Of Saul Bass and the History of Film Titles

Years ago designer Saul Bass explained how he approached film title sequences to me when I interviewed him for an article. “Find an image that will be provocative, seductive yet true to the film,” he said. “It has to have some ambiguity, some contradiction, not only visually but conceptually. Not just isolating the prettiest frame, but finding a metaphor for the film.“

Beginning with his 1955 work on Otto Preminger’s “The Man with the Golden Arm,” Bass transformed the way film title sequences were perceived forever. He approached the task with a graphic designer’s eye, so that stills from his title sequences easily translated into a powerful iconic poster for the movie.

Reducing the visual communications about a film to a single image was a daring notion at the time. Bass recalled that before he did “The Man with the Golden Arm,” films had been promoted with montages consisting of salient elements of the story. “The conventional wisdom on how to sell a film was the ‘see, see, see’ approach,” he said. “See the missionary boiled in oil. See Krakatoa blow its top. See the virgins dance in the temple of doom. The theory was that if you talked a film in pieces, there would be something for everyone.“ This interview with Saul came to mind as I watched “A Brief History of Film Titles” edited by Ian Albinson for the website “Art of the Title.” As the titles in the video folded one into another, I could see where Bass came in and influenced generations of designers of film title sequences thereafter.