Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 5 Spiralling Aspirations: Vertigo, 1958

Essays by Emily King
3 818 words20 min read

3: Spiralling Aspirations: Vertigo, 1958

Vertigo was the second Hitchcock movie Saul Bass worked on, having previously designed the opening sequence for North By Northwest. A year after the release of Vertigo, Bass went on to design the credits and work on sequences for the film Psycho. It seems likely that Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was responsible for employing Bass. Years later in an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock admitted, ‘the story was of less importance to me than the over-all visual impact on the screen’. Bass after his early work for Preminger had made a name for himself as a creator of a certain kind of ‘over-all visual impact’. Like Preminger, Hitchcock used Bass’s input both to maintain control over post-production of his films and to promote the idea of his own complete creative vision. It seems ironic that employing another individual to design a sequence within a movie should be used as a device to signal sole authorship. By designing distinctive sequences Bass gave Hitchcock and Preminger brand images, which audiences could recognise from one film to the next.

Robert Kapsis has developed a thesis which suggests that throughout his career Hitchcock was actively engaged in the shaping of a recognisable and marketable artistic identity for himself. Kapsis has argued ‘From the beginning of his directorial career in England in the mid 1920s Hitchcock used publicity to promote himself, his films, and idea of directorial preeminence and authenticity’. At a British Film Society meeting, Hitchcock told the assembled group,

Film Directors live with their pictures while they are being made. They are their babies just as much as an author’s novel is the offspring of his imagination. And that seems to make it all the more certain that when moving pictures are really artistic they will be created by one man.

The idea that only the work of an autonomous creative individual can be of artistic value anticipated the auteur theory. This theory, which came to dominate serious film criticism, was derived from a bunch of loosely connected opinions expressed in articles written by French critics/directors including Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut for Cahiers du Cinema, a magazine launched in 1951. Andrew Sarris, the American film critic who was the first to formally express the theory in the early 1960s, argued that the value of a film lay in the qualities that could be attributed to its auteur, who he assumed to be its director. He identified these as the common features within a single auteur’s body of work, such as a distinctive camera angle or sequence of images. Kapsis’s thesis is important because he implies that a director might be commercially, as well as artistically, motivated to create a recognisable identity for his work.

Hitchcock actively promoted himself in the press as a film-maker who was in complete control of all phases of the production process. In 1939 he signed a contract with the American production company, Selznick International. Hitchcock’s long term contract with Selznick’s studio granted them his non-exclusive services on two pictures in the first year. Though Selznick retained the right to prepare the final cut of the films and was in charge of post-production of all films made by his studio, in interviews Hitchcock claimed that Rebecca, the first film he directed for Selznick, would reflect solely his personality. This view was reinforced rather than contradicted by the material released by Selznick’s own publicity machine. Hitchcock was not only promoting the idea of himself as the sole author of his films he was also successfully turning that idea into a marketable asset.

From the mid 1950s Hitchcock appeared frequently in the media instructing people on how to view his films. He used advance notices, press releases, staged interviews and articles in newspapers and magazines, reportedly authored by himself, to instruct audiences what to expect of a typical Hitchcock feature film. Reviews of Vertigo suggest that he had successfully instilled in his audiences the feeling that they should be spotting his authorial input. After spending more than a column summarising the film’s plot, a piece in Film In Review concluded,

Vertigo’s credits have the best titles Saul Bass has done to date. To them and the really beautiful photography, and creative photographic effects I add for praise the Hitchcock directorial "touches". It is really those, I suppose, that enable Vertigo’s 126 minutes to be a pleasant evening.

The reviewer never got more specific about what these ‘touches’ were. It is significant that he mentioned them in the same sentence as the Bass title sequence, which was something he would have recognised as a common feature of Hitchcock’s films. The reviewer in the Motion Picture Herald claimed that the film was ‘Fortified with ... the identity of Hitchcock’s direction’, but again the only cinematic devices he chose to mention are ‘the clever main titles designed by Saul Bass, and John P Fulton’s special photographic effects’ which brought ‘The mood of the somewhat lengthy screenplay... into immediate focus.’

Jack Moffitt, who reviewed the film in The Hollywood Reporter, recognised the problem raised by identifying one man’s work as the mark of the creative genius of another, and neatly got around it by claiming,

The measure of a great director lies in his ability to inspire his associates to rise above their usual competence and Hitchcock exhibits absolute genius in doing this in Vertigo. The animated spirals of Saul Bass’s title designs create an effect of dizziness and audience participation at the very start.

Other reviewers failed to recognise Bass’s input completely. The critic of Film Daily admired the opening sequence but, giving Hitchcock sole credit, observed, ‘The producer-director makes excellent use of Miss Novak’s beauty, even to the extent of using her large eyes as part of the main title backgrounds’.

This is not to claim that Hitchcock’s 'directorial touches' were in any way fictitious, but just to suggest that it is easier for an audience to recognise a screen-filling graphic device than a subtle camera shot. Stanley Donen made a series of suspense mysteries in the mid 1960s in a consciously Hitchcockian manner. To enable his audience to recognise his homage, he borrowed Hitchcock’s favourite actor, Cary Grant, and employed Maurice Binder to give the title sequences the Bass feel. The Donen/Binder team was a self-conscious imitation of the Hitchcock/Bass partnership.


Though Bass had not set out to create a complete graphic scheme for Vertigo, he designed a newspaper advertisement for the film adapted from his title sequence (fig.13). Kapsis argues that the idea for this advertisement was Hitchcock’s and Paramount reluctantly went along with it. The studio blamed these ads for the film’s failure to attract large audience in its first few days, Kapsis suggests that the Bass design implied Vertigo was ‘a more poetic and less mainstream film’. Within Vertigo’s first weeks of exhibition Paramount’s East Coast marketing office had put together a new design, which put more emphasis on the film’s stars. Kapsis argues the impact of the new campaign was negligible, Vertigo’s box office takings continued to decline after the new promotion.

A variety of posters were offered to movie theatres through the American press book for Vertigo. While some use an adaptation of the Bass spiral, none keep to the original Bass design created for the press ad which borders on the abstract, a stylised figure of a man falling into the eye of a geometrical figure. The posters that are illustrated with the spiral were intended to emphasise the ‘Hitchcock Sell’. The face of the ‘master of suspense’ looms out from the top left of the design and the text reads ‘Alfred Hitchcock engulfs you in a whirlpool of terror and tension’ (fig.14). Other posters completely abandon the spiral motif to concentrate on the films stars or its major dramatic scenes. One design shows Kim Novak in bed, James Stewart’s face contorted with passion and pain in the foreground and a phallic tower looming behind (fig.15). This poster promises a sexual frisson that audiences might have been disappointed to find missing from the film.

While, as Kapsis argues, Hitchcock effectively managed the marketing of his own personality and took an interest in the campaigns to promote his films, he had no dominant idea about the visual approach to this promotion. Despite having commissioned Bass to create the press advertisement for Vertigo, Hitchcock, unlike Preminger, cannot be seen as a champion of modern graphics. Hitchcock chose to promote Psycho with a poster of Janet Leigh in only her underwear. Though the film’s title was written on this poster in a slashed typeface derived from a Bass design, its style was one that most movie-goers of the early 1960s would have associated with pornographic films. This poster, along with other effective marketing ploys, such as instructing audiences that if they arrived late they would not be allowed into the theatre, were responsible for the film’s immediate success. Hitchcock’s strategy for managing publicity was derived from his instincts as a popular entertainer, rather than any single sophisticated graphic concept.

The audience, having been drawn in to see Vertigo by one of the number of devices employed to promote the film, might have held widely varied expectations. Within the movie theatre, an instant impression would have been created by the first suggestively mysterious notes of Bernard Hermann’s score, which begins as the Universal pictures logo fades from screen. Immediately after this opening, the first image of the title sequence (fig.16) fades onto the screen. In the opening seconds of the sequence the camera moves to the left, drawing our eyes with it, until it rests on a black and white close-up of the face of the film’s star, Kim Novak, already in character as Madelaine/Judy. The camera then closes in on her mouth. Our gaze is concentrated upon this single feature which is blown up to fill the screen. The mouth twitches slightly as if its owner were nervous under our concentrated examination. The opening words of the title ‘ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS’ expand onto the screen until they fill the woman’s upper lip. The credits are all written in serif capitals. The larger titles in the first part of the sequence are in outline type through which the image beneath can be seen. The main body of the titles are in solid black capitals of the same typeface. The camera then moves our gaze upwards to the woman’s eyes. Again as if in response to our gaze, she moves her glance from side to side in swift panicky movements. The names of the film’s big stars, Kim Novak and James Stewart, expand onto the screen in the same manner as the first credit to fill the forehead of the woman. The camera then concentrates our gaze upon the right eye of the woman. At the slightly spooky sound of a bell in Bermann’s score the screen is suddenly stained red. The film’s title expands from the woman’s pupil to fill the centre of the screen. The changing colour of the screen signals that the images are no longer examining the external signs of identity but dealing with the inner being. The camera draws us into the psychological depths of the woman through her pupil. As the camera dives into the depths of the woman’s nature the music becomes increasingly uneasy and mysterious.

The mathematical figures expand to fill the screen. Our gaze appears to penetrate the eye at the centre of the each figure, suggesting a process of delving down through complex layers. As our gaze appears to move through one figure it is met by the next, which in its turn appears from the cinematic distance and expands to fill the screen. The body of the text in the sequence appears in blocks to the lower left and lower right of the screen as the camera travels through the geometrical figures. The sequence ends as a rotating circular form fades into an image of the woman’s eye and Hitchcock’s director’s credit emerges from its pupil. This image then fades out entirely.

The technology used to trace the geometrical figures onto the screen in the Vertigo sequence was developed by a West Coast experimental film maker, John Whitney. The Whitney brothers, John and James, were part of the small resurgence of interest in the experimental film on the West Coast immediately after the war. They were included in the 1947 San Francisco Museum of Art exhibition Art in Cinema. In their catalogue entry for that exhibition they commited themselves to the idea of abstract film, speculating,

Perhaps the abstract film can become the freest and the most significant art form of the cinema. But also, it will be the one most involved in machine technology, an art fundamentally related to the machine.

They claimed that, like Mondrian, they sought ‘a truer vision of reality by destroying the particular representation’ and went on to assert that, ‘By a mechanical destruction of the particular we believe it possible to approach anew this problem.’ The technology used to create the Vertigo sequence was adapted from the radar equipment used in the second world war.

This equipment had first come to the attention of graphic designers in the early 1950s. In an article in Graphis of 1954 (fig.17), Ben Laposky reported on an exhibition of ‘electronic abstractions’ which had travelled to twenty eight museums in the United States. He described:

abstract art forms, traced by intricate electrical waves on the screen of a cathode-ray oscilloscope. They are originated and fashioned by the electronic circuits and displayed by the glowing beam of the electronic picture tube; they are recorded by means of a 35mm camera and the use of fast films.


He went on to speculate,

To the mind these creations seem to have a particular fascination. Although purely abstract in origin, and so non-representational of many material things, resemblances to many natural forms may be seen.

To a generation of graphic designers committed by their Bauhaus ancestors to the pursuit of technological progress these electronic abstractions offered an exciting new possibilities. In 1957 an article in Print (fig.18) reported on Morton Goldsholl’s work with electronic abstractions, suggesting it was ‘directly connected to the graphic designers concern with light, as it accurately reflects the growing use, first in avant-garde circles and then in the commercial work’. The use of light pioneered by the Whitney brothers was possibly the first mobile graphic device which was subsequently adapted to static use, reversing the conventional route of graphics into film.

By employing Whitney’s technology in the opening sequence of a narrative feature film, Bass again showed an interest in the means, but a lack of sympathy with the ends, of the project of the absolute film. But John Whitney, unlike Fischinger, was no enemy of commerce. In the early 1960s he and his brother made a short film, Catalog, which was intended to show prospective customers the kinds of graphics they could produce for use within commercial film or television. The most famous use of Whitney’s technology in mainstream film is within the Stargate sequence in Kubrick’s 2001.

Bass’s sequence at the beginning of Vertigo is symbolic of the film’s substance. Robin Wood in his book Hitchcock’s Films, the first analysis of Hitchcock’s complete oeuvre written in 1965, suggests the film’s theme was ‘unstable identity’ and argues, ‘Hitchcock is concerned with impulses that lie deeper than individual psychology that are inherent in the human condition’. This concern with human psychology was widespread in the mid-twentieth century, when ‘the unconscious was on everybody’s mind’. The association of intricate geometrical figures with complex psychology states was made by the Whitney brothers, who listed among their interests ‘Jungian psychology, alchemy, yoga, tao, quantum physics, Krishnamurti and consciousness expanding’ and associated the patterns they derived with the view from the ‘inner eye’. Bass did not only the employ the technology of the West Coast experimental film-makers in the creation of the opening sequence of Vertigo, to some extent he adopted their ideology. By the early 1960s the association of the geometrical form with the mental state had become a graphic convention (fig.19), and these figures appeared as cover illustrations on virtually all of the numerous popular psychology texts that were published in the period.

The score accompanying the Vertigo sequence does not marry visual beat to auditory beat but is loosely synchronized to the images. It is likely that Hermann would have composed the music to counts of the title sequence and a outline of the storyboard. Bass has said that, with the exception of The Man With The Golden Arm, ‘In every case, I did the visual material first and the composer wrote an original piece of music to accompany it’. Probably both music and the title sequence were put together at the very end of the production process, once the body of the film had already taken shape. This was the conventional film production schedule that had evolved under the studio system and was adopted unrevised by independent producer/directors.

Bass made the credit sequence for Vertigo with the help of Harold Adler, a movie advertising artist and title design letterer who worked for National Screen Service. Adler later went on to cooperate with Bass on the titles for Psycho. Discussing that collaboration Adler observed,

I don’t think [Saul Bass] was too technically involved or oriented at that time. One of the reasons he came to us at National Screen was that we tried to contribute to that concept and not let him make any mistakes.

He went on to recall that Bass’s storyboards were ‘complete and precise’ but that he needed help to ‘interpret them’ into film. Among others involved in the production of the Psycho sequence were a cameraman and an animation director. Making even a short film sequence requires a team of people working in different capacities. The teamwork involved in the process of producing graphics for film distinguishes it from that of producing static graphic images.

Rebello in his account of the making of Psycho records that out of the $806,947.55 it cost to produce the film, Bass was paid $3,000 to design the opening sequence, which cost $21,000 in total to produce. Hitchcock employed the crew from his television series to make the film, bringing in only the editor George Tomasini and Bass. In this case the opening few seconds of the film accounted for a relatively large proportion of the production costs because, at only $800,000, Psycho was a very low budget film. By 1960 the small budget B movie had its day and the average cost of a feature film produced by the major studios was $2 million. Psycho was produced on such a low budget only because Hitchcock had not been able to attract financial support from the major studios for the project. Therefore, while Bass might well have been paid a similar amount for his work on Vertigo two years earlier, against that movie’s overall production costs the title sequence must have been fairly inexpensive. Vertigo was a major release by a large studio and would have been produced on a budget commensurate with that status.

Despite being of little financial significance, the opening sequence of Vertigo might have been intended to play an important role in the film’s bid for cultural gravity. Kapsis suggests cynically, ‘Throughout the 1940s Hitchcock continued his practice of including unusual shots or sequences in his films for their calculated effect on the more serious critics.’ The most famous of these is the dream sequence within Spellbound, which was designed by Dali and is little more than a transfer of his paintings onto the screen. The emphasis in this sequence appears to be to create easily recognisable Dali images on screen rather than an effective filmic sequences. After arriving in the United States in the early 1940s, Dali had quickly achieved notoriety and by the time he collaborated with Hitchcock he was already a familiar name beyond art circles. He had designed window displays for Barney’s, a major New York department store, and appearing in numerous, widely circulated American publications. By employing Dali, Hitchcock was making a statement to which a large part of his audience would have been able to respond. But, while Hitchcock arguably always played to a crowd, it is unlikely that he was unaware of the effects his films were having on serious critics. Spellbound, among other films by Hitchcock, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art when Selznick donated his collection to the Film Library in the early 1950s. By the late 1950s Hitchcock, canonised by MOMA and firmly established as the icon of the ‘Cahiers Club’, the emergent band of serious film critics, was highly aware of the relationship of his films to art. By using a style characteristic of the experimental art film in the opening sequence of Vertigo, Hitchcock possibly hoped to reinforce the status his oeuvre in the cultural hierarchy. Richard Griffith, curator of MOMA’s film library in the 1950s, actively encouraged the collection of American avant garde film of the period. Hitchcock must have been aware that the films of John and James Whitney lay in the collection alongside his own work of the 1940s.

The term Hollywood Film was often used both within the United States and throughout the world as a generic term for cultural junk. Clement Greenberg in his article Avant Garde and Kitsch that appeared in the Partisan Review Fall 1939, defined ‘Kitsch’ as ‘popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies etc, etc,’. The films made by Hitchcock in the United States are undeniably Hollywood products, and as such would have attracted the scorn of Greenberg. Though it might have been more productive for Hitchcock to reject completely the terms of this debate, in the post war period it had become the dominant framework in which to discuss cultural issues. Champions of all sorts of popular culture began to argue that their particular cause, fashion, music design etc, was art. The design of the opening sequence of Vertigo was one of Hitchcock’s attempts to ally himself with the avant garde rather than the Kitsch.