Few did as much to alter the aesthetics of commercial and popular culture in the second half of the 20th century than Saul Bass. A New York-born graphic designer, Bass broke with the industry's standardized text-based opening credits template to create an iconic animated opening sequence for Otto Preminger's film "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1955). He went on to compose similarly stylized intro/poster combos for a number of Preminger films and become a go-to design man for directors of Hollywood's prestige films, including Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) and "Psycho" (1960) and Kubrick's "Spartacus" (1958). He went behind the camera and ultimately earned an Oscar for his animated documentary film "Why Man Creates" (1968), and in 1974, directed his only feature film, the sci-fi outing "Phase IV." Bass' corporate work would shape a multitude of brand imprints for a Who's Who of corporate America, and he returned to film title design in the 1980s and 1990s, notably in a run of films by Martin Scorcese. Emulated in countless entertainment graphics - including more recent opening sequences of Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can" (2002) and AMC's Emmy-darling series "Mad Men" (2008- ) - Bass did more than just alter the look of film, Scorcese suggested in the book "Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design, he "found and distilled the poetry of the modern, industrialized world."
Saul Bass was born on May 8, 1920 in The Bronx, NY, the son of Ukrainian Jewish émigrés, his father a furrier. Bass showed an artistic bent early on, drawing everything he saw. Just 15 when he graduated James Monroe High, he went on to study at the Art Students League of New York, supplementing that with night classes at Brooklyn College with Hungarian-born artist Gyorgy Kepes. After some entry-level commercial art jobs, Bass landed a job with Warner Bros.' New York office, and in 1946, moved to Los Angeles looking to freelance for the studios. Bass opened his own shop, Saul Bass & Associates, producing by-the-numbers movie ads and picking up some advertising clients. In 1954, he hired designer Elaine Makatura in 1954, with whom he would begin a relationship. That year, he worked for the first time for Otto Preminger, creating a poster for the director's adaptation of the musical "Carmen Jones," and the work blossomed into an ongoing relationship between the two creators. Preminger brought Bass back to not only render a poster but the opening credit sequence of "The Man with the Golden Arm," a narrative study of addiction starring Frank Sinatra as a jazz musician hooked on heroin.
Bass created a cut-paper arm framed by the film title in disjointed text and animated the credits around the central icon set to a frenetic jazz score, setting the tone of the artist's obsession. A first in effecting the film's ethos from its very first moments, it made Bass much-in-demand, working most immediately on Robert Aldrich's bleak inside-Hollywood noir "The Big Knife" (1955) and the Marilyn Monroe comedy "The Seven-Year Itch" (1955). Becoming an aesthetic force in the industry, he ushered titles and poster art away from imagery strictly representational of the narrative and more toward iconographic treatments evocative of mood. He worked on such classics as Preminger's "Saint Joan" (1957), "Anatomy of a Murder" (1958) - its particularly memorable central graphic featured an iconic human body cut into seven pieces - "Exodus" (1960) and "Advise and Consent" (1962); Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" (1960); Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three" (1961); Robert Wise's "West Side Story" (1961); and John Frankenheimer's "Seconds" (1966) and "Grand Prix" (1966).
Bass designed titles and posters for a string of Alfred Hitchcock's films, including "Vertigo," "North by Northwest" (1959) and "Psycho," but went above and beyond for this director. For the latter project, Bass storyboarded key sequences, including Janet Leigh's famous shower scene and the staircase sequence with Martin Balsam. Kubrick and Frankenheimer similarly brought his aesthetic eye to bear on narrative elements. In 1959, Bass created the famous red swirl signature design for Lawry's seasonings and went on to expand his work outside the film world. In 1962, he collaborated with Lenore Klein on the children's book, Henri's Walk to Paris. In 1964, he collaborated with Elaine, whom he married in 1961, on a short coming-of-age film, "The Searching Eye," which premiered at New York World's Fair. His filmmaking reached its zenith with "Why Man Creates," a half-hour documentary that examined the historical development of humankind's creativity and its role in effecting and deriving meaning. The film won the Oscar for best short-subject documentary in 1969. Bass and Elaine's later shorts, "Notes on the Popular Arts" (1978) and "The Solar Film" (1980), would also draw Oscar nominations.
In 1968, Bass created the signature bell logo for AT&T, initiating a run of work for major corporations seeking new brand IDs. The late 1960s and 1970s would see him concoct new corporate identities or brand imprints for companies such as Continental Airlines, Rockwell, Quaker Oats, Avery International, Dixie paper products, United Airlines, Warner Communications, Minolta, as well as non-profit groups such as the Girl Scouts, the United Way and the YMCA. The 1970s also saw Bass helm his only feature film, "Phase IV," a stark horror thriller about an uprising of ants who develop a collective intelligence. Released in 1974 after clashes between Bass and the studio on the cut, the film was little seen but became a cult favorite. In 1987, writer-director James L. Brooks lured Bass back to films for the title design of his hit comedy "Broadcast News," which re-opened the door to cinematic work. He put his stamp on Penny Marshall's blockbuster comedy "Big" (1988) and returned to stylish crime fare with "Goodfellas" (1990), beginning a collaboration with Martin Scorsese that would continue through the director's gutty noir remake "Cape Fear" (1991), the period potboiler "The Age of Innocence" (1993), and his Mafia classic "Casino" (1995). Bass died of cancer in Los Angeles on April 25, 1996.
By Matthew Grimm