Saul Bass – Master of film credit titles

For a long time, I wanted to write a short post about the art of credit titles, and there is no better way to start than with the man, who truly elevated this art form – Saul Bass. Saul Bass managed to get people to pay attention to the credit titles, because he made the credit titles part of the story.

The Bat Whispers (1930)
The Bat Whispers (1930)

When you start watching a movie, there is this moment of anticipation: What is this movie about, who are the main characters, is it comedy/drama? Usually the very first thing you’ll see are the opening credit titles. What you would see in a very old movie would look something like this:

Colored title cards or simply the names of characters appearing in the movie. The problem with these opening titles is that they have absolutely nothing to do with the story. They don’t built anticipation, they don’t set the theme/mood/emotions. They work literally as a first opening page in a book. Saul Bass realized this and saw a great opportunity for improvement in this area.

“My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way. 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.” [Saul Bass]

One of his most famous work were definitely the opening titles in The Man with the Golden Arm: When the reels of film for Otto Preminger’s controversial new drugs movie, The Man with the Golden Arm, arrived at US movie theatres in 1955, a note was stuck on the cans – “Projectionists – pull curtain before titles”.

Until then, the lists of cast and crew members which passed for movie titles were so dull that projectionists only pulled back the curtains to reveal the screen once they’d finished. But Preminger wanted his audience to see The Man with the Golden Arm’s titles as an integral part of the film.
Watch the opening titles of The Man with the Golden Arm in the video below:

Knowing, that this movie is about a character addicted to heroin, the white lines (of heroin) in the credit titles make a perfect sense, you kinda get the feeling on emotional level what’s going to come next.

Thanks to Saul Bass, directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger or Martin Scorsese could tell their stories right from the very first frame, in a very cinematic way.



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