Saul Bass was the go-to guy for film title credits. You may not be familiar with the name, but you will sure recognise the style. His influence can be felt in just about any form of human artistic expression from advertising to movies, from cover art to design; The Simpsons have even paid their own back-handed tribute to the man who was described in his New York Times obituary as ‘a minimalist auteur.’
Bass was a graphic designer by background, his title sequences a testament to his originality. While they may come in different shapes and sizes, from the stylised (Man With The Golden Arm), to the minimalist (Psycho) to the Baroque (Casino), they retain a strong overall sense of unity. Despite clear echoes of Soviet Constructivism, his work is only ever strategically subversive. Bass was a gun for hire. These were commercial propositions, first and foremost, and should be valued as such.
Bass enjoyed a fruitful working relationship with a number of key directors, including Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock. His work for Hitch is among his very finest. My own favourite, since childhood, is the one Bass devised for North By Northwest. Its playfulness also happens to coincide with one of Hitchcock’s most playful movies – possibly the last of his genuinely fun cinematic offerings. (Psycho may be the more revered – or reviled – but, to a kid, nothing is as much fun as fun.)
The archetypal Hitchcock movie – mistaken identity, murder, a cross-country race against time, a steely blonde, and a Vertigo inducing finale – North By Northwest is all angles and degrees. The cinematography explores longitude and the diagonal with inventive assurance; characters are framed within intersecting frames; in one memorable scene, James Mason’s menacing sophisticate contemplates murder ‘at great height over water’ as the camera swoops up into the air to hang high overhead. In his title credits, Bass take this idea and runs with it. The results are simply lovely.
Opening with the MGM lion – Bernard Herrmann’s menacing, breathless score stirring beneath – the screen is awash with a vibrant green – the effect not unlike an Andy Warhol screen print. A series of lines run vertically and diagonally through the screen producing an effect like a Mondrian. The credits appear on the diagonal; the names of the cast (Cary Grant is advertising executive Roger Thornhill, surely a direct archetype for Mad Men’s Roger Sterling?) and crew are delivered on-screen as if by elevators, rising and falling with insouciant grace. The title, when it appears, is trademark Bass: bold, angular, faintly tricksy.
As the score busies itself, the converging lines are revealed as the glass and metal ediface of a modern office building, a New York street refracted in its mirror-like surface. A few moments later, another dissolve brings us down to street level as commuters swarm and crowd: a girl awaits patiently by the entrance to a building, while all around her is motion and purpose; a subway swallows up identically dressed drones; the steps of Grand Central Station cascade with office workers; wealthy women fight over a Yellow taxi cab; and a fat bloke, in an ill-fitting suit, just misses catching his bus home.
At a little over two minutes running time, you learn everything you need to know about the where, the when and the why-fore of the movie. It is simplicity itself – albeit one which belies the complexity and sophistication with which it is achieved. By rights – being so literal a reading – it has no business even working, but it is with respect to the genius of Saul Bass that it does.