Saul Bass – “Vertigo”

This is an excerpt of a larger piece about animated title sequences I wrote last fall. It discusses Saul Bass and his participation in Hitch’s Vertigo (1958). The overall thesis for the paper is that animated title sequences present the film’s tone and thesis in a relatively short time and in creative way. Here we go:


It would be utterly criminal to discuss title sequences without acknowledging the fantastic graphic designer Saul Bass (1920-1996), the king of title sequences during the 1950s and ‘60s. Bass is also known for poster art for a variety of films, as well as corporate logos. Director Martin Scorsese, who worked with Bass on a handful of films during the early 1990s, states that Bass’s designs are “thinking made visible” (Bass & Kirkham, 2011, p. vi). Bass’s undeniably inventive designs are unmistakable. One needs to look no further than some Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, or Alfred Hitchcock films to comprehend Bass’s appealingly abstract wonderment. Bass created animated title sequences for a variety of films during the latter part of the Golden Age, including: Carmen Jones (1954), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), Vertigo (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), Spartacus (1960), Ocean’s Eleven (1960), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). These are classic films that are equally set apart due to Bass’s imaginative designs. Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham’s (2011) Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design takes a fascinating look at Bass’s life and career as a graphic designer for the cinema. Bass and Kirkham (2011) write that Bass’s “designs shaped complex ideas into radically simple forms that offered audiences a set of clues, a sort of hermeneutic key to deeper meanings under the surface of the movie” (p. 107). In other words, Bass was able to abstractly illustrate the underlying themes of those films without giving too much away. His titles also set the tone of the film, allowing the audience to become emotionally ready for what is to come; Bass states: “I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it” (Haskin & Bass, 1996, p. 12-13). It is curious that Bass’s usage of abstract and geometrical shapes provides an emotional quality, but it remains true. Further analysis of one of Bass’s most recognizable title sequences—for Hitchcock’s Vertigo—will elucidate not only underlying themes in the film, but also set the emotional pull the film will create.

Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological-thriller Vertigo (1958) is a cinematic masterpiece. In 2012, Vertigo triumphed over Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) in the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Poll; this was the first time another film ranked higher than Citizen Kane since the Poll’s inception in 1962 (Pogrebin, 2012). Perhaps the most mesmerizing point of the film is during Bass’s opening title sequence. A combination of live-action and animation, the title sequence is an incalculable feat of swirling forms that transfix the viewer. The majority of the sequence is the continuous emergence of spiraling Lissajous forms, based on images created by Jules Lissajous, a late-1800s French mathematician (Bass & Kirkham, 2011, p. 180). This mass of swirling figures not only relates to the vertiginous quality that will be easily apparent in the film (as hinted by the film’s title, as well), but the Lissajous forms also evince a sense of volatile danger, impending catastrophe, and mind-affecting hypnotism—all qualities evident within the film. Through the construction of intertwining pendulums, Bass was able to create these constantly-changing, minuscule maelstroms: raging tempests that reside in the fractured character of Judy Barton, played by Kim Novak (Bass & Kirkham, 2011, p. 180). Bass’s use of the Lissajous forms zooms in on the visible fragmentation of Judy’s mind. It is important to note that Judy Barton is posing as Madeleine Elster; the latter is obsessed with a painting of a woman named Carlotta, who looks precisely like Madeleine and, therefore, Judy. The multiplicity of characters within the singular is easily illustrated through Bass’s design, especially when the Lissajous spirals intersect and overlap; these dizzying forms also effortlessly relate to Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), who suffers from vertigo. The forms project confusion and disorder onto the audience, too. These intricate patterns set a definite tone of the film, one of uneasiness and uncertainty. Yet, they are still beautiful and entrancing; they are almost willing the viewer to accept this confusion. That is the brilliance of Saul Bass and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock. The ability for simple, yet complex, rotating geometrical shapes to not only set a tone of uncertainty, but to also indicate the fragmentation and swirling storms that infect one of the film’s central characters is fascinating and admirable. Bass continued the use of meaningful geometrical shapes in two other Hitchcock films: North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). Bass was able to create “compelling, at times near-abstract sequences that capture the undertones of and echo key elements in these three remarkable films” (Bass & Kirkham, 2011). As in all of his designs, Saul Bass was able to lay down the emotional pull of these films, while also placing clues as to what will occur during the film.

More excerpts may appear soon! Thanks for reading!


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