Saul Bass, Modernist Design, and Psycho

Today’s “Google Doodle” is a tribute to Saul Bass, the graphic designer who did the title sequences for many films–including one of my favorites, Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

A while back, Bard prof, Pat Kirkham made interesting points about Bass’s contribute to the most famous of Hitch’s scenes, that famous shower. From her long, but engrossing piece in Design Observer.

But Truffaut presumably asked the question about Bass’s contribution to the shower scene in the first place because he, like most informed people in the film world at the time, understood that Bass had visualized it; after all, Bass had been given the U.S. industry’s first public credit as a pictorial consultant. Film director Billy Wilder, who knew both Bass’s and Hitchcock’s work inside out, had little patience with those who could not see the difference between the overall style of the film and that of the shower scene. He told me, “Like most people in Hollywood you knew who did what if you were in the industry, especially if great stuff was involved. Everybody talked about that scene. Right from the beginning I understood that Saul did it. Everybody knew. Everybody knew Saul was brilliant. Who questioned it until those remarks of Hitchcock? . . . You only have to look at the sequence and look at the film and think. Think for one minute. You see the shower scene and you see it is not at all like Mr. Hitchcock — King of the Long Shot.”[10]

and later in the same piece

The “silent” clip began immediately, and when it finished I wrote something like, “All I kept thinking was ‘This is modernist design. I cannot get this out of my mind.’” What I had just seen was the shower scene from Psycho (see image below). An interesting discussion followed in which filmmaker Michael Eaton said that I had hit upon a key point because the scene was designed by Saul Bass. To those conversant with design as well as film — such as Wilder and Eaton — here is a sequence completely different from the rest of the film in the same way that the stunning montages by designers Charles and Ray Eames of the construction of Charles Lindberg’s airplane are from the rest of The Spirit of St. Louis, directed by their good friend Billy Wilder and released three years before Psycho. No one had problems crediting the Eameses either at the time or since, or believed that their input took away anything from Wilder. I’d like the Bass montage in Psycho to be thought of in a similar way.

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