Legendary graphic artist Saul Bass has created logos for some of the biggest brands—Girl Scouts, Kleenex, US Airways, AT&T—and designed some of the most iconic album covers and movie posters, but it’s his movie title sequences he’s most remembered for. If you’re a little rusty on your mid-century film classics, the “cut and paste” style of the opening titles for Catch Me If You Can pay a direct homage, even Mad Men pays tribute. Others may remember his work for Alfred Hitchcock in Charade, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho, as well as his work for Otto Preminger in The Man With the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder, the 1959 Jimmy Stewart classic that was just re-released on Criterion.
Bass was a master of reflecting a film’s theme in the opening titles without giving away too much. He set the mood for The Man With the Golden Arm, a film about a jazz musician’s struggle to overcome a heroin addiction by prominently featuring the cut-out, black and white arm of a heroin addict. Drug addiction was a taboo subject in the 1950s and the titles alone caused quite a stir—a rare feat for an opening sequence. He took a similar approach with Anatomy of a Murder, which also uses cut-out animation to present the actors’ names over various body parts – legs, arms, a torso. You know instantly that you’re not going to get a happy ending.
Before Bass, film titles were static and shown separately from the film, often projected on the curtains right before they were raised for the first scene. But Bass introduced a new kind of kinetic typography that allowed for motion in title sequences. Sometimes he used crude paper cut-outs, but he also directed live-action sequences that transitioned seamlessly into the film itself or made fully animated mini-movies, such as the epilogue for Around the World in Eighty Days. Sadly, he was mostly forgotten in the ’70s and ’80s, but was rediscovered in the ’90s by Martin Scorsese. Watch the titles for Casino and Goodfellas and you’ll easily spot remnants of Bass’ early work. Fans of his work will also want to check out the new Criterion DVD, which includes a look at the relationship between Bass and Preminger with Bass’ biographer, Pat Kirkham.