Saul Bass invented some of the most iconic film graphics of the 20th century—and DVDs have destroyed his work
For the past year I have been avidly following Christian Annyas, a Dutch web and graphic designer, who is avidly documenting movie graphics on his website. His Movie Titles Stills Collection of cards and sequences is unmatched for being so rich in digitized titles from the '20s to the present. What's more, his obsession with celluloid is not limited to just motion. Recently, he created a fansite called "Saul Bass' Movie Posters: Then and Now," or "What's left of Saul Bass' movie posters on today's DVD package design." Annyas told me he's showing "how Hollywood studios ignore Bass's beautiful poster designs and replaced them with not-so-beautiful, poorly Photoshopped images," yet he nonetheless allows the viewer to form a personal opinion.
For instance, would you (or I) be more likely to purchase a DVD with Bass's original graphic comic image, showing a hand pulling down a window shade, for Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon (1957); or do you prefer the video version of a studio photo of an elegant Gary Cooper and young Audrey Hepburn in formal attire?
And what about the original Alfred Hitchcock Vertigo (1958), image featuring a black silhouette figure falling into an op-art vertiginous vortex? Is this really less alluring than a stark close-up of a bug-eyed James Stewart?
Then there's one of Bass's lesser known, but no less striking, graphics for In Harm's Way (1965), with the expressionistically drawn arm on which is a naval rank insignia, pointing finger—it is a graphic tour de force. Compare that to the literal collage of a dour John Wayne, smirking Kirk Douglas, and a steaming battle cruiser. Which would you choose?
Here's my favorite: a Bass that I'd never seen before—for a film I'm likely never to see—The Double McGuffin (1979). The original poster is a delightful comic drawing of a gang of people stealing away with a tied-up body—both funny and simple. The DVD, however, is a layout of visual detritus, from the ham-fisted title, to the magnifying glass over four Polaroid photos of the stars.
In icon-riddled computerland, perhaps Bass's graphic treatment is not sexy or overt enough; but Bass is Bass. His work altered for the better (though not forever) how film posters and title sequences were and are designed. That so many of his "classics" have been tampered with, or downright butchered, is unfortunate. Take the comparisons Annyas makes between the clever Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) and the cliché-riddled 2005 version.
Or the emblematic Exodus (1960), with the black expressionist hands reaching victoriously out of yellow and red flames compared to the multi-layered image version, showing Paul Newman against masses of refugees, burning boat and Jewish flag—just in case the consumer has no familiarity with the plot.
Bass's work is appealing for its nuance, and his keen ability for making subtle, abstract symbols speak louder than literal photographs. What makes the new Hollywood versions so unappealing is the inability to allow the viewer to fill in the blanks. When Bass worked for Hollywood studios he created a consistent identity for films, from main and credit titles to posters and ads. "Marketing people in today's Hollywood don't seem to know much about design or film history," Annyas says. "Maybe they're too obsessed with Photoshop, gradients, and floating heads. For whatever reason, they decided not to use Saul Bass's artwork for DVD covers."
Annyas is the self-appointed policeman for Bass's projects. Not only has he kept a watchful eye out for DVD covers, he also maintains a website titled "Saul Bass Logo Design: Then and Now." He notes that the "average lifespan of a Saul Bass logo is 34 years," and offers a selection of adulterated marks that would make any logo preservationist's heart ache. In some instances, original Bass elements are made into 3D renderings, like Geffen Records, others are carnival-ized, like Dixie, and still others are entirely altered, like Quaker from a reductive mark to a realistic portrait. While a logo is only as good as its product, some logos are best not tampered with, and not to be entirely negative, Annyas shows that Bass's original for Warner Communications remains intact.
As the unofficial Bass protector, Annyas provides one more invaluable service to all us buffs. He has amassed, and beautifully digitized, the stills from just about all Bass's sequences, from Carmen Jones to Casino and dozens in between. What an output—and what a feast for all the senses.
Images: Courtesy of Christian Annyas