Directed by Saul Bass

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Phase IV (1974).

It’s been a thrill recently poring over the Saul Bass monograph, Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design by Jennifer Bass & Pat Kirkham, a large volume that weighs a ton and is as revelatory about the career of a great designer (and his wife and frequent collaborator, Elaine Bass) as you’d hope. One pleasure was getting to read about Bass’s film work from his own viewpoint for once. The curious science-fiction film he made in 1974, Phase IV, is well-known enough to have a cult reputation but too often his long involvement with Hollywood is passed over as a footnote to the careers of the directors for whom he worked. In addition to his celebrated title sequences, Bass was also a visual consultant responsible for the planning and filming of what used to be called “special sequences” within films, the most notorious of which is the endlessly argued-over shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). (See this authoritative post by Pat Kirkham on Bass’s special sequences, and the disputed history of those few seconds of black-and-white film.)

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Phase IV (1974).

All of which sent me to YouTube looking for some of the shorter films that Bass directed from the mid-60s on. The monograph explores these and Phase IV in some detail, for the latter showing pages of sketches for unfilmed sequences. I’m not sure these would have improved a film which I find flawed and occasionally ludicrous but it’s good to see what the director had in mind. The film on DVD has no extras at all but a trailer can be found on YouTube that shows off some of the startling imagery, and also includes a few shots that were cut by distributors foolishly eager to try and sell it as a horror film. It’s ironic that a man who gained world recognition for his poster designs wasn’t allowed to design the poster for his own film.

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Quest (1984).

Of the short works there’s Why Man Creates (1968) here and here, an examination of the creative impulse that’s been so popular with art teachers over the years that it’s probably been seen by a lot more people than his marauding ants. Both this and The Solar Film (1980), a documentary about solar energy, utilise Bass’s hand-drawn animation. The latter is also of note for its final shot of a baby walking into a sunset, a still of which was turned by Bass into an album cover for Stomu Yamashta in 1984. Also that year, Saul and Elaine produced their strangest work, Quest, a half-hour piece of science fiction based on a Ray Bradbury short story whose quest theme is overly-familiar from a dramatic point-of-view but which typically yields a wealth of memorable visuals. In Phase IV there was a nod to Dalí with the dead man’s hand filled with burrowing ants; in Quest we find imagery borrowed from Magritte (a floating castle-topped mountain) and MC Escher (his Cubic Space Division). The copy on YouTube is rough quality but it’s certainly worth a watch. I’m amused to discover how much Saul & Elaine were prog-rock heads (not that there’s anything wrong with that…): Phase IV has Stomu Yamashta and David Vorhaus from White Noise on its soundtrack, The Solar Film features a dubious cover version of Tubular Bells, while the score for Quest is mostly original music (with some borrowings from Holst) that sounds much of the time like Tangerine Dream when they were leaning on their Mellotrons.

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Saul Bass album covers
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Saul Bass album covers

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Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems Of Color (1956).

The great designer and filmmaker Saul Bass is the subject of renewed attention with the publication this month of Saul Bass: A Life In Film & Design by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham, the first comprehensive examination of the man’s work. A post at AnOther has an extract from Martin Scorsese’s foreword, and also a small selection of designs from the book among which was this tremendous Sinatra album cover that I’d not seen before. The album was a limited edition release in which a number of Sinatra’s composer friends produced pieces of music based on colour-themed poems by Norman Sickel. Sinatra had appeared in Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm the year before, the film for which Saul Bass designed a title sequence and a poster that’s probably more visible (and imitated) these days than the film itself. (The arm from the poster is the main graphic on the cover of the new book.) Bass designed the posters, titles and ads for many other Preminger films, more than for any other director. A number of those films had soundtrack albums, of course, as did other films featuring Bass’s work. Usually the poster design was adapted for the album sleeve (something you can see at this Flickr set) but the Sinatra album had me wondering whether there were more albums with Saul Bass covers that aren’t film spin-offs.

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Freedom Is Frightening (1973) by Stomu Yamash’ta’s East Wind.

Searching around turned up a few more surprises: two covers a decade apart for Japanese jazz musician Stomu Yamashta, and a one-off for The Smithereens who were audacious enough to ask for a cover design in 1991, right at the time when Bass’s work was being noticed again thanks to Martin Scorsese. Outside of the soundtrack albums this seems to be all there is—unless you know better. As for Mr Scorsese, the Telegraph had more of his foreword from the new monograph. And speaking of books, here’s another Bass link: Henri’s Walk to Paris, a children’s picture book that I wish someone had bought me in the 1960s.

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Sea And Sky (1984) by Stomu Yamashta.

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Blow Up (1991) by The Smithereens.

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