Moving Letters, a discussion of film titles. An Introduction to looking at Films.

The Title Sequence as an exercise in communication and promotion


We'll look at three title sequences by the American designer Saul Bass for films by Alfred Hitchcock. All three films have music composed by Bernard Herrmann. We'll go on to look at the title sequence used by de Palma for The Untouchables and for Body Double , where the letterforms alert us to the type of film we are to see. We'll then look at other title sequences to sharpen that analysis (see list beneath. We'll end with Bass's most celebrated sequence of all, for Walk on the Wild Side .

If there is time I would like to start you thinking about how designers should be looking at film, as narrative, as sequences in time, as a converging point of all the design talents. Many twentieth century artists have found the medium particularly stimulating, eg
Alfred Bestall, Peter Knock, Rob Mason, Sue Coe, Edward Burra, Paul Nash ,Evelyn Waugh etc.

There are particular links between Graphic Design and Film. Alfred Hitchcock began as a designer of screen credits and dialogue cards for silent films. The director of Kramer versus Kramer, Robert Benton was art director of Esquire magazine. Kurosawa began his career as a commercial designer and illustrator in Japan. Eisenstein was a political cartoonist before he started stage design. Many of his films are worked out in elaborate story-boards that show his extraordinary graphic talent. An exhibition of caricature sketches by Fellini is on show at the Italian Institute. Films have had particular influence on the way twentieth century narratives unfold. In a recent interview, Salaman Rushdie revealed that his early works as a writer were stimulated by the films he was watching - more than the books he was reading.

1. Psycho Alfred Hitchcock 1960, John Russell (Herrmann)

2. North by Northwest Alfred Hitchcock 1959 Robert Burks

3. The Birds Alfred Hitchcock 1963 Robert Burks

4. The Untouchables Brian de Palma 1987 (Ennio Morricone)

5. Body Double Brian de Palma 1984 Stephen Burum(Pino Donaggio)

6. The Thing John Carpenter 1982 Dean Cundey (Ennio Morricone)

7. Walk on the Wild Side Edward Dymtryk 1962 J.McDonald (Elmer Bernstein)

1. Psycho a woman steals from the bank in which she works. She flees and takes shelter in a motel overnight. The Bates motel is run by a man and his unseen mother. The woman determines to return the money but is horribly murdered in the shower. After a long investigation the murderer is revealed as the son who has preserved his dead mother and occasionally takes on her personality as a way of self-reproach.

2. North by Northwest an advertising executive has his cosy shallow world of chic big city sophistication cut away from him when, mistaken for somebody else, he gets caught up in a spy conspiracy. He flees, is nearly murdered and contributes to the capture of the spies by US government agents. He ends in a tunnel of love on board a train with Eve Marie Saint.

3. The Birds, a small coastal community in America is suddenly attacked by birds. There is some mysterious link with the arrival of a fashionable woman carrying lovebirds for the man she met in the city. The end of the film is ambiguous, suggesting that the birds will eventually assert themselves totally over the environment.

4. The Untouchables, the campaign by Special Agents led by Eliot Ness, is mounted to eradicate crime rackets (actually Al Capone) in Chicago of the 1920's.

5. Body Double , an actor who is ineffectual and whose life is failing at all points is to witness a murder. In the opening section he plays a vampire in a crypt, but he suffers from claustrophobia.

6. The Thing , a space craft crashes into the Earth, the last survivor is unthawed by an unsuspecting group of American scientists in the Antarctic. "I don't know what it is, but it's weird and pissed off."

7. Walk on the Wild Side , a penniless farmer wandering the roads of Thirties America finds the girl he once loved working in a brothel. A brilliant title sequence for an awful film.
The title sequence gives information (title, director, technicians, names of principals). It is usually governed today by strictly negotiated terms of point size of type and hierarchy of reference.

The title sequence also arouses anticipation among the audience, making a clear division between peripheral programming and the main body of the film.

The title sequence offers guidance as to the genre of the film to be expected.

These propositions are achieved with lettering over images accompanied by music, never by the most natural of film media, the voice over. This is odd because the title card or card sequence were associated particularly with the dead-end characteristics of silent cinema."Titles were a definite liability to the silent cinema, since they interfered with the flow of its narratives, and the rhythms of its montage." See David Cook, A History of Narrative Film , Norton & Co, New York 1981 p252 ff.

Saul Bass

b.1920, studied Art Students League and Brooklyn College with Gyorgy Kepes, moved to Los Angeles in 1946 where he began to specialise in film titles and promotional pieces. Also worked on programmes of corporate identity, eg Quaker Oats, AT@T, and Warner Communications. See also titles for The Man with the Golden Arm ,Spartacus, Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus. See Idea, special number, 1986, Graphis Vol.59 1955.




by saul bass