Book Review: Santa, Baby

Jennifer Bass

Santa, Baby

Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design

by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham
Laurence King Publishing, 440 pp., $75

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)

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More gift guide
Holiday Gifts for Fans of the Big and Small Screen
Holiday Gifts for Fans of the Big and Small Screen
From essential box sets to writers’ wisdom: stocking fillers and the gifts that keep on giving for your watching pleasure

Richard Whittaker, Dec. 7, 2018

12 Days of Christmas Bazaars
12 Days of Christmas Bazaars
A merry miscellany of local art markets and fairs to visit over a dozen days

Dec. 8, 2017

More Screens Reviews
New in Print
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright explores the origins and alleged abuses of the Church of Scientology

Kimberley Jones, Jan. 25, 2013

New in Print
Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame
How celebrity worship has metastasized into the defining American obsession

Kimberley Jones, Sept. 21, 2012

More by Kimberley Jones
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
The dragon riders finally come in to land as the trilogy definitively ends

Feb. 22, 2019

<i>Game of Thrones</i> Is Coming to SXSW. Let the Bloodletting Begin.
Game of Thrones Is Coming to SXSW. Let the Bloodletting Begin.
Hit HBO show launches massive blood drive, SXSW activation

Feb. 19, 2019


gift guide, Book, Saul Bass, Laurence King Publishing

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle