Saul Bass’s Hollywood

Celebrating graphic designer Saul Bass, who illustrated Hollywood’s era of darkness, on what would have been his 104th birthday.

Saul Bass arrived from New York to a Hollywood in disarray. Struggling with rising tensions brought by the civil rights and anti-war movements, and under increased policing and censorship, the city’s shine was wearing off. Between Cold War austerity and an omnipresent violence, the 1950s turned California into a cultural pressure cooker. 

Sparking a counter-culture movement away from consumerism and the television boom, artists once again began using their artforms to combat the sentiments of malaise. Perhaps Bass sensed this shift, as he decided to pivot from advertising to working in film, leaving commercialism behind for a more artistic venture. Bass sought to explore how graphics could compliment this new Hollywood era, and he earned critical acclaim for his eccentric and witty designs, especially amongst filmmakers. 

Silkscreen poster by Saul Bass for Otto Preminger's film Exodus (1960).

Bass’s sharp graphics flawlessly accompanied the stylized thrillers of the time, as his fragmented graphics came to define them. His first major design collaboration was the poster for Kirk Douglas’ Champion (1949). Two main characters are illuminated against a looming black background and overwhelmed title text in red, showing their world in limbo. Instantly jarring, the stark, empty graphics came to symbolise the precarity of the times.

Bass is credited as the founder of the modern title sequence, an element imperative to the creation of the film’s climate. His style of introductions were sparse yet psychedelic, each as over-saturated as they were empty.  Informed by a deep understanding of the film’s theme and narrative, filmmakers were enamored with Bass’s ability to translate their core emotion into simple graphics. From the caging violence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to the patchwork melancholy of Bonjour Tristesse (1958) by Otto Preminger, these title sequences captured the complex worlds of the characters. Director Martin Scorsese believed Bass’s sequences defined an era with “images you could dream on”. 

Amongst his instant successes was The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), directed by Preminger that followed the main character’s struggle between his music career and a heroin addiction. Bass used a dejected arm to represent his woes, the site of destiny to decide his rise or downfall. Harsh and unapologetic, these graphics created characters in their own right. It was a poignant example of how despair could be transfigured to artistic expression.

Today, Bass’s influence remains omnipresent in sharp, sultry graphics. Contemporary designers continue to pay homage by imitation, with promotional posters for Orange is the New Black, and Game of Thrones stamped with Bass’s iconic style. Even the title sequence of Mad Men, featuring animated paper-like silhouettes, was undoubtedly spawned from his iconography.

As we weigh in on our own generational turmoil, we are constantly invited to reinterpret art born during rupture. Was the insistence on sparsity a tart counter to the opulence of 1950s consumer culture, or the empty apocalyptic realms that would follow the anticipated nuclear war? Bass’s iconic style, simplistic in its beauty, is a testament to the timeless way he practiced art, sharing his philosophy that “art is not what you see, but what makes others see,” leaving behind a legacy that asks the audience to fill in the blanks themselves. 

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