Saul Bass 1920 – 1996
By Estella Shardlow on Thursday 23rd September, 2010
The legendary graphic designer collaborated with some of the greatest directors of the 20th century, including Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, to design iconic film posters and title sequences. His inventiveness of lettering and layout was a breakthrough for cinema – formerly projectionists had kept curtains closed during the opening credits, but this all changed with the release of The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955 and Bass’s black paper cut-out graphic.
Born in New York in 1920, he was introduced to Constructivism and Bauhaus design aesthetics while studying under Gyorgy Kepes at Brooklyn College. Later he freelanced in Los Angeles, where he opened his own studio in 1950. Otto Preminger gave him his big break in 1954 by commissioning him to design the poster and titles for Carmen. His talent lay in identifying a single emblematic image that encapsulated the film’s themes and content: a tearful eye for Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958), the alley cat for Walk on the Wild Side (1961) or blossoming rose petals for Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993).
Some of his most haunting and renowned creations were for Hitchcock movies. For Vertigo (1958) a woman’s eye is shot close-up then the screen begins to spiral and turn blood red, while for Psycho (1960) he captured Bates’ unhinged psyche with a frenzied, spinning helter-skelter motif.
After his first attempt at directing a film - Phase IV (1974) - flopped, Bass turned to commercial design for a while and won commissions from corporate giants such as United Airlines and Warner Communications. A productive working relationship with Martin Scorsese emerged in the 90's. In Cape Fear (1991) a claustrophobic montage of rippling water surrealistically turning into a man’s face until finally the liquid turns to blood. In Goodfellas (1990) the opening sequence turns from minimalist white-on-black credits straight to a violent crime narrated by aspiring mafioso Henry Hill. Bass’ last project, the year before his death, was Casino in 1995. In this his opening sequence shows a flashily dressed Robert de Niro subsumed in a fireball that merges into a sequence of neon lights; Las Vegas meets Dante’s Inferno.