January 1977.

Image et Son (Paris), April 1981.

Film Comment (New York), May/June 1982.

Broadcast (London), 18 April 1986.

Rodman, Howard, "The Name behind the Title," in Village Voice (New York), 12 July 1988.

Skrien (Amsterdam), no. 165, April/May 1989.

Woudhuysen, James, "Bass Profundo" in Design Week (London), 22 September 1989.

Kirkham, Pat, "Looking for the Simple Idea," in Sight and Sound (London), February 1994.

Naughton, John, "Credit Where Credit's Due," in Empire (London), March 1994.

Glucksman, Mary, "Due Credit," in Screen International (London), 13 May 1994.

Kirkham, Pat, "Bright Lights Big City," in Sight and Sound (London), January 1996.

Lally, K., "Arresting Images," in Film Journal (New York), March 1996.

Obituary, in Variety (New York), 29 April 1996.

Obituary, in Classic Images (Muscatine), June 1996.

Obituary, in International Documentary , June 1996.

Wollen, Peter, and Pat Kirkham, "Compulsion/The Jeweller's Eye," in Sight & Sound (London), April 1997.

Supanick, Jim, "Saul Bass: 'to hit the ground running'," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1997.

"Saul Bass (Commercial Artist)," in Communications Arts , March-April 1999.

* * *

If any one person can be credited with having introduced the idea of "high concept"—the single striking image or pithy phrase that immediately sums up a creative work—to the movie industry, it would have to be Saul Bass. Not that the term existed when Bass, then known as one of America's brightest graphic designers, was called in to create the poster and title design for Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones . Bass preferred to talk in terms of Single Appropriate Image, in contrast to the then prevalent style of selling films, which he drily summed up as "the See! See! See! approach. See the missionaries boiled in oil, see the volcano destroy the island, see the virgins of the temple! The theory was that if you talked about a film in pieces, there would be something for everyone." Instead of crassly duplicating the function of the trailer, Bass saw his task as "finding a metaphor for the film, rather than an actuality from it."

The single image he created for Carmen Jones was a rose, in flames; taken with the title, that said it all. His design for Preminger's next film, The Man with the Golden Arm , was yet more audacious: the jagged diagram of an arm groping downward, contorted with agony. Like so many of Bass's concepts, it relied on the simplest and most effective style of design, a silhouette. Initially Preminger wanted a static image for the title sequence, but after "some towering discussions" Bass won his battle to animate the arm, making it jerk in torment to the rhythm of Elmer Bernstein's doomy, small-hours jazz score. Not for the last time, Bass's title sequence packed a more formidable punch than the movie that followed it. The prowling black alley cat that prefaced Walk on the Wild Side was so patently the best thing in the film that, once word got around, people would come to see the credit sequence, then get up and leave once the film started.

Knowing that nothing is more universally recognizable than stylized images of the human face or body, Bass drew on this primal source for some of his most memorable designs. The paper cut-out doll, suggesting at once childish innocence and the lethal sharpness of a blade, introduced the kidnap drama of Bunny Lake Is Missing . For Exodus , clenched fists grasping at a rifle: anger, desperation, revolt, revenge, all in one charged outline. A voluptuous pair of bare female thighs (in a style borrowed from Matisse) heralded the sophisticated sex comedy Such Good Friends . Bonjour Tristesse was evoked by a made-up face (a nod here to Picasso) decorated with a single fat tear. Most famous of all was the sectioned human body that suggested both a chalked forensic outline on the ground, and the title of the film: Anatomy of a Murder . So potent was the concept that it has been widely plagiarized ever since.

All these organic images were for Preminger films. For Hitchcock and Wilder, two film-makers with a cooler, more analytical eye, Bass often played with abstract designs. For The Seven Year Itch , a sex farce rather than sex comedy, Bass created the abstract equivalent of the multiple doors of a Feydeau intrigue: a patchwork of colored rectangles that one by one slid aside to reveal the film's title and credits lurking coyly behind them. Vertigo 's credit sequence started with the close-up of an eye wide with horror, out of which spun dizzying, spidery vortices. Thin lines, criss-crossing each other straight up and diagonally, gave North by Northwest its sense of direction before resolving themselves into the huge impersonal sky-scraper from which Cary Grant is about to emerge. Lines again for Psycho , but this time thick and destructive, bludgeoning in from the sides of the screen to split apart the names of the cast, as Norman Bates is mentally split, as Marion Crane will be split by his knife.

Working in close collaboration with his wife Elaine (whose name deserves to stand with his on many of his films), Bass restlessly began to explore ways in which the title sequence could become part of the narrative itself, acting as a launch pad. "My view . . . was that something could happen during the credits that could help the film, so that the establishing shots aren't carrying the total burden." From encapsulating the film, through setting the mood, it was a small step to using the credits to tell part of the story. In The Big Country , Gregory Peck's journey from the urbane east coast to the frontier is conveyed, vividly and succinctly, in the title sequence. For Carl Foreman's The Victors Bass paid homage to the great montage-maker Slavko Vorkapich with a montage that whisked through the major events of history between World Wars I and II. Sometimes his credit sequences served as epilogue rather than prologue, as in Around the World in Eighty Days , allowing the audience to put names to all the multiple cameos they had seen, or West Side Story , where Bass intended the credits—scrawled as graffiti on tenement blocks—to act as "a sort of decompression chamber, to give the audience a chance to pull themselves together after the terrible denouement."

Having supplied the beginnings and ends of films, Bass made the logical move into directing sequences within the body of the film. Though Hitchcock always denied it, it is widely believed that Bass not only storyboarded but directed the notorious shower murder in Psycho ; certainly no one disputes that he directed many of the car-racing sequences in Frankenheimer's Grand Prix and the climactic battle scene in Spartacus . His own foray into feature directing, though, the science-fiction film Phase IV , proved competent but strangely anonymous, as if Bass's creative urge needed the compression and concentration of the brief span to function at full throttle.

Bass's title designs defined a whole era of American filmmaking, and were hugely influential. Among his followers was Maurice Binder, who designed the "walking gun" titles for the Bond films. For a time, perhaps inevitably for the creator of such a specific look, Bass fell out of fashion and concentrated on his industrial design work. Between 1971 and 1987 he designed credits for only a single feature, the compilation film That's Entertainment, Part II . But in the last decade of his life he was back in demand, eagerly embracing new technologies to create intricate title designs for four of Scorsese's films. Beautiful, complex, and hypnotic, this late work lacks something of the stark immediacy of his classic period. But Bass's status as the first and so far the only auteur of title design seems, for the moment, safe from challenge.

—Philip Kemp

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