Saul Bass: Best Graphic Designer of 20th Century?

Matthew Baines

Find out about Saul Bass works in Mid Century American Movies

Saul Bass: Best challenger to Paul Rand as Greatest Mid Mod Designer?

In my last blog I talked about Paul Rand and how he is perhaps one of the greatest mid century American graphic designers of the 20th Century, certainly when it comes to corporate logos. Emerging from the Post War the mid-century modern movement was the breakaway design that allowed graphic artists to truly get to grips with conveying a sense of clarity and truth with their audience. If ever there was a rival to Paul Rand's position in this it would be Saul Bass. 

Saul Bass: The Mid Mod King of Cinema Art

The Saul Bass style is instantly recognisable in the field of Mid Century movie posters and sets him right at the heart of the movement in challenging the status quo, seeking new ideas and formats to engage a new suburban American audience, just like Paul Rand did when it came to his field of work. If you would like to know more about who is Saul Bass and how he transformed the style of American movie promotion in the second half of the 20th century, then read on...

Oscar winning filmmaker Bass, born in the Bronx in 1920, is perhaps known for his many opening film title sequences, working with Hitchcock such as North by Northwest, Vertigo and later working with Scorsese on pictures such as Goodfellas and Casino. Bass saw the importance of the opening scene to a film as preparing the audience in a condensed format for what they were about to see. Bass's philosophy was to find beauty in the mundane, which is what draws me to him when it comes to BillingtonPix's own urban retro style of design.

Saul Bass: From Midcentury Movie Posters to Iconic Title Sequences

His career in graphic design began in 1946, when after moving from New York to Los Angeles he set up his own advertising practice. By 1954 he had broken into Hollywood and created posters for films such as Carmen Jones, which impressed the director, Otto Preminger, so much that he asked Bass to create the opening title sequence. This photo collage of Carmen in black and white except for her red lipstick and red dress with the symbolic flame, juxtaposed with a hand drawn rose to symbolise the tension and destructive forces of temptation, love and passion.

If we look at Bass's mid century modern movie posters more closely we see that he was clearly a man of his time, like Rand, designing in a minimalist mid-century modern style, using bold colors (usually black, white plus a contrasting or dominating color), lots of negative space, silhouetted abstract figures which alone are able to tell a story without words. Saul Bass movie posters were a contrasting style to what had come before when it came to movie posters, where more often than not the space was overloaded with all sorts of huge, romantically drawn figurative artworks centred around the main actors in a "potpourri" of images and copy, mixed together in the hope that some part of the poster might sell the film. With Bass it was the idea not the stars of the film that he wanted to portray. Like his contemporary, Paul Rand, this reductive approach using abstraction and simplicity was the key to his philosophy.

The Skill of Saul Bass was Simplicity, Reduction, Iteration

The simplicity of the Saul Bass movie poster was not something that appeared immediately. For his poster of the Shining it reportedly took about 300 iterations between Bass and the director Stanley Kubrick before the final version emerged. This single, haunting black dotted image within the film title copy upon a striking yellow (or red in some versions) background, is striking and immediately provides us with the essence of the horror of the film.

His poster for Anatomy of a Murder depicts a dismembered body silhouette, with each word of the title on a different body part, upon an uneven block of orange color with a second block of red directly beneath containing the actors names. The two colors blocks of orange and red themselves effectively slice the poster in half, mirroring further the subject matter. In the opening sequence this silhouette becomes animated as different body parts are sliced into view.

It was his poster for Man with the Golden Arm, a film based on a musician's struggle with heroin addiction, itself a bold subject matter for a 1950s film, that really made reputation of Saul Bass design in Hollywood. Bass once again uses blocks of turquoise, purple, blue and black on a white background with a black arm creeping out of the darkness from above. Photographic collage cut-outs of the three main actors, Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker and Kim Novak peer across from their respective color blocks. The use of photographic collages was a feature used quite widely at the time, one which I believe was first pioneered by Cipe Pineles.

Create Beautiful Things Even if Nobody Cares

Bass's philosophy was to create beautiful things "even if nobody cares". He saw beauty in the mundane, such as the cat prowling the rooftops in Walk on the Wildside or the inner workings of the watch that counted down the hours and minutes before Gandhi's murder in Nine Hours to Rama. In Westside Story he works with a street graffiti style font for the opening credits. All these techniques serve to give the essence of the film and to "create a climate" that the audience will understand immediately.

For me it is the abstract reduction of the subject matter that draws me to the Saul Bass graphic design style and how it sums up the message concisely. I find Bass's work very approachable, memorable and recognisable. His earlier work brings out a spirit of the age, using the materials available at the time such as collage, white space and color. In his later works, such as with Scorsese we can see how his talent has progressed from animated collage to computer graphics. I love how he still maintains his body silhouette technique in Casino against the colorful backdrop of neon lights and revolving roulette tables emerging from a screen filled with flames.

Saul Bass in the context of Mid-Century Modern Graphic Design

It is impossible to write about Saul Bass work in terms of midcentury american graphic design without comparing him to Paul Rand, but they are both inextricably linked when it comes to Mid Century Modern design. Both had similar techniques, using key mid century graphic design elements that set them both apart from what had come before, which I will discuss.

In terms of approach, whilst I think Bass leans more towards the beauty of the ordinary, Rand is driven by honesty of communication. Bass excelled in movie title sequences that have influenced many subsequent films (for example think of Catch Me if You Can). Rand made his name in corporate branding, reducing the company essence down to a simple logo, whereas Bass reduced the essence of the film down to a short sequence. Both were graphic artists working in the second half of the 20th Century, one that began with the turmoil of war and ended with the success of American global culture, be it in corporate or film dominance.

What do you think about the work of Saul Bass? Is Bass the greatest when it comes to mid century modern in the movies? Let me know in the comments below. Would place him as comparable to Paul Rand and typical of the development of mid-century modern graphic design? Do you think that he successfully changed the format of the movie opening title forever? How will he be viewed in the history of mid century modern film art?

What do you think?

Let me know what you think about Saul Bass and whether you regard him as the best graphic designer of the 20th Century. Or is he just great at his niche of cinematics? Let me know in the comments below.

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