Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 4 Abstracting the Essence

Essays by Emily King
4 120 words21 min read

2: Abstracting the Essence: The Man With The Golden Arm, 1955

Bass began designing film publicity material after he moved from New York to Los Angeles in the late 1940s. In interviews he has implied it was inevitable that, as West Coast graphic designer, he should become involved with the film industry as movie-making was one of California's most economically important activities. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Bass designed a number of film posters and advertisements. He was often employed to design a movie’s trade advertisement while the body of its publicity, which was aimed at attracting a mass audience, took the conventional film poster format.

In the early 1950s the film industry’s approach to marketing through design was not sophisticated. The graphic confusion of the studios’ own correspondence and publicity material suggests that despite the trend for coordinated corporate imagery which was sweeping America, the movie industry had not embraced the fashion of adopting a recognisable cohesive visual identity. The filmic identities of individual studios, which appear on the front of each movie, have remained virtually unchanged since the mid 1930s. In the early 1990s their archaic visual charm is an asset. That they have been retained in their mid-twentieth century form implies a recognition that going to the cinema in the late twentieth century is a nostalgic act for a large part of the movie audience, who have chosen to leave their videos at home. But to have kept these identities in their pre-war form in the protean environment of post-war America, when the movie industry was making a serious bid for a substantial share of modern American life, suggests that those in the film business, unlike much of the rest of American industry, did not have faith in the link between sophisticated design and modernity.

Saul Bass has said that in the course of his work for the film industry he ‘encountered the legendary Otto Preminger’. Bass was Preminger’s son-in-law, which might go some way towards explaining how this encounter developed into a long term working relationship which allowed a graphic designer to carve out an unprecedented role in the film industry.

Preminger (1905-86) suggested that his relationship with Bass germinated from a need to take control of the publicity of his films. In his autobiography he claimed that,

1951 was a turning point in the history of films. Independent producers could at last make pictures and have them exhibited....I was one of the first to take advantage of the opportunity.

By choosing the year 1951, Preminger put his film The Moon Is Blue, a controversially sexy comedy, at the vanguard of independent movie making. Preminger went on,

I made an unprecedented contract with United Artists for The Moon Is Blue. I demanded and received complete autonomy and the right to the final cut of the film. Nobody could overrule my decisions. I had at last the freedom I had always wished for.

United Artists, while giving Preminger the freedom to produce the film as he wished, retained responsibility for its publicity Preminger was outraged when he saw the advertising campaign for his film which he believed suggested that it was pornographic. And at that point Preminger called in Saul Bass, ‘the best graphic designer I know’, to create an appropriately modest campaign.

After The Moon Is Blue, Saul Bass was asked by Preminger to design the publicity for Carmen Jones. Bass created the film’s graphic identity, a rose within a flame. At this point Bass recalls that he and Preminger looked at one another and asked ‘Why not make it move?’. The flame behind the rose was animated and the symbol appeared upon the opening credits of the film. Bass insists that his revolutionary role in film-making sprang from an impulse that ‘was really as simple as that’. On Preminger’s next film, The Man With The Golden Arm, Bass was employed to create both the film’s graphic identity, which Preminger intended to dominate its advertising campaign, and a self contained credit sequence using this graphic identity which would open the film and so tie the publicity to the film in a graphically coherent way.

Despite the increasing power of the independent film maker in the sphere of production, control over the ways in which their films were marketed and distributed remained elusive for most of them. Preminger made films for a number of different studios in the 1950s and 60s under a variety of contractual conditions. In each case Preminger's bargaining power with the studio who were distributing the film is reflected in the advertising campaign.

Preminger hoped Bass’s complete graphic schemes for the marketing of his films would secure him an upper hand in the battle for control over publicity. Bass's strong instantly recognisable designs also evinced Preminger's apparent control over every facet of production and distribution. During the period of exhibition of The Man With The Golden Arm movie theatres asked for posters with an image of Frank Sinatra, but Preminger refused, allowing only Bass's image of the disjointed arm to be used. In this case the film was being distributed by United Artists who allowed independent film producers a high degree of autonomy. Preminger, who had already been able to seize control of the publicity of The Moon Is Blue, was able to get his way.

However, the press books for his films would suggest that he did not always have the control he aspired to over the post-production of his films. Certainly he appears to have had very little influence over the way his films were marketed abroad. The British press book for Anatomy of a Murder, Columbia, 1959 (fig.7) offers British movie theatres posters which have completely lost the graphic symbol Bass had devised for the movie. On these posters the film's title, written in a typeface clumsily derived from the one designed by Bass, appears above the standard film poster portrait montage of the picture's big stars, James Stewart and Lee Remick. Bass's overall graphic scheme for the marketing of the movie survives only on tie-in promotions, such as the cover of the record of the sound track by Duke Ellington and sheet music, which were almost certainly simply the original American versions imported into Britain. Similarly, the British press book for Bonjour Tristesse, Columbia, 1957, (fig.8) suggests that Bass’s graphic symbol for the film, which was animated in the movie’s opening credit sequence, virtually disappeared in the British promotion. Again, the poster offered to British theatres used an adaptation of Bass’s typeface, which was superimposed upon an image of two intertwined pairs of bare legs, one male and one female, sticking out from under a parasol. These posters give the film a 'summer movie' image which is very different from that suggested by Bass's original design (fig.9), which one graphic design critic believed referred to ‘three thousand year old Japanese writing’ and quoted from a source as aesthetically respectable as Sergei Eisenstein. Columbia studios had no confidence that Bass's graphics would sell Otto Preminger's films to a mass international audience and had the power to choose not to use them.


In spite of the patchy success Preminger had in marketing his films in the manner he wished, he seems to have been effective in marketing himself as a man who ‘Shapes All Aspects of His Films’. Suggested press copy distributed by Preminger to coincide with the release of his 1961 movie Exodus read,

Preminger is an independent producer who jealously guards his prerogatives. He negotiates his own business deals with the distributors and sets the tone and approach of the advertising campaigns.

He was successful in creating this image of himself and in his obituary, which appeared in the New York Times on April 24, 1986 he was remembered as a man who, KEPT A FIRM HOLD ON FILMS. The piece elaborated:

In his more than three decades as an independent producer and director, Mr Preminger developed a Barnum-esque reputation. Much that he did in turning out a motion picture, other independents would have delegated, but Mr Preminger kept a firm hold on subject selection, script writing, the selection of cameras and other equipment, and post-production supervision of publicity and advertising campaigns.

As well as being a sign that he was in complete control, Preminger seems to have believed that the cohesive ‘corporate’ image he aimed to create for The Man With The Golden Arm would indicate that it was a movie aimed at a modern audience. This is analogous to the belief shared by many American industrialists in the 1950s that a modern a coherent graphic identity signalled up-to-date business practises.

Throughout his career Preminger concentrated on making movies he believed to be of-their-time, which for him implied challenging and adult. He had already fought a battle with the film industry's self-censorship body, the Motion Picture Association of American, over The Moon Is Blue and quite knowingly rekindled the flames by producing The Man With The Golden Arm, a film that dealt with drug addiction. When the M.P.A.A. refused to offer the film their Code seal Preminger, who admitted that he was ‘not surprised by the decision’, called the Production Code ‘definitely antiquated’ and claimed that it had ‘no influence on the American movie-going public’. To release the film, United Artists were required to either leave the M.P.A.A. and so free themselves from their voluntary observance of the Code or to risk a $25,000 fine. Choosing to back Preminger, U.A. resigned from the Association.

Discussing Preminger's legal history, his obituary in the New York Times, cynically suggested that he might have been ‘frequently embroiled in fighting movie censorship ..... out of a desire to drum up publicity for his independently produced and directed films’, but nonetheless they credit him with ‘hastening revisions of the stiff morality rules of the Production Code Administration’. In Britain The Man With The Golden Arm became the first film that had been given an X certificate by the British Film Censor to be exhibited on the Odeon Circuit. John Davies, from the Rank Organisation who distributed the film in Britain claimed that though ‘the 'X' certificate has been commonly associated in the public mind either with horror or pictures depicting sex’ it was ‘intended to cover all types of film entertainment considered suitable for adult audiences’.

In an article about film advertising printed in Graphis, Saul Bass discussed his graphics in relation to a film's substance:

It is important to note that there is relatively little creative and mature film advertising produced in the United States. That which is produced, comes about sporadically, and does not grow out of a consistent attitude or policy of any business organization. There are many reasons for this, but they all focalize in the lack of confidence of the advertiser in maturity and taste of the audience. This attitude can be traced back to the film itself. Certainly the men who make films for insensitive audiences (as many film makers see it), would hardly be expected to abandon the cliche in the material that is devised to bring the audience to the film. Where a more creative approach to the advertising is undertaken, it is usually as a result of attitudes that were expressed first in the film.

In the same article Bass lamented that film makers still remained generally unwilling to ‘accept a grown-up audience’.

The film’s graphic identity (fig.10), devised to attract the mature audience that Bass and Preminger believed themselves to be among the first to acknowledge, was intended to act as symbolic of its substance. In Bass On Titles, a short film made by Bass's own production company Pyramid Films in 1982 Bass explained the symbol: ‘The film is about drug addiction, the symbol, that is the arm, in its jagged form, expressed the jarring disjointed existence of the drug addict’. It is likely that both Saul Bass and Otto Preminger saw Picasso's Guernica when it toured the United States in 1939. Bass would have still been at art school in Brooklyn when the painting was on show in New York's Museum of Modern Art. Preminger, along with a large part of Hollywood's film-making community, may well have attended a preview of the painting in Hollywood on 10 August 1939, sponsored by The Motion Picture Artists’ Committee for Spanish Orphans. The painting received widespread media coverage and became the centre of numerous debates conducted both between artists and art critics and among a wider public. In the late 1930s graphic designers and film makers would have been aware of the imagery used in Guernica and the discussions surrounding the work. Fifteen years later the arm symbol Bass derived for the film The Man With The Golden Arm is strongly reminiscent of the outstretched arms and twisted hands of the character at the far right of Picasso's painting (fig.11).

Writing a review of Guernica in an issue of Art Digest appearing in 1939, Henry McBride claimed that,

Picasso is continually inventing. Apparently for every new set of emotions that creeps into his life has to have a new set of symbols, and so we behold him prodigal, on the present occasion, with a group of revolutionary forms ...... all of them compelling an authority that demands their acceptance into the new language.

Bass in adopting one of Picasso's motifs implicitly accepts McBride's analyses and employs Picasso's new language. Bass's use of Picasso's symbolic language reflects the belief, held by many American graphic designers of the period, that design and fine art shared a purpose and so could have a common language. This position was inherited from the European modernists. In 1960 the editor of Print asserted that ‘Today, mindful of the indivisible unity of all the arts, PRINT recognizes the relationship and indeed interdependence of painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, the film, television, the cartoon - all visual expressions of our three-dimensional world’, he concluded optimistically, ‘Barriers of intellect, snobbery, and use are being eliminated.’

Many of the debates surrounding Guernica concentrated on the issue of abstraction. Social realism, seen as the favourite art form of the European dictators, was in disrepute among American avant garde artists. Abstraction had been established as the only appropriate form of modern artistic expression. Some felt that Picasso's work in not being abstract enough became merely propaganda. While Clement Greenberg insisted that ‘Guernica aims at the epic and falls into the declamatory’, Ad Reinhart argued that ‘It is a painting of pain and suffering. It symbolizes human destruction, cruelty and waste, not in a local spot but all over our one world’. The consensus of opinion lay with the latter view. John Berger expressed what had become the accepted reading when he wrote in 1965, ‘Guernica is not a painting about modern war in any objective sense of the term... the Picasso might be a protest against a massacre of the innocents at any time.’


The film The Man With The Golden Arm is based upon Nelson Algren's social realist novel of the same name which was first published in 1949. At the beginning of the film Frank Sinatra’s character, the drug addict Frankie Machine, has just emerged from a sanitarium, temporarily clean, and is determined to give up his old life of heroin and gambling. The pre-sanitarium Machine had earned his name and his living through his skill in dealing for the local crap games. The post-sanitarium Frankie hope to turn his ‘golden arm’ to drumming and so make an honest crust. The film that follows concentrates on Frankie Machine's personal struggle between good and evil. Machine's dilemma is abstracted from the Chicago slums, where Algren's book was so firmly set. A reviewer writing about the film in Time admitted that ‘Director Otto Preminger has dulled the sociological backdrop that Nelson Algren daubed so brilliantly’ but went on to claim that this abstraction ‘has edged his major characters more starkly against the mass. As a result, the picture is no intellectual slumming party but a hard-eyed study of human character.’

In the ‘politically apolitical’ atmosphere of post war America an examination of human nature in the abstract was seen as intellectually a cut above a study of the social problems festering in urban America. Representing an abstract view of human cruelty and suffering was assessed as a more worthwhile project than protesting against real hardships. It is appropriate that Bass chose a symbol that represented universalised human suffering to symbolise the substance of a film that abstracted the pain of drug addicts in the slums of Chicago and presented it to the movie-going audience as an allegory of good and evil.

The title sequence of the film (fig.12) lasts for under three minutes. On the first beat of the second phrase of Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score a white bar appears from the centre top of the screen and cuts through the plain black background to the middle of the frame at a slight angle. The text, ‘OTTO PREMINGER presents’ written in a simple sans serif type, appears along the centre of the screen at either side of the end of the bar. Throughout the title sequence proper names are spelt out in upper-case type and the rest of the text is written in lower-case.

In time to the next phrase of music three more white bars emerge from the centre top of the frame and cutting across each other at diagonals jut down to the middle of the screen. The names of the film’s big stars, who were its major selling point, appear beneath these bars. Both the words and the abstract forms which make up the graphic images in this sequence appear on the screen in time to the beats of the title music. The length of time a particular image sits upon the screen is prescribed and contained by the score. The images and the music work symbiotically, one emphasising the other so effectively that they appear inseparable.

The film’s title appears after the names of its major stars. Written in capitals slightly larger than the type of the rest of the sequence it appears to be held in place at the centre of the screen by four white bars which jut out from the middle of each of the edges of the frame. The more important credits appear either in pairs or singly, framed by abstract compositions of white elongated rectangular forms. The major body of the credits appear in text blocks which either descend from the top or emerge from the bottom of the frame at either side of the screen as white bars slash across its centre in time to the increasingly frantic pace of the music.

As the title theme reaches its climax a single bar, wider than the others, appears from the top of the screen and juts down to the middle of the frame. This bar then transforms itself into the geometrically stylised arm motif. The fingers of the hand curl tensely and the image is frozen at the moment that Preminger’s director’s credit appears across the centre of the screen.

The style of the sequence is very similar to that of pioneering animation produced by Oskar Fischinger (1900-67) in Germany in the early 1920s. Between 1921 and 1925 Fischinger produced a series of films which he called ‘Studies’. In these short films he animated white forms against a black background in time to pieces of well known classical music. In Study No 8 blocks and crescents dance upon the screen to Paul Dukas's The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and in another Study, which was subtitled a modern artist's impression of The Glory Of Music and repackaged to appear as a short film in British movie-theatres, the same crescents elongate into sinuous lines to translate Brahms's Hungarian Dance onto the screen.

Fischinger, who used the symbol of the Buddhist prayer wheel as his logo, believed in a quasi Buddhist doctrine regarding the correlation between the visual shape of an object and its auditory shape or sound. He reckoned that there was ‘nothing of an absolute artistic creative sense in realism in motion’ and his films were made in pursuit of ‘absolute cinema’. Music was central to Fischinger's notion of absolute film, he explained that, ‘The flood of feeling created through the music intensified the feeling and effectiveness of this graphic cinematic expression and helped to make understandable the absolute film’.

In the late 1930s, Fischinger had come to Hollywood. Fellow emigres helped him find a job at the Disney studio working a sequence of Fantasia, but his relationship with Walt Disney was not successful and at their parting Disney is reputed to have told Fischinger, ‘You want to make art, I’m looking for entertainment.’ After this experience Fischinger was voluble in his criticism of commercial film, appearing to have forgotten that he had pursued and achieved a degree of popular success in Berlin just before he fled Germany. In the catalogue of the exhibition Art in Cinema held at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1947 Fischinger took the opportunity to attack the Hollywood system:

No sensible creative artist could create a sensible work of art if a staff of co-workers of all kinds each had his or her say in the final creation. The creative artist of the highest level should always work at his best alone, moving ahead of his time. He should not care if he is misunderstood by the masses...... Consequently, there is only one way for the creative artist: To produce only for the highest ideals - not thinking in terms of money or sensations to please the masses.

After Fantasia, Fischinger did no work in mainstream film and by the mid 1940s he had virtually given up film making altogether. In his last years in Hollywood Fischinger concentrated on painting, a medium where he could maintain complete creative control.

Bass’s sequence for The Man With The Golden Arm is like a Fischinger Study, both in the style of animation and also in the close sychronization between visual and auditory rhythm. Mike Weaver, writing about Fischinger’s work just after his death in 1969, claimed that he turned the screen into a ‘graphic score’ the visual rhythm being subordinate to auditory. This is also true of the Golden Arm sequence. Bass animated the sequence to the existing score, which was unusual in that period, when composers were almost always asked to create music to accompany existing celluloid images.

Fischinger’s work was shown occasionally at art museums on the West Coast and Bass and Preminger might well have become aware of it through these exhibitions. Fischinger did attract a small following, which Malcolm Le Grice considered substantial enough to label ‘the West Coast abstract school’ but as Le Grice went on to acknowledge the ‘formal aspects of abstraction made only small impact’. Bass’s sequences for The Man With The Golden Arm and for other Preminger films, such as Anatomy Of A Murder and Bonjour Tristesse are the most visible evidence of this school’s impact on mainstream film. Despite Bass’s use of the formal aspects of abstract film in these early title sequences, he had no sympathy with the project of the absolute film. Fairly early on in his career, he turned towards live action rather than animation because he felt that ‘it was more central to the idiom of film’.

It is unlikely that The Man With The Golden Arm sequence was particularly expensive to produce in terms of the overall production costs of the film. It was animated under a rostrum camera, using no innovative techniques. Bass would have been assisted in the animation by specialists from one of the Hollywood post production facilities, which were just beginning to emerge in the wake of the collapse of the studios. But in spite of being technically unadventurous, the sequence was a radical departure from the conventional Hollywood film title which took the form of typography superimposed upon the centre of a static image.

By doing something so innovative at the start of his films, Preminger announced that he was making a new kind of film for a modern audience. The film’s jazz score reinforced that impression, jazz being the favourite musical style of the up-to-date urban American in the 1950s. Preminger’s believed his films to be at the vanguard of modern film making, and so he chose to promote them using modern graphic styles.