Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 9 Conclusion

Essays by Emily King
2 076 words11 min read


It is not by chance that the fashion for graphically adventurous title sequences coincided with the rise of independent film making. In purely practical terms, films made by independent production companies were likely to have lengthy credit sequences. The ‘increasing clout of Hollywood’s labour unions’ has been cited by some as largely responsible for the development of the title sequence in the late 1950s. Technicians, who would have remained anonymous if on the payroll of a studio, contractually demanded on-screen recognition. As well as getting longer, more attention was being paid to the text of credit sequences. Both title size and substance became the subjects of heated negotiation. In the 1950s and 60s new titles were constantly being invented to describe various roles within film-making: for example cameramen became directors of photography and set decorators became art directors, who then refashioned themselves as production designers. Even after the wording of a title had been painstakingly decided upon, lawyers were reputed to have ‘come in later to take measurements’. In the light of this heightened attention to the content of the credits, the concentration by some upon their form is not surprising.

In the 1930s and 40s it had been the convention in many movie theatres to keep the curtains closed during the credits, parting them to reveal the film’s opening scene. By the 1950s this was unthinkable. A review in Daily Variety of The Seven Year Itch reported that Saul Bass’s main title for that film, ‘a series of hinged and perambulatory patches on a multi-colored field’ led one member of the audience to remark, ‘Credits arranged this way are interesting - you don’t have to read them.’ This was, joked Variety, ‘the sort of crack which gives New Yorkers a bad name in Hollywood where screen credits come first before the wife and the trust fund.’ So, while it was attention to credit content that had led in some cases to the revolutionising of credit form, ironically this led to sequences which some might have believed did not take the issue of credit seriously enough.

Also, through working within the tight budgets characteristic of most independent film-making, producer/directors were required to pay more attention to the two-dimensionality of film and so might have become more aware of the screen as a graphic image. Accurately costing a potential production demands careful storyboarding. While the technique was not new, it became commonplace as film-makers who were required to raise funds independently had to have a good idea of how much money they needed before they began touting for investment. Possibly the representation of screen activity on paper encouraged some film-makers to consider more seriously not only relationship of word and image on screen, but also the use of interesting camera angles to frame unusual shots. While the tension between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional natures of film had concerned the avant garde since the early twentieth century, until the 1950s almost all mainstream American movie-makers had treated cinema as a quasi-theatrical medium.

As well as being a result of the increased significance of the independent producer/director within the film industry, the graphically adventurous title sequence was used by those film-makers to signal their artistic autonomy. Preminger, almost certainly influenced by the craze among North American corporations for adopting modern graphic identities, was able to create a cohesive image for what was otherwise a disparate body of work through Bass’s designs. The appearance of eye-catching modern graphics at the start of Preminger’s films not only implied to audiences that they were viewing a sophisticated product, but also reminded them of the controlling presence behind what they saw on screen. Similarly, Hitchcock’s aspirations are laid bare by the title sequences of his films. In trying to be important both within and beyond the mainstream, Hitchcock self-consciously introduced ‘art’ into his films, a strategy for which he has been equally praised and criticised. By referring to the avant garde, Bass’s title sequences contributed to Hitchcock’s campaign for cultural recognition.


But eye-catching title sequences do not only reflect film-makers’ desire for recognition, they became part of their fight for survival. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, cinema rapidly lost ground to television in the battle to maintain its audience. Shaping a product that would be able to compete with the small screen became the film-maker’s primary task. Professional graphic designers had been working for television companies since the 1950s, designing opening sequences and advertisements. By projecting graphics onto the big screen film-makers hoped to out-do television at its own game.

Not only did television familiarise audiences with screen graphics, but in tandem with the proliferation of printed media, particularly magazines, it led to a general heightening of visual sophistication among potential movie-goers. While, almost certainly due to the conservatism among those in charge of film distribution and advertising, the Hollywood poster format was only very occasionally, and extremely reluctantly, discarded in the 1950s and still remained dominant in the advertising campaigns for major releases throughout the next decade, there is some evidence that by the mid-60s attitudes towards film-promotion had begun to change. The modified bid to create a coherent visual scheme for What’s New Pussycat?, which began on the poster, ran through the credit sequence and on into the film, suggests a faith in up-to-date design within the film industry. In 1965 film packaging and promotion remained haphazard by today’s standards, but the adoption of graphically interesting title sequences by ‘movie moguls’ such as Charles Feldman is evidence of a new belief that graphic design would sell.

This belief took hold to the extent that by the mid to late 1960s tricksy title sequences in a range of graphic styles had become ubiquitous in films with fashionable pretensions, for example Blow Up (1966) which opens with cut-out type through which audiences can glimpse cat-walk models, or Barbarella (1967) in which the titles flutter around the film’s undressing protagonist. These were probably the kinds of sequences that Saul Bass would have dismissed as ‘pizazzy’, but, as he did not deny, they were part of a trend that he had played an important role in establishing. And although Bass, like his fellow designers in the 1950s, sought to uphold the universal values of good modern design by transcending fads, even his title sequences were sometimes dismissed as accessories. As early as 1958 a reviewer of Bonjour Tristesse remarked that the film, ‘with its Francoise Sagan label, Saul Bass credits and St Tropez sun-tan, is nothing if not fashionable.’ Just as the meaning of ‘modern’ slipped subtly from implying progressive to meaning simply up-to-date, so the implications of a modern graphic title sequence changed. While in the mid 1950s, Preminger might have believed that he was establishing important film-making precedents, the Bond films aimed at being nothing more than of their time. In the 1960s modern graphic design of the Chicago school practised by Robert Brownjohn was just another one of a range of viable graphic modes. As such, it jostled for attention among a range of erstwhile counter-cultural graphic idioms which had been repackaged and sold to the mainstream. The newly wealthy, self-conscious youth, which made up a large part of any films potential audience in the 1960s, craved style but recognised its transience.

Once fashionable, it was almost inevitable that eye-catching graphic title sequences of any kind should become dated, their demise being the inescapable outcome of their success. But film-audiences would not only have become bored with screen graphics in movie theatres. As commercial television stations thrived, small-screen graphics became increasingly commonplace. By the late 1960s the glamour of television had become tarnished and it had begun to be seen as a social evil. So while film-makers had adopted the techniques of television at the beginning of the decade, by the end they might have been keen to disassociate themselves from the medium.


In the late 1960s debates about the nature of cinema began to have a noticeable impact on mainstream English language films. When in 1969 Bass remarked upon ‘a great splurge of experimentation in film’, he was almost certainly talking about the films that have since been grouped together under the title ‘New American Cinema’. The American-ness of these films was partly reconstructed from homages by the French New Wave to Hollywood films of previous decades. The American national identity as perceived on film through European eyes was reclaimed by American film-makers. In both Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) the conventional cinematic view of rural America is fully exploited, but consciousness of the use of cliche is heightened when, through unusual editing or the framing of bizarre shots, expectations based on cinematic norms are thwarted. These techniques are characteristically filmic and while Bonnie and Clyde does have a very elegant title sequence, in which old photos appear on screen to the sound of a clicking shutter, it would be fair to say that the relationship of word and image on screen was not of particular concern to those who made the film. However, attention to the two-dimensional nature of film, betrayed through the skilful composition of screen images, is apparent in this and many of the other movies gathered under the ‘New American Film’ banner. Possibly the most important long-term impact of the relationship between graphic design and film has been the blurring of the border between the graphic and the filmic. The influence of what Bernard Lodge described as ‘the graphic designers’ eye’ became strongly evident in the films of the late 1960s and remains so in those of the early 1990s.

While title sequences which translated static graphic idioms onto the screen were commonplace in the 1960s, they never became the dominant mode of movie titling, nor were they ever completely displaced. From the late 1960s until now there has been huge variety in styles of movie titling, from Woody Allen’s theatre-style ‘cards’ to the innovative computer animation in films such as Superman (1978). Rather than either reflecting a shift in the conventional relationship between Hollywood and modern design, or amounting to a new element in the vocabulary of the mainstream film-maker, the titles sequences addressed in this thesis were part of the widespread changes in film-making which were eventually to render any single Hollywood formula redundant.

A sharp decline in the production of Westerns, possibly the most formulaic of all films, coincided with the fashion for animated graphic opening sequences. In 1950 34% of all films released in North America were Westerns, but by 1960 they accounted for only 18% of releases, which, because of declining film production, represents a fall in the number of 130 to merely 25. This is not surprising, ‘fancy’ title sequences were part of a general search by film-makers for new modes which would be appropriate to the late twentieth century. Hollywood film-making in the studio era had been responsible for creating and perpetuating American mythology. In the 1960s political uncertainty deprived the American public of much of their faith in those myths. The title sequences discussed in this thesis, as well as being a reflection of the increasing autonomy of film-makers who were working in an ever more harsh commercial climate, might also be significant as responses to the ideological crises of the period.

To take the title sequences addressed in this thesis out of their context within film, treating them purely as examples of moving graphics, would be to miss their point. Equally, to dismiss them as packaging, as film historians have tended to do, is to ignore both the importance of the opening sequence to the body of the film and its potential to throw analytical light on what it precedes. While design historians must recognise that proper analyses of the role of graphic design in film demands a catholic approach and an eclectic methodology, it should be recognised within film studies that movies are most characteristically wholes constructed of many diverse parts.

  • is a London-based writer and curator with an interest in graphic design. She wrote an MA thesis on film title sequences and a PhD on typeface design of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Recent projects include the book Restart: New Systems of Graphic Design and the British Council exhibition The Book Corner. She is design editor of Frieze magazine. In 2009, she was the curator of Quick, quick, slow exhibition at the Experimenta, in Lisbon.