Feature One Sheet

One Sheet: Saul Bass, master of simplicity

Few men have influenced graphic design as drastically as Saul Bass, the New York-born artist who was responsible for some of that era’s most iconic movie posters. Nicholas Page takes a look at his most resonant work.

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
Dir. Otto Preminger / American One-sheet


From the dawn of motion pictures right up until their Hollywood heyday in the fifties, the art of movie posters was very simple: the star or stars of each piece were colourfully painted in dramatic poses, before a fitting font, title, and tagline were thought up to complement this. Despite the effective nature of this art as a form of marketing – which it is, after all – it took until the fifties and the introduction of buccaneering artists like Saul Bass for this to change. The above poster, created for the release of Otto Preminger’s tale of crime and addiction The Man with the Golden Arm, is perhaps the one poster that should be credited with breaking the mould. It launched the designer’s career, and proved that simple design was not a lost art after all. Bass kept his employer’s happy by including the faces of each star, yet it was his invention – the crooked arm, running down the centre of the poster – that really grabbed audiences.

The Cardinal (1963)
Dir. Otto Preminger / American One-sheet


“Symbolize and summarize” was the motto Bass lived by when it came to design, and his careful choice of bold colours and shapes was an important part of this. Through his methods, Bass showed not only a generation of designers but also an entire industry that posters weren’t just an afterthought; that their design and the film’s design could become one and the same, and that this needn’t be at the expense of effective marketing. Indeed, his work, with its print objects, primary colours and unconventional or broken type reminds one of the Soviet propaganda art and commercial design of the 20s. A good example of this is the uneven font and large open space (dedicated solely to the colour red) seen here, in his poster for Preminger’s 1963 film The Cardinal. With all the messy, over-photoshopped creations that studios attempt to pass off as posters today, it’s refreshing to see something that is so minimalist and yet at the same time so effective.

In Harm’s Way (1965)
Dir. Otto Preminger / American One-sheet


This poster, designed for the release of Preminger’s In Harm’s Way in 1965, begins to give some hint of the direction in which Bass, or his career, would later go. The pointing hand, complete with general’s sleeve seen in the poster above is essentially a logo for the film, just as the crooked arm in The Man with the Golden Arm came to symbolise the content found in the film itself. Up until that point, this idea of having a visual symbol for each film was unheard of – Bass blazed trails. The golden period that Bass had enjoyed would only last until the mid-sixties, at which point his innovations fell out of fashion somewhat. From there he founded the firm Saul Bass and Associates, under which name he would create some of corporate America’s most memorable logos: United Airlines, AT&T, Quaker, and Warner Communications, to name but a few. This corporate work would slowly give way to a return to poster design in the later years of his career.


Vertigo (1958)
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock / American One-sheet


Despite working with Otto Preminger on almost all of his output during this period, the most impressive partnership Bass formed in the fifties and sixties was with British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Bass not only created the posters for Hitchcock’s most famous works – Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho – but also used these designs to craft the opening title sequences for each film. For the opening of Vertigo in 1958, he used a Spirograph motif to evoke the film’s dizzying sensations, also seen above on his poster for the movie. Such sequence designs were seen by Bass as a chance to create the right climate, and to plunge the viewer into the film’s atmosphere from the very beginning. He loathed the idea of these opening credits being a tedious afterthought, or more “popcorn time”, as he called it. An important note to be made here is the lack of interference by Paramount Studios on the work of Bass. He was given a free rein, and full credit for his work, which wasn’t the custom until that time.


Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)
Dir. Otto Preminger / American One-sheet

HarmLargeBass continued to work on posters (but not opening sequences) throughout the late sixties and seventies, though with a limited output. The above poster for Preminger’s eerie psychological drama Bunny Lake is Missing being but one of these. While concentrating more on his corporate work, he still found the time to dabble in filmmaking with a short documentary film entitled Why Man Creates, which won an Academy Award in 1968. Bass followed this up with a full length science fiction feature in 1974 called Phase IV, which wasn’t such a success. To younger directors, Bass was something of a legend, so it was only a matter of time before he was coaxed back into the world of title design. This came along in the form of James Brooks’ Broadcast News in 1987 and then Penny Marshall’s Big. In 1990, Bass found a new long-term collaborator in Martin Scorsese, whom he worked with until his death in 1996, on films such as Cape Fear, Goodfellas, and Casino.


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