Saul Bass. Before I ever met him, before we worked together, he was a legend in my eyes. His designs, for film titles and company logos and record albums and posters, defined an era. In essence, they found and distilled the poetry of the modern, industrialized world. They gave us a series of crystallized images, expressions of who and where we were and of the future ahead of us. They were images you could dream on. They still are.
For instance, I look at Saul’s design for the album Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color, and I’m immediately drawn into a shared sense of the world at that moment, 1956. There was a vision of progress then, of hope, of a newer, better world. And there was an idea that everything could be streamlined, and that we would all benefit. Now, how is the future as we imagined it in 1956 contained in this beautiful album cover design? It’s a series of rectangular color bars (resembling the Cuisenaire rods they used to use to teach math to children), in hues suggesting an array of moods, from warm to cool, from contentment to thoughtful melancholy. It has something to do with the economical beauty and elegance of the design, and the range of feeling it contains. In a way, it describes a mental space we all share.
I’m speaking in the present tense here because Saul’s designs, the ones he executed on his own and then with his wife and creative partner Elaine, speak so eloquently that they address all of us, no matter when or where you were born. When I was leafing through the section of this book devoted to the trademarks Saul designed (for Alcoa, Fuller Paints, Continental and United Airlines, the updates of Bull Telephone and Quaker Oats, and Getty and AT&T and Minolta…it boggles the mind), I came across this quote below the chapter heading: “The ideal trademark is one that is pushed to its utmost limits in terms of abstraction and ambiguity, yet is still readable. Trademarks are usually metaphors of one kind or another. And are, in a certain sense, thinking made visible.” To me, that encompasses Saul’s genius, because that’s the way we take in reality a lot of the time: feelings push perceptions to the limits of abstraction and ambiguity, but the world around us stays readable, somehow. Thinking made visible.
Saul and I worked together on four occasions. The first time was on Goodfellas. I had an idea of what I wanted for the titles, but couldn’t quite get it. Someone suggested Saul, and my reaction was: “Do we dare…?” After all, this was the man who designed the title sequences for Vertigo, Psycho, Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, Spartacus, Ocean’s 11, and so many other pictures that defined movies and movie-going for me. When we were growing up and seeing movies, we came to recognize Saul’s designs, and I remember the excitement they generated within us: like Bernard Herrmann’s scores, they added a whole extra dimension to whatever picture they were part of. They made the picture instantly special. And they didn’t stand apart from the movie, they drew you into it, instantly. Because, putting it very simply, Saul was a great filmmaker. 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. That’s what he did with Vertigo and those spirals that just keep endlessly forming — that’s the madness at the heart of the picture, the beautiful nightmare vortex of James Stewart’s affliction. And so, when I showed him and Elaine Goodfellas, they understood what we were driving at right away: the speed, the flash, the sense of life soaring along and then jumping the tracks.
The simplicity of what they did with those titles astonished me, because they could only have been done by someone with a refined understanding of what we were trying to do. But then, I was equally astonished each time we worked together, all over again — by the sinuous reflections in the Cape Fear sequence, the blooming flowers, again and again, under layers of lace for The Age of Innocence, the silhouetted man tumbling through a neon hell for Casino. I always became caught up in the wonder of Saul and Elaine’s work, all over again.
Reprinted with permission from Laurence King Publishing.
Saul Bass: A Life In Film & Design, by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham, is available for $45 on Amazon.