The Posters and Credit Sequences of Saul Bass

"I want to make beautiful things even if no-one else cares."
- Saul Bass (Quoted in Bader, 2013: 7)

Saul Bass, graphic designer.

Although a graphic designer by name, Martin Scorsese once referred to the legendary Saul Bass as a "great filmmaker" (Quoted in Bass & Kirkham, 2011: vii). In his career spanning over forty films, Bass built a reputation for creating opening credits which became stories in themselves, reinforcing the narrative of the picture that audiences were about to see. In addition to opening credits, he often had a role in the whole publicity of a picture, also designing the posters and in the case of Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) storyboarding whole scenes of the film.

The Pre-Bass Era

A well choreographed credit sequence has the ability to start projecting details about the film before it even starts. As David Bordwell has said, we wouldn't 'expect a novel's story to start emitting information before the copyright page' (2010: 98), but the medium of film is capable of much more. It was often the case that actor's names would be presented on a background that had little to do with the film itself and would therefore rarely add to the picture. Not all titles completely ignored the potential of credit sequences (see below), but Bass' knack for creating attractive print based advertisements for both films and companies transferred perfectly onto graphic images within the moving image, giving them a much more modern design.

Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1945) foreshadowing Fred MacMurray's journey to the train.

The titles to Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950). The glamorous aspects that are usually associated 
with the name of the street contrasts strongly with its presentation on the kerb above a gutter,
keeping with the film's exploration of the dark side of Hollywood.
Casablanca's (Curtiz, 1942) Morocco setting is demonstrated in its introductory sequence.

Pre code film Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, 1932) gives you a taste of the innuendo that
was to appear in the picture. 

It's clear from these examples that the pre-Bass era did not consist of completely irrelevant introductions, but Bass would elevate film titles from a simple 'realm of graphic play' (Bordwell, 1985 :24) to the 'status of an art form' (Kirkham, 2011: 108) and an 'animated event' (Hall, 2000: 130). 

"My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film's story, to express the story in some metaphorical way." - Saul Bass (Quoted in Horak, 2014: 40)

Consider how much the two images below differ. Rather than just acting as a means of communication to display who was in a film, Saul Bass made sure that the tone was set early on. The shot from the introduction to Mr Smith Goes to Washington doesn't necessarily give you any inkling as to what the main themes of the film are, nor its genre. While this didn't necessarily detract from the picture, it just doesn't make use of the opportunities that credits presented. By contrast, the one shot from Vertigo condenses the themes of love, lust and romance in just one shot. Pictures preceding and immediately succeeding WWII for instance, often had their credit sequences revealed by the curtains half way through, 'amid audience chatter and popcorn munching' (Billanti, 1982: 98).

Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Vertigo opening credits
         Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Capra, 1939) and Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)

A New Era

Bass changed all of this, creating engaging and creative preludes to films that would entice audiences, pull them into the story and make them want to watch on - they were now an essential accompaniment to the experience of movie watching.

"Saul's designs made the picture instantly special. They didn't stand apart from the movie, they drew you into it, instantly. He would look at the film in question, and he would understand the rhythm, the structure, the mood - he would penetrate the heart of the movie and find its secret." - Martin Scorsese (Quoted in Bass & Kirkham, 2011: vii)

Otto Preminger and Saul Bass

Although his work with Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps his most well recognised, Otto Preminger worked with him on more occasions than any other director and gave him his initial breakthrough when he was chosen to create the create sequence for Carmen Jones (1954) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). The latter, a film revolving around Frankie Machine's (Frank Sinatra) struggle with heroin addiction heavily challenged the now diminishing Production Code as it was 'in direct violation of explicit code criteria regarding the depiction of crime and drug use' (Lewis, 2002: 114). Bass' stylised depiction of a drug user 'shooting up' was part of his challenge to 'create a symbol that captured the drama and intensity of the film without resorting to sensationalism' (Bass & Kirkham, 2011: 55).

The Man with The Golden Arm
Gone were the days of names and titles being presented over static images. Sometimes quite
ambiguous, Bass forced audiences to delve into the meanings 
of the images being presented.
This shot seems to represent the injection 
of various syringe needles.
Man With The Golden Arm
The white bars representing the veins of a drug user, morphing into.....
Man with the Golden Arm
an arm, a symbol acting as a 'malignant force reaching down into the lives of the characters'
(Scorsese, Quoted in Boxer, 2000)

Eventually, The Man With the Golden Arm would be credited with helping to bring about the demise of the production code. Bass' work in creating metaphorical, graphic images to show the actual process of narcotics taking place became part of a picture that 'led to the only reassessment of Hollywood's Production Code during its thirty six year existence' (Simmons, 2005: 39). The titles themselves consist of white bars sliding across the screen, rhythmically moving in time with Elmer Bernstein's jazz score (whom Bass also designed album covers for), presenting the names of the actors and crew until the sequence culminates with the image of the aforementioned disjointed arm - an image that was also the centrepiece for the accompanying poster. In one graphic match between the veins and the arm, Bass captured an image that led the whole marketing campaign.

The Man With the Golden Arm poster by Saul Bass

Considering how much star power plays in the role of the marketing of any picture, the fact that the jagged arm took as much of a precedence as Frank Sinatra's image did shows how innovative Bass' thinking was. The meaning rather than the actor of the film was what was important and there existed a sense of uniformity to the advertising campaign because of his work. As a testament to this revolutionary process, reels of The Man With the Golden Arm, arrived at theaters with notices saying 'pull curtains before main titles' (Horak, 2014: 80) - a far cry from the days of popcorn munching and chatter during the intros! Bass would go on to work with Preminger on: Saint Joan (1957), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Exodus (1960), Advise and Consent (1962), The Cardinal (1963), In Harm's Way (1965) and Bunny Lake is Missing (1965). Yet again, he maintained consistency, with the main images on the posters for Anatomy of a Murder (The Human Body) Exodus (Flames) and Advise and Consent (the Capitol Building) also being the centrepieces of the credit sequences too. 

The work of Saul Bass

Another regular collaborator with Bass, Billy Wilder hired him to work on The Seven Year Itch (1954), Love in the Afternoon (1957), One Two Three (1961) as well as the Oscar campaign for Some Like it Hot (1959). Much like with his opening credits for The Man With the Golden Arm, Bass pushed the censors with the messages included within his poster for Love in the Afternoon. The connotations of a women's delicate hand closing the blind, along with the name of the film are obvious, while the colourful and playful font demonstrates its genre as a comedy. This is Billy Wilder's tribute to his hero Ernst Lubitsch & the suggestions presented in this poster are similar to the empty bed in the opening credits of the aforementioned Trouble In Paradise.

Not limited to graphic sequences, his work on Walk on the Wild Side (Dymytrk, 1962) proved his skill as a live action filmmaker. The film is itself set in a seedy 1930s New Orleans brothel, with Bass aiming to capture the sleazy nature of the backstreets of the city. Kyle Cooper, who created the brilliant title sequences for the Spider Man (Raimi, 2002, 2004 & 2007) films stated that this was perhaps his favourite sequence Bass created in the 2004 TCM documentary The Look of Saul Bass.

Walk on the Wild Side opening credits by Saul Bass

It starts as a black cat emerges from some pipes, staring directly into the camera as the titles appear, then as the cats face dissolves into an overhead shot of it walking, the audience can still see the eyes superimposed upon the screen - a technique used again towards the end. Given the subject matter of the film, the repetition of the eyes throughout the sequence appears to suggest both voyeurism and confidence, emphasized by the way the cat coolly slinks around the alleys of the setting. This foreshadows the nature of the characters within the picture; the feline star of this opening can be seen as a metaphor for the Barbara Stanwyck's madam of the film 'who stalks the girls much like the cat in the credits' (Dick, 161: 1989). Again working with musician Elmer Bernstein, Bass made sure that the action occurred in time with the music cues - after roughly two minutes of shots separated by slow dissolves, the  fight between the white cat is punctuated by quick editing and a more violent, louder sounding score (Kirkham calls this one of the best Bass/Bernstein collaborations). Steven Spielberg later commented: "I tried to mimic Mr. Bass, using an 8mm camera and my dog on a leash walking along the narrow retaining wall outside my home in Scottsdale, Arizona" (Quoted in Kirkham, 2011: 205). That's right, Bass even influenced the great Steven Spielberg!

At times, Bass was even at risk of inadvertently out-shining the directors he was meant to be helping. It was a common observation that many film goers and critics alike enjoyed the titles even more than the film that came after, building up so much promise that the movie itself couldn't hope to live up to. Horak notes that after mediocre reviews for Walk on the Wild Side were released (many of which claiming that Bass' work was the best part of the picture), Variety commented that Bass might not be in the job much longer, stating that he was right to 'wonder whether any director would hire him again' (2014: 72).

Perhaps the most well known director collaboration of his career was with Alfred Hitchcock. The aforementioned Vertigo was their first of three films together, followed by North By Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). Vertigo combined two of Bass' talents together, utilising live as well as graphic action in its opening credits. They key image in this sequence was a spiral, which appears almost constantly throughout intro's three minute running time in different shapes and colours. In the film's trailer, Scottie Ferguson's (James Stewart) Vertigo is described as a feeling that plunges him into a 'dizzy whirlpool of terror' - the repeated image of the swirling spiral perfectly encapsulating such a definition. But this symbol also has another meaning and helps to underpin one of Alfred Hitchcock's most explored themes.

The first image Bass shows us is a close up a a woman's lips, as mentioned before this has a clear significance and demonstrates the obsession of James Stewart's character; if you look closely, the lips tremble at one point which shows us the fear that Judy (Kim Novak) experiences as she is forced to transform herself into Madeline later in the picture. Like many Hitchcock films, voyeurism is a key aspect of Vertigo; consider the sequences where Scottie tails Madeleine, ten minutes of screen time is filled with no speech at all as the detective first tracks her movements across San Fransisco. In Bass' intro, the spiral emerges from the woman's eye to resemble an iris, which the camera then closes up on, as if to suggest that we are entering the mind of the individual (which marks the end of the live action section before its final appearance at the end). Charles Barr has noted the similarity between this opening and that of Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960), another film that prefaces its narrative with a close up of an eye 'as if to announce at once the themes of vision and subjectivity' (2002: 15), while Horak states that the focus on the eye manifests the idea that they 'are a window into the soul' (2014: 184).

Peeping Tom and Vertigo 
Bass made sure that colour was paid particular attention to in his sequence, much like Hitchcock did himself when it came to the film. If you watch the sequence you'll see that he paints the spirals or the tint of the frame in the three most important shades that were to come: green, red and blue. Green is commonly used throughout Vertigo in both the costumes as well as the lighting, creating a haunting and ghostly quality to proceedings, particularly when Judy emerges from the bathroom as the newly 'reincarnated' Madeline while bathed in a green light. Emerson, writing on Roger Ebert's blog (1996) writes that the colour blue can be seen as a visual indication of Scottie's guilt; his suit colour during the trial of Madeline's death as well as the grading during the opening scene where one of his fellow police officers falls to his death both feature this colour. Red has its obvious obvious connotations of love, passion and lust - three traits which will lead to Scottie's obsession and ultimate downfall. After the spiral images we return once more to the woman's eye as 'Directed by Alfred Hitchcock' appears. Along with, in my opinion the best score ever written by Bernard Hermann, Vertigo is an excellent example of Bass' skill as a visual storyteller.

On the surface, there may not be much to note about the opening titles to Psycho, there isn't a cat, a swirling whirlpool, a dead body or an arm visible that serves as an icon to encapsulate the picture. Instead, reminiscent to The Man With the Golden Arm, white/grey bars slide onto the screen, fast paced and in a variety of lengths and angles, creating 'jagged' images:

Some of the bars bring into position the names of the actors and then after a few seconds these names are torn apart before the exiting the screen. The action usually occurs between two opposite sides of the screen, e.g. Anthony Perkins' name is erased by a set of two bars appearing from the top and bottom, perhaps indicative of the two sides to his character's split personality disorder. The fragmented way that the names are removed from the black background inspire obvious connotations, by leaving it to the audiences imagination, Bass is forcing us to really think about the disturbing reality that befalls Norman Bates' victims: they are ripped apart by his knife like their names in the credits. It is an aggressive and unpredictable intro and of course, Bernard Herrman's iconic score only extenuates this, Rasmussen sees it as both an 'aural and visual assault on the audience' (2014: 7). 

Spartacus poster by Saul Bass
The Spartacus poster depicted a gladiator
breaking free from the shackles on his hands
1960 also marked the year where Spartacus (Kubrick) was released, like Psycho, Bass designed the credits but also contributed his unique vision through his storyboarding of key scenes. For Psycho, he was paid $10,000 to help create one of the most iconic moments in film history - the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). This is a topic of debate, for there is some disagreement as to who directed the shower scene, but what ever the answer it's clear when watching the sequence next to the storyboard that Bass' mark is all over the finished product. Vimeo user Vashi Nedomansky created this comparison video to demonstrate how closely the storyboard was translated into the film. For Spartacus, Bass wanted to make an intro that demonstrated the 'duality of Roman rule' (Quoted in Kirkham, 2011: 193) - the oppressiveness, brutality as well as the sophistication. The order of the actor's names in this sequence has clearly been given some thought, as the characters that they play have a relationship with the picture that they're presented over. For example, like the film's poster, Kirk Douglas' name is shown next hands of a slave, with Lawrence Oliver's credit appearing over the top of a Roman Eagle - a sign of his authority. The credits are also notable for a groundbreaking inclusion during an extremely trying political period in the film industry; Spartacus marked the first time that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo had been given a visible credit on a picture since his blacklist during the HUAC trials, marking Spartacus as an achievement that reaches beyond the obvious merits of the filmmaking on display.

Spartacus and Psycho storyboarding by Saul Bass

Although the Spartacus storyboard doesn't resemble the finished product as much as Psycho, his initial aims for what the battle sequence would look like does still remain. He wanted to detail the difference between the 'mechanised' organisation of the Romans compared to the 'loose' and 'irregular' nature of the slaves which is an extremely clever concept and something that is still clearly present.

"When Kubrick took over as director, he imprinted his own strong mark on the film. Nevertheless, Saul's "hand" is discernible in the final battle - Bass and Kubrick admired each others work." (Bass & Kirkham, 2011: 194)

His credit sequence work would slowly waver in the 70s and 80s, but as the 90s approached there was one filmmaker determined to collaborate with Bass. For Martin Scorsese, the prospect of working with someone whose work he had admired for years was an intriguing prospect too appealing to ignore. He gave Saul and his wife Elaine Bass the rare honour of having almost complete creative control when it came to their collaborations. Convincing Bass to come out of retirement to work on Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993) and Casino (1995), it's a statement to their talent that the legendary director placed so much trust and confidence in the two of them. Unfortunately, Casino turned out to be Saul Bass' last credit project before his death in 1996.

Saul Bass Casino

The Legacy of Saul Bass

Saul Bass' influence can be still felt today in films and television shows that imitate his distinctive style and it's likely his influence will be felt for decades to come. In 2013 for instance, Google paid homage to Bass with a brilliant selection of their famous 'doodles' that mimicked some of his best known work:

In terms of television, Bass' footprint can be seen when comparing both his poster and moving picture work to Mad Men (Weiner, 2007-2015). In the opening credits of the show, the cartoon representation of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) finds himself in a familiar setting to fellow ad man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) in North By Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959). Both title sequences occur on a graphic representation of the side of a skyscraper, each one giving the impression that we are about to follow the pursuits of a high flying, Madison Avenue businessman (Bass would prove his knack for capturing the essence of New York City a few years later with West Side Story). Furthermore, the falling man image is extremely reminiscent of James Stewart in the Vertigo poster.

One of the best examples of recent credits in film that clearly have a Saul Bass mark is Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg, 2002) created by Oliver Kunzel and Florence Deygas. It is almost a film in itself, with quirky and imaginative scene transitions portraying a cat-and-mouse adventure where the animated Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) effortlessly moves between different environments while the FBI agent is always one step behind. It is, in my opinion most reminiscent of Bass' work on It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Kramer, 1963), which had a similar, playful, globe-trotting sense of scope and adventure to its opening. Much like Spielberg's intro it uses caricatures to directly reference what was about to follow in the film while still managing not to spoil it for the audience! Admittedly, the two do differ in the sense that Catch Me if You Can foreshadows how Frank Abagnale's conman lifestyle will lead him to a life of money & luxury (albeit briefly) through its elegant design throughout, which contrasts sharply with the utter chaos to be found in Mad World's four minute opening sequence - in-keeping with the mayhem to be found within the film's slapstick narrative (the characters of this film will ironically spend the running time chasing after money, with much less success than Abagnale!). Mad World plays with the idea that the lead character's journey will have them being pitted against each other with varying degrees of success by switching around the initially alphabetical cast list to leave us with a jumbled order or names, reflecting the haphazard nature of their race in which the first-place leaders are constantly shifting. Both sequences contain an element that was key to Bass' success, as Kyle Cooper pointed out in the Title Champ documentary, credits can get "redundant" and boring no matter how clever the initial pun is, which is why both of these credits have constantly changing graphics even if the focal point is the same. Mad World's globe is constant throughout but it goes through dozens of different iterations to ensure the audience is never bored of what's on the screen, which is something that Catch Me If You Can clearly tried to achieve with its two main figures (quite successfully too!)

Catch me if you can intro

There is much more of Saul Bass' work to enjoy, as this blog only scratches the surface of both his genius and prolific back catalogue. The fact that one can talk about his work on Vertigo, Spartacus and Psycho while failing to mention what he contributed to West Side Story (Wise & Robbins, 1961), with its stunning introductory aerial photography & Jets vs Sharks graffiti strewn ending backdrop, or The Big Country's (Wyler, 1958) opening which was able to portray in an instant, the isolation as well as the vast and inhospitable nature of the West, is a incredible testament to his unmatched oeuvre. It's telling that one can sit down and simply watch the credits of Saul Bass and enjoy them like we would a short film, even more so when you consider the technological limitations that him and his wife Elaine were working with when crafting their mini-masterpieces. It's commonplace to look at certain posters or credit sequences today and declare them to be "Saul Bass-like", which is phrase cinema-goers are likely to be uttering for years to come.

Below you'll find two extremely interesting documentaries on Saul Bass: Title Champ and The Look of Saul Bass.


Bader, S. 2013. The Designer Says: Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Barr, C. 2002. Vertigo. London: British Film Institute Publishing.

Bass, J. and Kirkham, P. 2011. Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design. London: Laurence King Publishing.

Billanti, D. 1982. The Names Behind the Titles. Film Comment. 18 (3), pp. 60-70

Bordwell, D. Staigner, J. & Thompson, K. 1988. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge.

Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K. 2010. Film Art: An Indroduction. New York: McGraw Hill.

Boxer, S. 2000. 'Making a Fuss Over Opening Credits; Film Titles Offer a Peek at the Future in More Ways Than One'. The New York Times Online. [Online] Available here: 

Dick, B. 1989. Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky

Hall, P. 2000. 'Opening Ceremonies: Typography and the Movies 1955-1969'. In M. Lamster (ed). Architecture and Film. New York: Princeton Architectural Press pp.121 -141.

Heller, S. 2011. I Heart Design: Remarkable Graphic Design Selected By Designers. New York: Rockport Publishers.

Horak, J. 2014. Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Kirkham, P. 2011. 'Reassessing the Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock Collaboration'. West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. 18 (1) pp. 50-85.

Rasmussen, R. 2014. Psycho, The Birds and Halloween: The Intimacy of Terror in Three Classic Films. Jefferson: Mcfarland & Co.

Simmons, J. 2005. 'Challenging the Production Code: The Man With The Golden Arm'. Journal of Popular Film and Television. 33 (1), pp. 39-48.

Saul Bass Walk on the Wild Side.