Film laypeople may not know Saul Bass' name, but they can recognize his work in an instant: The Lissajous spirals of Vertigo's uneasy opening sequence. The fractured corpse of Anatomy of a Murder's poster art. The jagged appendage that telegraphed The Man With the Golden Arm's theme of addiction. Prior to inhaling the doorstopper Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design, I did know his name and certainly his reputation as the most celebrated title-sequence designer in film history, but I didn't have a clue of the staggering breadth of his accomplishments. Four hundred pages and 1,484 illustrations later, I think I got the picture.
Designed by Bass' daughter Jennifer, written by design historian Pat Kirkham, and leaning heavily on first-person materials Bass assembled himself for a memoir that was never to be, Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design is a gorgeous monument to the man. It catalogs in full color his lesser-known work on corporate identity campaigns; indeed, some of the most indelible brand imagery of the mid-20th century – logos for Lawry's seasoning, Alcoa, Continental Airlines, Quaker Oats, and Girl Scouts of America, to name but a few – can be traced back to his shop.
But it's film where his legacy was forged, and the book engagingly traces Bass' introduction to "title backgrounds," as they were first known, and explains how he foregrounded the format to revolutionary effect. Bass is best known for his close, collaborative relationships with three dynamos – Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorsese (who supplies the foreword) – and the book digs deep into those partnerships to show how instrumental Bass' influence was. (The book also pays tender tribute to another partnership: the one with his wife and collaborator, Elaine, whose essential contributions to Bass' work from 1960 on are often overlooked.) Kirkham details how Bass took Hitch's directive to "do something" with Psycho's shower scene and conceptualized himself one of the most iconic scenes in the whole of Hitchcock's filmography, from storyboards to a rough draft shot with Janet Leigh's body double that mimicked the fast cuts and montage style Bass had refined to the actual direction of the scene. Afterward, Hitchcock was cagey about publicly giving him credit, but Bass was still generous, calling the experience of working with him "the graduate course in film theory I never took."
More from masters of the craft: The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael by Pauline Kael (Library of America, $40); Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark by Brian Kellow (Viking Adult, $27.95); Chuck Jones: The Dream That Never Was edited by Dean Mullaney and Kurtis Findlay (IDW Publishing, $49.99)
Copyright © 2017 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.