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Photography & media

Saul Bass – designing the mood of a film

— March 2012

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

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Saul Bass, Vertigo movie billboard advertisement

Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design

By Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham

In Otto Preminger’s 1955 film, The Man With the Golden Arm, Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) is a poker dealer who returns to Chicago after a prison sentence for drug use. He declares his intention to kick the habit and pursue a career as a drummer. After his first fix, he swears it will be his last, but his supplier knows better: he’ll ‘never get the monkey off his back’. Frankie’s desperation renders him susceptible to bribery and he flunks an audition for a band. Eventually, it is Molly, a ‘tart with a heart’ (Kim Novak), rather than Frankie’s neurotic wife, who stands by him through the physical and mental trauma of going clean.

The subject was a brave choice in America. What Molly calls ‘the dirty stuff’ is never mentioned by name in but is indicative of a 1950s new wave of ‘ “adult-theme” and “issue” films in general’, an exciting time for Saul Bass to move into designing pre-diegetic or (as with Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho) diegetic (i.e what happens within the story line of the film) sequences. The ‘golden arm’ refers to Frankie’s nickname in the gaming fraternity: the arm of the drummer he aspires to become but also the arm into which an addict shoots heroin.

The credits sequence to this film noir shows four white splinters splayed on a black ground, animated to form a loose square around the film’s title, rotated to become horizontal bands, returning to a vertical arrangement then, finally, morphing into a stark, broken angular block of an arm with crooked fingers, still white on black. The film closes with a broad, centrally placed vertical white stripe, dissolving into and reasserting the arm motif. The purpose of this characteristically graphic, minimalist, introduction and resolution was to create and sustain a particular ambience. Bass believed that a film, ‘like a symphony, deserved a mood-setting overture’, and used ambiguity, layering and texture as well as startlingly compact imagery to reshape time before the film proper began. He explained, ‘My position was that the film begins with the first frame and that the film should be doing a job at that point’; the authors comment that his titles ‘offered audiences a set of clues, a sort of hermeneutic key to deeper meanings under the surface of the movie’. The ‘mood’ established here owes as much to Bass as to Elmer Bernstein’s jazz scoring.

Preminger was a notoriously difficult and controlling director – on The Man With the Golden Arm he was also working simultaneously as producer. But the collaboration between Preminger and Bass – as for Hitchcock and Bass and, latterly, Scorsese and Bass, was based on mutual respect. For this difficult director and difficult film, Bass devised a gamut of promotional material, riffing on the ‘arm’ theme, typical of the extent of his range of activity across titles, films, posters, letterheads, corporate logos and branded packaging and merchandising.

Bass was one of the first artists to exploit album covers as a conspicuous (and eminently collectible) design opportunity. Never a fan of fixed categories, by 1958, Bass:

 offered the studios not only the main and credit titles but also a trademark, TV trailer, screen trailer, posters (four sizes), trade ads (up to six per film), album cover and New York subway car card.

Accompanying ads for Sinatra, which are comparable to previous campaigns for Jack Palance and Neville Brand, showed the face in three-quarters of the singer-turned-actor above the point of a skewed exclamation mark, with text indented from the trademark arm set horizontally. Bass was duly commissioned to provide the animated title sequence for Sinatra’s ABC TV show.

From 1954 onwards, Bass signed his posters. With their distinctive style and lettering, however, they are identifiably his without the autograph. The authors of this definitive compendium of his work report that, even as a child, Bass declared an ambition to be ‘Saul Bass’. As a star in his own right he appeared as an endorser of companies for which he worked as designer. But Jennifer Bass (daughter of Saul and Elaine) stresses that her parents practised as a team, together, in a manner akin to the partnership of furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames (admirers of Bass), with whom they shared an evangelical modernist commitment to the social purpose of good design:

We believed that once all business embraced the notion of design as a function of management, all of us would be employed to produce beautiful products and communications for a hungry public who, in turn, would be transformed by this experience and create a new civilization

quote the authors – with the qualification from Bass himself that:

it didn’t turn out the way we thought. Sure enough, Big Business embraced design, and promptly turned it into a commodity. Looking back, it’s curious that I at least didn’t understand how it would work

The Design Museum’s Saul Bass exhibition in 2002, co-curated by Pat Kirkham, demonstrated the painstaking stop-motion process used in the production of titles for Hitchcock. Computer graphics could now generate such sequences with ease. Often, actual, locatable, architectural elements are lit and photographed to emphasize their abstract qualities, used to counterpoint, reinforce, or merge with, typography and graphics.

Underpinning all Bass’ work was his faith in drawing. The book, indeed, provides ample evidence of his skills as a draughtsman and as a keen observer of figure and form drawn from life. Whenever student designers asked Bass ‘how best to prepare for their future careers, he always said, “learn to draw”’. Bass, deservedly, continues to be respected internationally not only for his own work but also for his acknowledged influence on succeeding generations of filmmakers and designers. He was, the authors affirm, a generous and respectful teacher, inspired and inspiring. Bass, apparently, could turn his hand to anything and the work, as the authors testify, was never boring – never simply simple. It is thus appropriate that the book carries the arm motif, in black on white, on its cover: pure gold.

Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham is published byLaurence King Publishing, 2011. 440pp., 1484 illus, £48.00. ISBN 978 1 85669 752 1


Amy Sargeant
Tisch School of the Arts, NYU
Art historian

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