‘Symbolise and summarise…’ (Saul Bass)
Graphic designer. Artist. Filmmaker. Visionary. Game changer. Taking the quote from the legendary Saul Bass, how could you possibly begin to summarise such a giant in the arts?
The man who single-handedly changed the artistic style of film design, title sequences, posters, and pop culture from the late 50’s, and continued to revolutionise every medium he delved into for over 5 decades is still celebrated long after his passing in 1996.
Born in the Bronx, New York in May of 1920, it wouldn’t take long for the spectacled Jewish kid with Eastern European roots to make his impression on the arts world. Packing his bags and moving west in the 40’s, he began designing prints and advertising material for Hollywood directors including the renowned and prolific Otto Preminger.
Such was the impression he made on the director with his work that he asked Bass to produce the title sequences for his 1954 film Carmen Jones and The Man With The Golden Arm in 1955. Through these films Saul Bass saw the opportunity to do more than simply design text. He seized these opening moments of the film to use his design to add to the mood and overall aesthetic of the film… something previously unexplored in the industry.
After his work on The Man With The Golden Arm his status was affirmed. The taboo subjects within the film of heroin use, gambling and addiction were represented in Saul Bass’s now famous work of the animated crooked arm and the sleek black and white lettering that accompanied it.
It wasn’t long before he was recruited by Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo in 1958, North By Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960). Once again, the animated typography and design used by Saul Bass was so effective in setting the mood for the film that followed it. His use of bold lines and the spiral motif for both the Vertigo titles and poster are quoted in the documentary Obsessed With Vertigo as it’s ‘psychological vortex’.
Not to be outdone, in Psycho it was his disjointed text that slides in and out of screen erratically that set the unnerving pace for Hitch’s horror classic. Bass’s innovative techniques continued on with such films as Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Anatomy Of A Murder (1959), Walk On The Wild Side (1962), The Shining (1980) and Schindler’s List (1993) just to name a few.
A prolific thinker and motivated designer, Saul Bass also created more than a handful of iconic logos for brands and corporations in the United States from the 60’s to the late 80’s including AT&T, United Airlines, Continental Airlines and The Bell System. Most of these are still used and globally recognisable.
Nowadays, the legacy of Saul Bass continues throughout the many faceted mediums of pop culture and the arts. Theoretically speaking, any opening titles or credits that assist with the mood or psychology of the film owe credit to the master that introduced the movement.
In 1995, the poster for the Spike Lee film Clockers was said to be a homage to Saul Bass’s 1959 work on Anatomy Of A Murder…
Contrary to Lee’s intentions however, Bass saw this as tantamount to theft. Another recent example of Bass’s influence is prevalent in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading.
As well as film posters and title sequences, his longevity is apparent in music album covers, comic book art, corporate logos and lettering.