Monday, July 15, 2013

Saul Bass' Spiraling Titles in Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958): Judge a Movie by its Title

Back again to Hitchcock. Back again to Vertigo (earlier in the blog, I covered the famous Carlotta portrait that captivates Madeline and Scottie alike). Like Scottie in the film, I go over and over the old ground. I'm captivated by the events that take place in Vertigo. This film literally had me in awe due to its utter mastery: its stellar cast (led by Jimmy Stewart at the height of his talent and the stunning Kim Novak), its probing themes, and of course the suspense that lies in that excellent story. Because really, it's not Hitchcock, its not the Master, without the Suspense, right?
But, as I stated earlier in the month, Hitchcock is not merely the Master of Suspense. He's a Master of Images. Think of the indelible images of Vertigo that haunt character and audience alike. The obsessing the museum. A tiny, innocent, tortured woman jumps into the large, brooding San Francisco bay. And of course, the mission church. Always back to that church, where I believe all the films best scenes occur. I digress.
But Hitchcock, as I have found out, was certainly not the Master of Images, on his own. Hitch, as it turns out, was also the master supervisor, assigning tasks to people most adept to doing a stellar job at them. Vertigo's title sequence is a classic instance of that. Sought out by Hitch, Saul Bass created one of the greatest title sequences, if not the greatest title sequence for one of the greatest films, if not the greatest films, of all time. Vertigo is a film fraught with drama, sensuality, suspense, psychological mysteries and (I believe) above all, eeriness. The eeriness of one's compulsions. The eeriness from the unknown. And perhaps worse, the eeriness of what one believes to be true.

I'll pause in my soliloquy of Vertigo (as much as I'd rather go on). And that's because its worth discussing Bass's title sequence, which contains all of the important Vertigo elements I just mentioned. I'll walk you through it, and then we'll discuss it. (While I do so, I'm going to include stills of title sequence, mainly in order, but not completely).

At this point, I'm also going to mention the fantastic score written by Bernard Herrmann, the amazingly talented composer who worked with Hitchcock on a number of films, including some of his biggest later hits, North by Northwest and Psycho. For me, a title sequence doesn't work well without the music. As I've written time and time again, the title sequence sets the tone for the film. It preps the audience for what is to come, visually and audibly. Herrmann delivered for Vertigo. I believe it to be his masterpiece. It's a piece that rises and falls: unsettling, for sure, but also vaguely beautiful and faintly mysterious. Hearing it blindfolded would be enough to give an audience the proper sense of unease that goes with Vertigo, but with the visuals, the title sequence transcends its lowly genre.

It begins with an intimate close-up of a beautiful woman's mouth, gradually panning over her eyes and finally zooming over a single eye (see above). The face turns red, the title emerges from the eye, and then the viewer (so it seems), enters the eye (or the mind) of the woman. As the music rises and falls, rises and falls, a series of spiraling, intricate geometric shapes come and go, rising and falling with the music. Gradually, the camera pans out, the audience views the eye once more, the music quickens pace, and "Directed by Alfred Hitchcock" shows up, and the film begins.

I obviously didn't do it justice. How could I in a single paragraph summarize a monumental piece of art (because that's what it is).  I couldn't, so I'll include the link at the bottom of the page for you to watch, when you're all background-prepped for it.

Because a large part of the film centers around the horrors of the mind, of psychological torment, legendary graphic artist Saul Bass wanted to do something that featured one of the main thematic mysteries of the piece but also the sense of sensuality that goes with the film. Bass was one of the foremost graphic artists of all time creating some of the most enduring logos of the 20th century. He also created a series of incredible title sequences that merged visuals and music to set the stage perfectly for a film. When I think of a Bass title sequence, I think of the kinetic, quickly moving, brightly colored, simple animations that Bass was known for. I think this is more because these sequences seemingly fit our perception of the time than some of his other work.
Vertigo is something different for sure, or at least something more different than what one expects from Bass. Gradually, he designed this sequence: beginning on Kim Novak's face, focusing on her eye, and then featuring a series of swirls (they're more then swirls of course, but I'll refer to them as such for now) while the series of names marched on. The swirling spirals become more appropriate as the film continues. If you've seen Vertigo, you realize that the story also spirals and circles. In a way, it mysteriously starts over in the middle of the film and the chain of events reoccurs in a different manner. Like the spirals in the titles, Vertigo's story seems to be all about the same things going around and around- whether it be ghosts, madness, love- or in our case, delightful geometric designs. 

Bass, however, didn't create the swirls, which are called by the way, Lissajous waves. Somehow, don't ask me how, Bass became familiar with the graphic plots of the 19th century French mathematician Jules Lissajous and was inspired by their also infinitesimal qualities that twisted and turned liked the thoughts of a tortured brain. So, as much as I hate to admit this, math certainly helped make something beautiful.

Back to Bass. So Bass knew he couldn't freehand the designs he was envisioning. So he turned to a pioneering computer graphic designer by the name of John Whitney. Whitney worked for an advanced animation studio, the UPA, which had been experimenting with computerized graphics. Bass usually all the credit for the title sequence, and he does deserve a lot of it, but not all of it. Whitney deserves his own fair share. And you'll see why in a second.
Whitney figured out that he would require a machine to make the designs, which he could roughly plot out prior. Such a computer would have to almost be on a pendulum motion to be constantly in a circular motion. He turned to a giant, monster of an ancient computer, the military-grade M5 gun director, which tracked targets. I don't know too much about it. I know it was a very simple, early computer that ran on equations and such and operated on a pendulum motion. He set that to work and singlehandedly introduced computer graphics to the cinema using recycled military equipment. And what a way to introduce them!
Let's be clear, the creative process of the sequence is certainly very interesting, but more incredible is the fruit of their labors. The result is as disturbing, intimate, and beautiful as the film itself, and that is no understatement and no rare feat. Vertigo was one of Hitch's more artistic films, and its not just because of the inclusion of a painting like the Carlotta portrait. It's because the images he created on screen were works of art in themselves, breathtakingly beautiful and often, also mysterious or even terrifying. It's no surprise that the title sequence, then, follows this same trend. If Vertigo is anything, it is a film about mysteries and the compulsion to solve them that follows. Vertigo's title sequence is one large, beautiful mystery leaving the audience yearning to know why such twisted, disturbing thoughts occur in such a lovely brain and leaving the devoted film fan to know how such disturbing thoughts came to be visualized in those gorgeous spirals, intimate close-ups and stunning visuals. And hopefully, I've just solved that mystery.

The Art of the Title

"Did Vertigo Introduce Computer Graphics to Cinema" by Tom McCormack

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