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10 Of Saul Bass' Greatest Title Sequences

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
April 25, 2012 12:22 PM
5 Comments
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The art of movie titles is becoming an increasingly lost one: aside from a few films (the Bond movies) and directors (Steven Spielberg, David Fincher and Jason Reitman always pay particular attention to their credit sequences), it feels like relatively little care is taken over such things, with many movies dumping them altogether. And it's hard not to put that down to the fact that we don't have guys like Saul Bass around anymore.

Bass was a graphic designer from the Bronx who went out West in the 1940s and started working on film ads. After being noticed by Otto Preminger, who would become his collaborator for the next twenty years starting with "Carmen Jones" in 1954, Bass went on to design some of cinema's most iconic title sequences and posters for world-class filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, often in an instantly recognizable style that remains influential to this day -- look at the credits to "Catch Me If You Can" or "Mad Men" if you don't believe us.

Bass passed away sixteen years ago today on April 25th 1996 at the age of 75, and to mark the occasion, we've picked out ten of his finest works, which you can watch below. It was a near-impossible choice; among the great films and titles we left out include "Psycho," "North By Northwest," "Spartacus" and his uncredited work on "Alien," but one has to draw the line somewhere. Check our ten picks out below and weigh in with your own favorites in the comments section.

"The Man With The Golden Arm" (1955)
Bass' first great film work, his titles and poster for Otto Preminger's heroin-addiction drama, starring Frank Sinatra, would put him in demand for the rest of his career. Stark and simple, with four white bars put to creative use on a black backdrop (against Elmer Bernstein's wonderful score), it helps to create the impression that what you're watching is something that's been censored previously. (He'd later subvert this one with Preminger's "Bunny Lake Is Missing," which sees a black paper ripped away to reveal the credits.)

"Around The World In Eighty Days" (1956)
Bass' epic, the title sequence for Oscar-winner "Around The World In Eighty Days" was the longest and most expensive ever produced up to that point, costing a hefty $65,000. In fact, it's rather better than the film itself, an animated trawl through highlights of the film, which introduces the all-star cast and tops out at six minutes. Bass would return to a similar style for "It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World" for Stanley Kramer in 1963, although it's not quite as inventive.

"Vertigo" (1958)
Martin Scorsese called the opening scene of "Vertigo," the first of three collaborations between Bass and Alfred Hitchcock, "a mini-film within a film," and he's not wrong. Focusing on a woman's face, before the screen flashes red and we delve into a kaleidoscope in her eyes, it makes no sense at first, but by the end, you realize Bass told you the same story in 150 seconds that Hitchcock did across the whole film. The film boasts one of his most iconic posters, too.   

"Anatomy Of A Murder" (1959)
A film perhaps remembered more for Bass' images than for the movie itself (unfairly, as it's one of Preminger's best). Bass and jazz went hand in hand together, and he rarely found a better partner than Duke Ellington's top-notch score for this sequence, which takes the title literally, examining a series of cut-out body parts.

"Ocean's Eleven" (1960)
The title and setting of the Rat Pack heist picture was a gift for Bass, and he rose to the occasion with a series of mutating, neon-like numbers and shapes that perfectly encapsulates the Vegas glamor. Steven Soderbergh's 2001 remake is superior in almost every respect, but when it comes to the title sequence, it can't hold a candle to its predecssor.

"West Side Story" (1961)
Something of a break in style from his usual animation (although his poster for the film is classic Bass), the credits for Robert Wise's classic musical see Bass working in live-action, panning a camera across a series of walls, picking out the names of cast and crew from graffiti. It's a measure of the level of street grit that stops the film from becoming a trifle. The credits are also, atypically for the era, found at the end of the film, rather than at the beginning.  

"Seconds" (1966)
Bass worked with director John Frankenheimer twice in the same year, also designed the compelling, documentary-style titles for the Steve McQueen vehicle "Grand Prix." But it's much less effective than his work on "Seconds," the director's excellent science-fiction thriller. The credits, a deeply unneverving funhouse-mirror collection of refracted, warped and split close-ups of a face is the perfect introduction to Frankenheimer's examination of identity.

"That's Entertainment, Part II" (1976)
Probably the least-essential film Bass was ever involved with, this was the sequel to the compilation of classic clips hosted by legendary stars that MGM released to celebrate their 50th anniversary. But the most original, and best, part of the film are Bass' titles, a playful collection of shots that seemingly sees him use every idea he'd never got to play with elsewhere.

"The Age Of Innocence" (1993)
Bass fell somewhat out of fashion in the 1970s and 1980s, and hadn't worked on a film in nearly eight years until James L. Brooks asked him to contribute to "Broadcast News." Work followed on "Big" and "The War of the Roses," but his key collaboration in the late stage of his career  (now working with wife Elaine) was with Martin Scorsese, for whom he titled five films, starting with "Goodfellas." But "The Age of Innocence" is one of the best -- a simple, classy, effective blend of cursive script and steadily opening flowers that perfectly encapsulates the film's themes.

"Casino" (1995)
Only two years later would come Bass' last work -- he would die less than six months after his release. But his titles for "Casino" still find him in strong form. Nodding back to the Vegas setting of "Ocean's Eleven," it begins with Robert De Niro's Sam seemingly blown up in a car bomb and catapulted through a hellish selection of Vegas neon, accompanied by blaring opera. Once more, it sets you up for the film perfectly, showing that we're about to embark into the very depths of the strip.

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5 Comments

  • Tom Lavoie | April 26, 2012 11:29 AMReply

    Fans of his must check out the recent book about him by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham, with a Foreword by Martin Scorsese (Bass did titles for some of his films too)--SAUL BASS: A LIFE IN FILM & DESIGN. It's filled with information about how he did movie titles and includes many many illustrations. An awesome book. A brief review of the book can be found on Shelf Awareness.

  • cosmo vitelli | April 25, 2012 7:12 PMReply

    Love his work so much! Really want someone to issue a complete collection of all his sequences on blu-ray. I also clicked here just to make sure The Age of Innocence made the cut.

  • Ian | April 25, 2012 6:39 PMReply

    Saul is the pioneer and still the best but I think you're a bit unfair towards contemporary work. There has been some pretty great opening credits after Saul and even some great closing credits.
    His shoes are big to fill - but there are scores of individuals and companies that continue what he started.

  • Silent Rocco | May 8, 2013 6:30 AM

    When it comes to the topic of title sequences, I always have to think of one that blows me every every single time: the opening credits of Enter The Void.

  • Deborah Lipp | April 25, 2012 2:00 PMReply

    I adore title sequences. Perhaps the art form first came to my attention because of my love of James Bond and the extraordinary title sequences of Maurice Binder, but Saul Bass is the master. Bow down.

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