Hollywood's man behind the title
Movies never started the same after Saul Bass made a mark with bold, symbolic sequences.
Bass Vertigo poster. He did title designs for that film as well as North by Northwest and Psycho. (Paramount Pictures/Photofest)
"Every studio had its own look," says film historian Jan-Christopher Horak. "They did [titles] the same way; just the names changed."
But when the studio system started to wane in the 1950s, title designs began to evolve. "They started doing more inventive things," says Horak. "The film begins over the titles or you have an open book and the pages will be turning."
That was a start, but Saul Bass took the form to an entirely different level. A true pioneer, he turned movie opening and closing title sequences on their ear with bold, graphically vivid designs. His title sequences would often resemble an animated film.
"Like the good designer that he was, he would come up with some kind of iconic symbol to encapsulate what the movie is about," says Horak. In Bass' design for Otto Preminger's 1960 epic "Exodus," the symbol is an arm holding up a gun. For Preminger's 1958 romantic drama "Bonjour Tristesse," it's an exaggerated tear dripping down the face of a young woman.
Bass' posters, soundtrack album covers and storyboards for the "Psycho" shower sequence — Bass drew the storyboards for director Alfred Hitchcock for the iconic scene — plus screenings of a montage of film titles edited by Bass and his wife Elaine are currently on display at the Skirball Cultural Center.
"Saul Bass: The Hollywood Connection," which was developed with the curatorial guidance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, also features screenings of his Oscar-winning 1968 short, "Why Man Creates." And on select Tuesday afternoons this month and in February, the Skirball will screen films for which he designed the titles and the posters.
Born in New York City in 1920, Bass studied at the Art Students League in Manhattan before attending Brooklyn College. "He came out to California in 1948 and starts doing print ads for movies, though he didn't get credit," says Horak.
Bass' first big break came when he collaborated with Preminger on the 1954 film "Carmen Jones." Preminger was so impressed with his poster design for the film, he asked Bass to create the opening and closing titles.
Bass gained acclaim for his designs for Preminger's classic "The Man With the Golden Arm," the director's 1955 drama about a jazz musician (Frank Sinatra) struggling to overcome heroin addiction. He selected a black-and-white cutout arm as the central image of the poster and the opening title design.
He continued to work with Preminger into the 1970s, as well as providing startling designs for Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," "North by Northwest" and "Psycho" and working with Billy Wilder on such films as "One, Two, Three."
Still, says Horak, "most of his money he made doing other things. He designed a lot of famous corporate logos — for example, the Bell telephone logo. He would get paid millions for just [the logo]."
Bass started doing more and more corporate work in the 1970s and '80s. "From what I've heard, he priced himself [out of the movie] market," says Horak. "He wanted too much money for what he was doing."
That is until Martin Scorsese hired him to create the title designs for "GoodFellas," "Cape Fear," "The Age of Innocence" and "Casino."
Bass died in 1996, but his popularity continues. Horak says his posters "really stand out because they are so interesting as graphic designs. For that reason, they have become highly collectible."
`Saul Bass: The Hollywood Connection'
Where: Ruby and Hurd galleries at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Noon-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; noon-9 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays
Ends: April 1
Contact: (310) 440-4500 or go to www.skirball.org