About three years ago in New York, I was researching an article on film title design and managed to negotiate a telephone interview with the late Saul Bass in Los Angeles. Having been warned by a colleague that he could be a little cantankerous, I trod carefully. Either I did a good job, or 40 years of Tinsel Town had blessed Bass with a pacific understanding of the industry. For Bass came across as pleasant and entertaining, without an ounce of rancour. It was, after all, an industry that had left him largely uncredited for his considerable contribution.
I asked him what motivated him to keep working at the age of 73. “I love what I do,” he said. “I’m energised by the challenges thrown at me, and nothing energises me as much as the potential for failure.”
I asked him if he would ever retire. “What is retiring?” he asked back. “It’s death isn’t it?”
Well, retirement finally caught up with this prolific designer, not long after he and his wife, Elaine, had enjoyed a mini-renaissance in Hollywood at the hands of directors who’d long admired Bass’s pioneering work of the Fifties and Sixties. It was Martin Scorsese who fostered the finest work of the Bass revival, in his work on Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991) and the Age of Innocence (1993).
The title sequence for Cape Fear, which employed a simple but canny trick of filming letters through rippling water, was striking enough to warrant critical acclaim in the film reviews. The lot of title designers, however, is such that if a feature film is forgettable, the opening sequence gets forgotten with it. Since Scorsese’s Cape Fear was generally received as an overblown horror movie with none of the subtle tension of Lee Thompson’s 1962 original, it will end up paling with film history, while Bass’s pioneering effort for Otto Preminger’s grim and daring 1955 movie about drug addiction, The Man With the Golden Arm, will remain relatively untarnished. When Bass cited the “potential for failure” as a motivating factor, he was perhaps also implying the kind of failure that is beyond the title designer’s jurisdiction. This sense of fate in turn must have contributed to Bass’s composure towards the industry.
It is notable, too, that Bass was content to produce just three or four title sequences a year, relying on corporate work for the main part of his studio’s income. This points to the fact that designing film titles is not an enterprise with high profit margins, more a creative exercise that brings its practitioners in contact with inspiring characters like Scorsese and Preminger. Bass recalled, incidentally, that Preminger was “infuriating” to work with, but once persuaded of the validity of a design idea, would “defend it to the death”. He even once overheard Preminger yelling at the promoter of a movie theatre in Texas who didn’t like the fact that Bass’s poster for The Man With the Golden Arm didn’t incorporate a picture of the star, Frank Sinatra. According to Bass, Preminger bellowed: “Those ads are to be used precisely as they are. If you change them one iota, I pull the picture from your theatre.”
The same bold icon of the poster, a jagged white cut-out arm, became the basis of the title sequence. The rest is history, at least in the design books. “In a sense I reinvented the title,” says Bass. “Up until then they were almost totally typographic, relatively mundane and typographically inadequate.” Title sequences became an important part of the film, setting the pace, establishing the film’s position, and eventually attaining a status where they became fashionable for directors. At which point, argued Bass, they started to look like “tap dances” bearing little relation to the subsequent action.
Bass’s influence on subsequent generations of designers has indeed been sterling. Insisting, like a true Modernist, that “the selection of the typeface should always relate to the nature of the film”, and that the title sequence should help and be “useful”, Bass inspired several talented designers to take up the discipline.
Their comments are telling. Steve Frankfurt, whose sequence for the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird was supposedly up for an Oscar, recalls his client’s brief: “He said ‘I want you to do a main title that doesn’t look like Saul Bass designed it’.”
Frankfurt’s title sequence didn’t win the award. They later realised there wasn’t even a category for title sequences.
Photograph depicting the work of The Samaritans by Howard Winter