In "Vertigo," it's all about the eye. In "North by Northwest," it's a big city building. For "Psycho," it's a series of vertical and horizontal lines that appear to dance to the movie's now notoriously ominous theme. Graphic designer Saul Bass knew how to hook audiences into a film. He did this for decades, working with directors ranging from Otto Preminger to Martin Scorsese. At the end of the 1950s and into a new decade, the graphic designer worked on three films for Alfred Hitchcock. "Vertigo," "North by Northwest" and "Psycho" went on to become some of the director's best-known, and most-loved projects. For Bass, those movies helped cement his reputation as a cutting-edge designer whose work would ultimately come to define mid-20th century aesthetics.
A legend in the graphic design world, Bass' work went beyond movie titles. You know the green female profile that's a visual symbol of the Girl Scouts? That was Bass' work too. But, while he put the visual stamp on so many icons of 20th century U.S. life, the graphic designer is best known for his work in the film world, and central to that body of creativity are his collaborations with Hitchcock.
Born and raised in New York, Bass got his start in the advertising world, eventually garnering work from film studios. Later, he headed out west, where he worked at a couple of different firms before launching his own company. By the late 1950s, he had racked up an impressive list of credits, including Preminger's "The Man with the Golden Arm." In the biography "Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design" by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham, it's surmised that Hitchcock likely knew of Bass' reputation, as the famed director had a background in design for film as well.
Bass' first Hitchcock project was "Vertigo," for which he produced the iconic movie poster as well as the opening title sequence. In "Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design," writer Jan-Christopher Horak notes that Bass' work was seen as "avant-garde" which helped him succeed in the film world, as director-producers pushed their Hollywood pictures to artsy extremes. Horak writes that the title sequence of "Vertigo" exemplifies an influence of experimental cinema. Meanwhile, Jennifer Bass and Kirkham, in their biography of the graphic designer, note that Bass was influenced by the mathematician Jules Antoine Lissajous.
The Jennifer Bass and Kirkham biography points to a quote from the designer that indicates his goal for the title sequence — to represent the feelings of dizziness associated with vertigo. Accordingly, the focus of the sequence is the eyes, with the film's title emerging from one live-action eye and the animated swirls that follow taking on ocular shapes.
With the Lissajous curve as a point of reference, the opening sequence is both captivating and unnerving. The curves morph into different forms as they close in on the viewer. Colors shift. Blue, purple, green and other hues pop and fade on the screen. The sequence does its job beautifully; as a viewer, the film's title makes sense before the story begins.
Bass came back on board to work with Hitchcock for "North by Northwest." The sequence here is much simpler than that of "Vertigo." Horak surmises that this was probably due to budgetary constraints, but its minimalism made an impact. That green, graphic representation of the side of a skyscraper and arrows pointing from the title are an unforgettable introduction to the bustling city scene that follows.
It's Bass' third and final project for Hitchcock, "Psycho," that earned a place in film lore, but that's not simply because of the title credits. In addition to designing another opening sequence, Bass was hired as a consultant for the film. In that capacity, Bass storyboarded what is perhaps the most infamous fictional murder scene to hit movie theaters. Indeed the look of the notorious "shower scene" is derived from Bass' storyboards. It's not only a memorable movie moment but an influential one that has been referenced and frequently parodied over the decades.
For Bass and Hitchcock, that scene is a source of controversy that extends beyond its content. In film circles, a question arose: Who gets credit for it? For the casual film-goer, the answer is usually Hitchcock. For others, though, the answer may be a little more complicated.
Jennifer Bass and Kirkham's biography gives the graphic designer's side of the story. Bass storyboarded the scene based on both what was in the script and what was in his head. He presented this to Hitchcock, who apparently wasn't immediately sold on the visualization of this key moment in "Psycho." Later, Hitchcock had Bass set up the first shot of the scene. Hitchcock's finished product was strikingly similar, but not identical to what was on the boards.
The confusion, it seems, arises from the film's legacy and how the behind-the-scenes story was reported in the following years. The Jennifer Bass and Kirkham-penned biography cites an interview with Hitchcock conducted by Francois Truffaut where the "Psycho" director understates Bass' role in that scene. They also reference a 1973 article in London's The Sunday Times that claimed that Bass directed the shower scene as the source of cinephile gossip. However, this book also adds that Bass denied those rumors. Meanwhile, Horak's book says that Bass did take credit for the scene. The evidence of who did what is murky but ultimately Horak comes to the conclusion that the scene is Hitchcock's art.
Following "Psycho," Bass continued to enjoy a long and productive career. He frequently worked in collaboration with his wife and fellow designer, Elaine Makatura Bass. Bass eventually worked as a director and earned an Academy Award for the short documentary "Why Man Creates." He also continued working on movie titles for much of the rest of his life. Bass' final credit in this regard was the 1995 Martin Scorsese film "Casino." Bass died in 1996.