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Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design by Jan-Christopher Horak

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A Book Review by Tony Williams.

The work of Saul Bass is familiar to those impressed by credit openings of The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Cowboy (1958), Bonjour Tristesse (1958) Vertigo (1958), Psycho, (1960) Walk on the Wild Side (1962), Anatomy  of a Murder (1959), Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) and many others. Horak’s study (University of Kentucky Press, 2014) is a fully researched analysis of Bass within his cultural and historical context that will definitely become the definitive work on the subject, as previous studies by this current Director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive foreshadow. Yet what makes it important is its implicit extension of the whole concept of authorship. Now that we have gone well beyond the initially helpful but ultimately limited terrains of the early auteur theory we can appreciate the collective overtones of the term “authorship” as reflecting the collaborative aspects of film production while at the time understanding that some collaborators were “more equal” than others and this does not necessarily comprise the director. Bass did his best work with directors such as Hitchcock and Preminger and these people were all brilliant in their spheres especially with their knowledge of European modernism that Hollywood was often averse to. Neither director was an expert on film titles. Bass was and his contributions were important creative injections into certain films merging aesthetic and cultural implications within an appropriation of the classical Hollywood narrative formula. However, when Bass struck out on his own as with the Academy Award winning short “Why Man Creates” (1968) and his directorial feature Phase IV (1974), worthy as these examples are, something appears lacking. In the case of Phase IV (1974), one wishes for directing akin to Hitchcock and Preminger in Bass’s handling of Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick, and those well- known North American regulars from British film and television, Alan Gifford and Helen Horton. But the most compelling features are those striking modernist influenced circular images that frequently characterize Bass’s designer work as well as the original ending now available on Youtube with one homage to Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962), featuring Bass in a cameo appearance.

Bass 02-newHowever, evaluation reservations aside, especially as such issues probably did not concern Horak (except on p. 4 where he speaks of “multiple narrative interpretations”) who is at pains to make a compelling, well-documented case for the greater significance of his subject of study within the context of twentieth century design and cinematic structures, this is a rewarding and worthwhile study of the creative significance of Bass and his work. Beginning with an introductory chapter “Qui etes-vous, Saul Bass?”, the book comprises seven chapters such as “Designer and Filmmaker”,” Film Titles: Theory and Practice”, “Creating a Mood: Pars par toto”, “Modernisms’s Multiplicity of Views”, “The Urban Landscape”, “Journeys of Discovery: Seeing is Knowledge”, and “Civilization: Organizing Knowledge through Communication” that with filmography, notes and selected comprise some 441 pages of thorough research.

Bass arrived in Hollywood at the right time. As a “generalist”, he “burst onto the floors of the studio film factory and argued creatively for the importance of the designer in the production process. Because of his aesthetic influences and the particular moment of his arrival in a changing Hollywood, Bass was able to cross over into other fields of film production, from designing advertising and publicity posters to creating title sequences and montages and eventually directing a Hollywood feature film.” (2-4) Significantly, his second wife, Elaine, may have functioned very much like the unseen presence of Alma Hitchcock, although it was not until 1979 that Bass mentioned her as an equal collaborator “because he was protecting his brand” (12). Again, another significant Hitchcock influence both in terms of authorship comparison and reluctance to share credit similar to Walt Disney occurs here suggesting significant aspects motivating the Saul Bass “brand”.

Arguing that Bass’s titular intervention “represents a unified vision, outside that of the implied author’s master text” (21) Horak cites the notorious Psycho shower scene case where Bass claimed full credit, despite eyewitness accounts and Hitchcock and Alma doing the final edit. Horak sees this more in the sense of Bass as “a branding issue, in the sense that he wanted to reestablish his expertise as a director and a montage specialist” (23). Ironically, he never continued such claims after Phase IV since, in my opinion, it proved conclusively that Bass was no Hitchcock.

Yet, as with the original ending of Phase IV, Bass’s authorship lay in the area of design. He formulated a

modernist avant-garde practice constituted within Hollywood rather than in opposition to it… Directly indebted to teachers who had studied and worked in the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany, Bass translated the Bauhaus ethic and aesthetic into an American idiom, just as Walter Gropius, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Gyorgy Kepes transplanted Bauhaus ideals to Chicago and New York in post-World War II America. Indeed, the central Bauhaus notion of art and design having both aesthetic and functional applications was put into practice in 1920s German and 1950s America. (24)

Bass 03This is key to understanding the “process of aesthetic translation” (24) that Bass brought to his Hollywood involvement both with his advertising designs for posters and his justifiably famous film titles. Abstract expressionism and avant-garde artists, such as Paul Klee, contributed to Bass’s titles for The Seven Year Itch (1955). Bauhaus’s design led Bass to become a film montage specialist while developing his interest in journeys through time and space, most notably in Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and Phase IV (27-28). As an autodidact “without formal academic training” the pragmatic and non-theoretical Bass began to pioneer his brand of innovative designs that influenced contemporary Hollywood and beyond. Bass borrowed many formal elements from the Bauhaus tradition but the “final characteristic of the Bass brand was his ability to create a cogent design element, image or logo that could be utilized repeatedly across different media and had the ability to cement the identity of a product within than iconography” (65). Such examples notably include the crooked arm for The Man with the Golden Arm, the Vertigo spiral, and the schizophrenic credits for Psycho that abstractly reveals the key to the succeeding narrative. Bass frequently stated that titles were integral to the film’s construction (78). As with North by Northwest (1959), Ocean’s Eleven (1960), and Casino (1995), the cityscape could also function in a UK ITV television series such as The Four Just Men (1959) that featured an international star cast of Jack Hawkins, Dan Dailey, Richard Conte, and Vittorio De Sica (232-233).

Bass 04Visual logos for movie advertising were also important as cited examples from Saint Joan (1957), The Big Country (1958), Spartacus (1960), Advise and Consent (1962), Nine Hours to Rama (1963), Rosebud (1979), and The Human Factor (1979) all show. Here he followed the Eisenstein axiom of pars pro toto using an abstract symbol to convey the mood of the film in what was obviously the emotional aspect of Eisenstein’s montage theory, rather than the political, though they are not mutually exclusive even in Hollywood in terms of treatments by certain directors. Bass stated that he aimed to distill everything “down to one image that was both provocative and metaphorical, and yet somewhat ambiguous and seductive and still true to the film” as well as “speaking to the language of the eye” (133).

This is a comprehensive and remarkable book worthy of study to all general readers, as well as film and art design students interested in film. Yet, I have one observation to make. In his short history of titles section, Horak refers to title sequences of actors introducing the film “looking at the camera while performing a bit of business key to their characters” (85). Yet, he surprisingly omits the introductions of Mary Pickford in Tess of the Storm Country (1914) and Madame Butterfly (1915) where Mary’s appearances break continuity with the following narrative. In the first, Mary appears in her glamorous star role reassuring audiences that she is not the impoverished ragamuffin of the narrative in real life. In the second Mary cannot keep up her docile costumed and made-up sacrificial Oriental female role for long but cracks up before the camera as if telling audiences that she is not as submissive in the real life as the character she plays! Also, despite illustrations from Bass’s titles featured in the pages from 225 onwards, they are all sadly in black and white and are necessarily still frames. Probably, the cost of color reproduction was prohibitive. But Bass’s mobile credits and moving graphics need to be seen by the viewer. Fortunately, Youtube has a 65 minute presentation of all of Bass’s significant titles in color and black and white from films by Hitchcock, Preminger, Scorsese, Wilder, and others that are worth viewing to appreciate the case Horak has made for examining the work of this creative artist. Again, any worthy book necessitates return to the films themselves not only to verify what a particular writer says but also to find valuable supplementary illustrations confirming the plausibility of a well-researched and convincing text. Such is the nature of Saul Bass.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is a frequent contributor to Film International.

5 Comments for Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design by Jan-Christopher Horak”

  1. Well done, as always, Dr. Williams, and congratulations on another effort toward broadening the understanding of film as a total enterprise.

  2. Thanks for reviewing this book Tony. I still remember first discovering Saul Bass when for my media groups first film studies essay the lecturer made the wise choice to introduce us to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Sadly this same lecturer was foolish enough to think La Haine (without making us aware of the social context) was a good introduction to world cinema followed by Fellini’s 8 ½ Fortunately a university lecturer would later re-introduce me to La Haine after I had formed an early distaste for it, and was also responsible for expanding my filmic horizons from multiplex blockbusters to the vast and far reaching landscape of world cinema starting with a more accessible Truffaut film. Apologies for digressing here.

    Saul Bass is of significant importance and should never be allowed to fall into the shadows. This is an excellent review that has a thoughtful critical balance, in which you show an understanding for the works limitations (i.e. bass’s titles in black and white). But you also offer a compelling introduction to Bass for anyone yet to fully discover the man and his work, while showing the importance of the critics need for a thorough familiarity with film history, so that we can offer the most complete insights when discussing film. It’s an interesting point you raise in conclusion when you write: “Any worthy book necessitates return to the films themselves not only to verify what a particular writer says but also to find valuable supplementary illustrations confirming the plausibility of a well-researched and convincing text.” It makes one consider how writing is a part of a reciprocative relationship in which films and individuals are written about to ensure a cyclic process whereby a film or individual within the art form are not allowed to be lost in the moment.

  3. Tony,
    ,
    Just found and read your close and careful reading of my Bass book. Thank you.

    Best,

    CHRIS

  4. Thank you, Chris, for writing such an exceptional book. “Close” and “careful” is what I always attempt to do in reviews.

  5. I share Tony’s sentiments, Chris. It’s a wonderful book that I’m currently enjoying. And I’m very pleased to have Tony’s excellent review of it.

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