When the Frank Sinatra film on drug addiction, “The Man With The Golden Arm” opened, a Saul Bass poster dominated the cinema billboards. No words, only artwork- a jagged arm. Saul Bass produced designs that were part of American modernism’s visual language in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Since then, his work on the “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) has been plagiarised. The graphics he designed, however, used the most straightforward and most traditional techniques-silhouette. It’s the basic icon form, and Bass was a master of the form.
Born in New York, Bass studied at the Art Student League and with Gyorgy Kepes at Brooklyn College. Kepes, a leading designer in his own right, had worked in Berlin and, having come to the US with Moholy-Nagy, worked with him at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. After freelancing, Bass moved to Los Angeles as an advertising art director in 1946. He brought an award from the New York Art Directors’ Club. Competing against conventionally commercial work, Bass had produced an advertisement in an impeccably modern movement idiom for Tylon Cold Wave (“contains TYO”). His first professional contribution was introducing to Californian commercial and corporate design East Coast modern as practised by its leaders, Lester Beall and Paul Rand.
By 1950 Bass had opened his own office. From here flowed a stream of new logos, AT&T (Bell System), Quaker (Oats) and Warner Communications. Saul Bass Associates also did work for airlines, including United and Continental. Such corporate identity work is alarming in its detail, its cost and its demands. In a drive to win Pacific Far East routes, Continental had to find a badge that was culturally neutral but memorable. Bass provided it and published its application not only on aircraft and vehicles but also on the caps of ground staff, in-flight blankets, paper mugs, T-shirts and protective clothing, sugar sachets, baggage tags and tickets.
The opening title sequence of West Side Story is breathtaking in its elegance and simplicity. Saul Bass, their Creator, was a master. He carries the audience forward with what ostensibly are just graphic elements. From the first moments, your attention is aroused by the shrill, sharp whistle call. The screen opens to a vivid yellow background with black vertical lines coming into focus. Without rushing you, the iconic Bernstein composition carries you effortlessly along. If the whistle did not get your attention, the screen abruptly changes to a vivid “red” like a theatre light turning on—the pace of the music changes and the screen changes to a beautiful grape colour.
“This simplistic sequence is an exemplary use of color”
The move towards cooler colours reflects the shift in the soundtrack’s mood. I do not want it to end. I notice that slowly the vertical lines are shapeshifting, or is it my imagination? The music quickens, and the colours warm up, turning orange and staying in this state for some time. The titles and music are moving forward together, almost like a dance. The pace of the music slows the screen changes to green and blue. The blue background has taken hold, and the screen begins to pan out with the title “West Side Story” positioning itself at the bottom of the screen. By the time the music has arrived at its finale. The vertical lines have transformed into the skyscrapers of a beautiful aerial shot of 1960s Lower Manhattan.
The closing sequence contrasts sharply with the conventional ending credits that most films of the era used. Rather than scroll vertically before you, the camera moves and closes in on a graffiti-covered wall. The camera pauses and then moves onto the appropriate credit of interest and then moves out and continues its journey. There are still vertical movements. However, the camera is finding the text rather than just presenting itself—the wall changes to a crowded and cluttered confusion of text and meaningless scribble. The viewer’s interest has already been piqued, and one is actively looking for any legible text. The movement of the camera, while helpful still allows you to discover the film credits by yourself.
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