The Deadly Design of Saul Bass's 'Vertigo'

The Deadly Design of Saul Bass's 'Vertigo'

As an ultra-rare poster of 'Vertigo' comes to the London Original Film Posters sale, Mark Hooper considers the art, inspirational vision and impact of Hollywood's design legend Saul Bass. Plus - acclaimed director Kevin MacDonald talks us through his personal selections from the auction
As an ultra-rare poster of 'Vertigo' comes to the London Original Film Posters sale, Mark Hooper considers the art, inspirational vision and impact of Hollywood's design legend Saul Bass. Plus - acclaimed director Kevin MacDonald talks us through his personal selections from the auction

I t’s safe to say that Saul Bass revolutionised the way that films are marketed and presented to the public. More than just a graphic designer, he created the visual identity for some of Hollywood’s most iconic films of the 1950s and 1960s, producing not only movie posters but often the opening title sequences too.

Amongst his very best work is the legendary design for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, which incorporated a distinctive spiral graphic element, to convey a dizzying sense of disorientation. As part of the Original Film Posters auction opening 27 January and closing on 10 February, this 81 x 81 inch Vertigo poster, printed on four sheets, was super-sized for billboards and is one of only three copies known to exist. Bass had designed the film's full US campaign using slight variations on the placement of the figures in relation to the spiral artwork, according to size. This means this poster is a true rarity. Coupled with the classic design, condition and sheer size, this is one of the ultimate film posters of the 20th century.

Saul Bass Vertigo (US, 1958) ESTIMATE: 40,000-60,000GBP

The mastery of Bass’s pioneering style lies in the way he would convey the taut tension of the films being promoted (notably those by Hitchcock, but also classics by Otto Preminger, Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder and Martin Scorsese). In an age when it was the norm for movie posters to feature either basic, easily recognisable photographs of leading actors or a key scene from the film (or both, crudely superimposed), Bass used his graphic design training to create something genuinely new. By simplifying the message or plot of the films into stark, bold designs and distinctive typography, he redefined the role of the movie poster so that it would capture the attention of the public, knowing that it would have to compete with the proliferation of attention-grabbing billboard campaigns of the 1950s.

Saul Bass (Wikipedia)

Given his skills, it’s no surprise that Bass also turned his hand to branding - he was responsible for some of the best-known corporate logos in the world, including those for Bell Telephone, the AT&T Corporation, United Airlines, General Foods, Hanna-Barbera, Continental Airlines, Kleenex and Quaker Oats. But it is his film work that he is most remembered for.

Having worked on Hollywood print advertisements in the 1940s, his big break came when the director Otto Preminger, impressed by Bass’s promotional poster for his 1954 film Carmen Jones, invited him to produce the title sequence too. Realising the creative potential of the opening credits to set the tone and mood of the film, Bass's use of animation was nothing short of groundbreaking. Highlights include the much-imitated cut-out sequences for Preminger’s Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and Hitchcock’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959). In the same year, he produced the famous ‘kinetic’ titles for Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, in which the words appear within a grid that is gradually revealed to be formed by the windows of a skyscraper.

Saul Bass's designs for Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Significantly, Bass would often design the film posters and title sequences in tandem, so that the latter imitated the former (witness how he animated his famous ‘arm’ poster design for the credits to Man With the Golden Arm). Likewise, the opening of Vertigo sees the swirling vortex motif from the poster appearing within a close-up of star Kim Novak’s eye, zooming in until it fills the screen. In this way, he gave movies their own distinctive visual identity that would be consistent, from the initial publicity materials to the opening of the film itself.

"Saul Bass was undoubtedly the greatest title sequence maker. Brilliant – just brilliant"
- Quentin Tarantino

It’s worth noting that most of his famous title sequences were created side-by-side with his wife Elaine Bass (née Makatura), who joined his practice in 1955, co-directing and producing the opening scenes to movies from Spartacus (1960) onwards. Bass himself was well aware of the potential that their innovative approach suggested for the industry – in 1960, he wrote an essay for Graphis magazine, named ‘Film Titles – A New Field for the Graphic Designer’.

It could be argued that Bass became a victim of his own success, with critics pointing out that his graphics were often the best part of a film. On top of this, the couple would also create live action sequences that would neatly segue into the opening scene of the movie itself – a technique that became so popular that movie directors started to film their own credit scenes. Following their work on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), the Basses consciously stepped back from film work (with Saul making a wry swipe at the ‘pyrotechnics and fun and games’ he saw Hollywood embracing in the 1980s).

'This Vertigo poster is an iconic piece that transcends the world of movie memorabilia to stand as a pivotal moment not only in the history of graphic design, but also in popular culture'

However, their distinctive style, emblematic of a golden era, with its nods to jazz, film noir and old school glamour of Tinseltown, saw a revival of interest in Bass's work, from the 1990s onwards, with Martin Scorsese in particular employing him to work on Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993) and Casino (1995). Quentin Tarantino paid tribute, saying 'Saul Bass was undoubtedly the greatest title-sequence maker. Brilliant, just brilliant'.

At the same time, a series of homages and knowing pastiches helped to introduce the Bass style to a new generation – most notably in the title sequence to Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002), designed by French duo Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas (‘His name stayed as the reference point for that kind of graphic design sequence,’ they told artofthetitle.com. ‘We feel the genius of Saul Bass was to find an idea linked with the music.’)

The genius is there to be seen and admired in this Vertigo poster, an iconic piece that transcends the world of movie memorabilia to stand as a pivotal moment not only in the history of graphic design, but also in popular culture as a whole.

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