The seamless and elegant title sequence in North by Northwest is one of my favourites.
Watch the North by Northwest opening credits to see how the music and titles form a whole. “The great thing in working with Saul is that your music never got a better break,” said the composer Elmer Bernstein.
I have a rule, especially when it comes to classic movies. I never watch a film if I have missed the title sequence, because it’s like missing part of the story. Unfortunately, today, the title sequence is almost a lost art, and many movies give it up altogether. But even with classic films, the opening credits didn’t get the importance they deserved until Saul Bass transformed them into an artistic expression, a cinematical and psychological experience, transporting the viewer into the story even before the plot began. His minimalist, yet highly effective, simple, yet expressive style cleverly set the tone for what was to come. “I had felt for some time that the audience involvement with the film should really begin with the very first frame… There seemed to be a real opportunity to use titles in a new way — to actually create a climate for the story that was about to unfold.”
Saul Bass was a graphic designer who had become a successful corporate advertising artist before he was noticed by Otto Preminger and hired to design the credits for Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954). It was the beginning of a fruitful career in the film industry. Bass would go on collaborating with Preminger for The Man with the Golden Arm, Bonjour Tristesse, Anatomy of A Murder, Advise and Consent, The Cardinal, as well as on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho. And I don’t think it was easy to please Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, two of the most demanding directors in Hollywood, so this only confirms his talent, professionalism and passion for the art of the film.
Martin Scorsese is another great filmmaker who pays the right importance to this part of a film, therefore he also worked with Bass (Casino, Cape Fear, Goodfellas). “And they didn’t stand apart from the movie, they drew you into it instantly. Because putting it quite simply, Saul Bass was a great filmmaker. He would look at the film in question, and understand the rhythm, the structure, the mood — he would penetrate the heart of the movie and find its secret,” the director said about Saul Bass’ work.
Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus
The Man with the Golden Arm
“To achieve a simplicity, which also has a certain ambiguity and a certain metaphysical implication that makes that simplicity vital. If it’s simple simple, it’s boring. We try for the idea that is so simple that it will make you think and rethink,” said Saul Bass.
And if you think why should title sequences still matter, think of the Mad Men series. I haven’t watched all the seasons (I somehow lost interest after the third one and haven’t tried to pick it up), but what is the first thing that makes it stand out? The opening credits (by Steve Fuller and Mark Gardner).
photos: title sequences by Saul Bass, via Art of the Title