Saul Bass, Los Angeles, 1993. © Andy Hoogenboom.This article first appeared in West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture
, Volume 18 Number 1, Spring 2011.
Drawing upon a wide range of sources, including interviews with designer and filmmaker Saul Bass (1920–96) and film director Billy Wilder (1906–2002), this article reassesses the evidence, scholarship, and debates about the contributions made by Bass to three films directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980). Between 1958 and 1960 Bass created main title sequences for Vertigo
(1958), North by Northwest
(1959), and Psycho
(1960) and an advertising campaign for Vertigo
, and he also acted as a “pictorial consultant” for Psycho
(a role that included the design and storyboarding of the now-famous shower scene). The article, which seeks to reopen and redirect certain debates, constitutes a major evaluation of one of the most visually productive collaborations in the history of U.S. cinema. The screen has found in Saul Bass the creative artist capable of distracting the spectator from his own immediate experience . . . . [T]hose who know him see Bass constantly in love with the well-presented image, marvelously modulating each emotion, and with a sensibility perfectly balanced by a sense of humour.
— Raymond Gid, 1963 Saul Bass wasn’t just an artist who contributed to the first several minutes of some of the greatest movies in history; in my opinion his body of work qualifies him as one of the best film makers of this, or any other time.
— Steven Spielberg, 1996 
As these statements indicate, Saul Bass (1920-96) made a significant contribution to movie making, but his work in film was just one part of his creative practice; he also made a major contribution to graphic design, running a design office in Los Angeles with a reputation for excellence in corporate identity graphics and advertising. His sixty-year career includes some of the most compelling imagery of the postwar period, including the title sequences for the three films directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) that are discussed in this article — Vertigo
(1958), North by Northwest
(1959), and Psycho
(1960). By the first of these commissions Bass had already been named Art Director of the Year (1957) by the Art Directors Club of New York, and many more prestigious awards followed, including an Academy Award (1968), Royal Designer for Industry (1965, bestowed by the Royal Society of Arts, London), and the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA, 1981).
The entire Bass/Hitchcock collaboration deserves to be better known, partly because of the sheer quality of the work, partly because it offers an interesting case study of the complex interchange between film and design, and partly because of the controversy surrounding Bass’s contribution to what is arguably the most famous scene in U.S. cinema — the shower scene in Psycho
. Serious discussion of Bass’s contribution to the shower scene — a fascinating collaboration, from novel and script to musical score — remains problematic, not least because issues of authorship are far from dead in many academic disciplines, design history and film studies included.
Although, as will be shown, Bass’s contribution to the scene was substantial, it was ignored for many years by auteurist commentators who took their cue from Hitchcock’s evasive reply to a question posed by François Truffaut regarding Bass’s contribution to Psycho
above and beyond the title sequence for which Bass had a separate credit (his main credit was for “pictorial consultant,” a new specialism within filmmaking). Hitchcock stated, “He did only one scene, but I didn’t use his montage. He was supposed to do the titles, but since he was interested in the picture, I just let him lay out the sequence of the detective going up the stairs, just before he is stabbed.” By 1966, when the statement was published, this low-budget movie, filmed in about one month, had become world-famous, and the shower scene even more so. Hitchcock’s statement that Bass’s only contribution was to advise on a quite different scene is a gross understatement at best and a more than wickedly mischievous one at worst. Although Hitchcock thereafter never publicly acknowledged Bass’s contribution to the shower scene, others involved in the movie did, some on more than one occasion (see below).
As Stephen Rebello and others point out, Hitchcock was widely known to give credit parsimoniously, a trait that went back to his work in silent movies but became more exaggerated dating from the early-to-mid-1960s. After Psycho
, Hitchcock “seemed to harden his heart increasingly toward others associated with his continuing popularity,” and did so increasingly as his own popularity and film box office appeal waned. For example, Joseph Stefano, who wrote the Psycho
screenplay, recalled, “Hitchcock never mentioned writers in any of his interviews. It was always his
picture.”  This attitude is one of the contexts within which Hitchcock’s collaboration with Bass should be considered. It helps one better comprehend why Hitchcock hired one of the leading graphic designers in the world, a man he admired for making strong visual images, and paid him a large sum of money out of his own pocket for the work (Hitchcock had to put up the money for the production because studio funding was not available), only to find it difficult to give due credit a mere six years later.
I write as an admirer of the work of Hitchcock (Blackmail
, 1929, often makes it onto my top-ten or “desert island” film lists) as well as that of Bass. In no way do I want to diminish Hitchcock’s standing as a filmmaker; if anything he should be lauded for spotting and using Bass’s not inconsiderable cinematic talents. Using a wide range of sources, including oral testimonies and papers related to Bass and Hitchcock in the Margaret Herrick Library, Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I seek here to review and reposition the issues in the hope of facilitating debate. The contexts and perspectives offered here as a basis for the reconsideration of the shower scene in terms of the Bass/Hitchcock collaboration include Bass’s other work, the role of visual consultants at the time, Bass’s points of view, my reaction to the shower scene when I first saw it, and a brief survey of commentaries on the Bass/Hitchcock collaboration.Pat Kirkham interviewing Saul Bass and Billy Wilder, Los Angeles, 1993. © Andy Hoogenboom.
In the eighteen years that I have been studying and writing about Bass and his work, I have found that challenging Hitchcock’s reply to Truffaut is akin to challenging the word of God. 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.”
Another reason I find it difficult to take at face value Hitchcock’s reply to Truffaut is because I came to a similar conclusion as Wilder’s but via a very different and roundabout route. I also used a methodology I had not attempted before: gestalt analysis applied to film, an approach developed in the 1990s by my then colleague film historian Michael O’Shaughnessy. By 1963, when, aged eighteen, I was finally old enough to see an X-rated movie legally, it was well known that the character played by Janet Leigh was murdered in the shower in Psycho
. Consequently, many young women, myself included, were afraid to see the film because of the reportedly horrific and graphic nature of that scene. A friend who had seen the film suggested simply closing my eyes during that scene. It seemed a good idea. When the scene was about to start, he nudged me and I covered my head with my coat and put my hands over my ears. Cut to just over twenty years later. I had begun to teach film studies (as well as the history of architecture and design) but had never heard of Bass. During a workshop on film and affectivity, the colleague mentioned above asked a group of students and faculty to watch a minute or so of unidentified film without sound
and write down only our gut reactions, as opposed to academic observations about camera angles, lighting, acting, or the like.
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.
But first, an introduction to Bass and his work, especially that before, during, and shortly after his collaboration with Hitchcock, is necessary to establish what many, especially some film historians, do not realize, namely, Bass’s talents and stature as a designer and visual consultant. This article is part of a study of Bass’s creative endeavors as a whole, and ideally his contribution to the shower scene should be evaluated against his total body of work. It is not possible in a brief article to present a comprehensive overview, but some understanding of the work and its scope is essential and consequently I am concentrating on film title sequences, film advertising, and visual consultancies — the areas involved in Bass’s collaboration with Hitchcock — but his wider talents and reputation are equally pertinent. Introducing Saul Bass
Bass was a graphic designer before and after he became involved in filmmaking, and his powerful and diverse body of work extended beyond those media. Born in 1920 in the Bronx, New York, to Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents, he worked in trade advertising for films from about the age of sixteen. He studied part-time in the late 1930s at the Art Students League in Manhattan with Howard Trafton, a distinguished commercial artist known, among other things, for his modern lettering, and with Hungarian emigré artist and designer György Kepes at Brooklyn College in 1944-45. It was while studying with Kepes, who had worked in Germany with compatriot and former Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy, and who headed the Light and Color Department at the New Bauhaus, Chicago (founded by Moholy-Nagy in 1937), that Bass transformed from a young man interested in modern art, design, and film, including Man Ray and “modern” German and Soviet cinema, to a full-fledged modernist in Bauhaus and European Modern Movement mode. Kepes’s belief that graphic design and motion pictures could play a major role in changing the world because they were less hidebound by tradition than other art forms resonated with Bass’s political views (then leftist, later liberal) and validated his chosen area of work. In the early 1950s, however, Bass began to distance himself from what he increasingly found to be overly formulaic approaches to design and let other aspects — gut feelings, intuition, emotions, and humor as well as earlier and newer inspirations, from the bold reduction and flat color of the German plakatstil
(“poster style”) and sachplakat
(“object posters”) of the early twentieth century to surrealism and experimental filmmaking — play greater roles in his work, and as a result he forged a more personal and distinctive style and approach to design. He spoke of the films of Cocteau and of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and other U.S. experimental filmmakers as “terribly exciting . . . they created a great yearning in me to emulate this, to do something that would embrace this kind of daring. . . . It seemed to me truly the future. . . . And that’s what I wanted to do.”Saul Bass in collaboration with Elaine Bass, frames from storyboard for title sequence for Walk on the Wild Side (1961, directed by Edward Dmytryk). © Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.Saul Bass in collaboration with Elaine Bass, frames from title sequence for Walk on the Wild Side (1961, directed by Edward Dmytryk). © Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In the mid-to-late 1950s Bass expanded the boundaries of graphic design to include film title sequences, and his highly evocative, and often impossibly compressed, images of intense clarity and subtle ambiguities transformed not only how titles were seen but also how they were conceptualized and regarded. Here was modern design on the cinema screen. Between 1954 and 1980 Bass was responsible for forty-one title sequences and several advertising campaigns for a wide variety of films in a wide variety of genres. His most notable sequences, apart from those for Hitchcock, include The Man with the Golden Arm
(1955), Bonjour Tristesse
(1958), Anatomy of Murder
(1959), and Exodus
(1960), all for Otto Preminger; Walk on the Wild Side
(1961) for Edward Dmytryk (se images above); Seconds
(1966) and Grand Prix
(1966) for John Frankenheimer; and the credit epilogues for Around the World in Eighty Days
(1956, Michael Anderson) and West Side Story
(1961, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins). From Spartacus
(1960, Stanley Kubrick and Anthony Mann) on, most of the title sequences were created in collaboration with his wife and former assistant, Elaine, including three tour-de-force openings for Cape Fear
(1991), The Age of Innocence
(1993), and Casino
(1995), all directed by Martin Scorsese. If an Academy Award were presented for such work, he, and they, would have been record holders.
Less well known is an impressive series of award winning short films created and directed by the Basses, including the Oscar winning Why Man Creates
(1968) and two Oscar-nominated films, Notes on the Popular Arts
(1977, for Warner Brothers) and The Solar Film
(1981, executive producer Robert Redford). Bass also served as visual consultant on five feature films (Spartacus
, 1960; Psycho
, 1960; West Side Story
, 1961; Grand Prix
, 1966; and Not with My Wife You Don’t
, 1966, directed by Norman Panama), creating sequences within the films as well as the titles, and he went on to direct the now cult feature film Phase IV (1974).
Bass also created commercials, sponsor tags, and show openers for television and designed a wide range of advertisements, as well as packaging, retail displays, album covers, book covers, sculpture, lettering, typefaces, ceramic tiles, toys, exhibitions, a modular hi-fi cabinet system, and a postage stamp. He illustrated short stories and a children’s book and, in collaboration with others, designed buildings and play environments, an installation at the XIV Milan Triennale (1968), and a series of service stations. Many of the more than eighty logos and identity programs he created are still in use today; his major programs include Lawry’s (1959-96), Alcoa (1961), Celanese (1965), Continental Airlines (1965-67), Bell Telephone (1968-81), Quaker Oats (1969), United Airlines (1973), Girl Scouts of America (1978), Minolta (1981), AT&T (1981-96), the J. Paul Getty Museum (1981), and The Getty (1993-96). The enormous circulation of his designs, through logos and screenings and the constant reworking of all manner of Bass images by younger designers, ensures that his work, including that undertaken in collaboration with Elaine, continues to impact many of us daily. The opening sequence for the AMC television series Mad Men
, which mixes imagery from North by Northwest
(the skyscraper) and the spiraling, falling man (Vertigo
), is among the current homages to Bass.
Bass’s versatility was often remarked upon, as was his problem-solving approach to design. In 1954 American Artist attributed the “underlying logic” of his work to a “searching mind . . . always inquiring into the reason for things.” He also had a searching eye, and it is no coincidence that one of the first short films he and Elaine Bass made was called The Searching Eye
(1964). It was an eye that saw with great clarity. Scorsese, whose collaboration with the Basses was as productive as that of Hitchcock and Bass — partly because he too gave them considerable creative freedom — likens it to a jeweler’s eye and speaks of Bass as “a great artist” whose work pierces “deep into the soul” and constitutes some of the most creative moments in movies. In short, Bass does not deserve to be as summarily dismissed, as he has been by several film historians.
Film Symbols, Advertising and Title Sequences
In U.S. films of the early-to-mid 1950s, the majority of what then were often called title backgrounds consisted of a fairly short list of credits, often in unimaginative lettering, rolling over a static image that suggested the genre of the film: for example, an image of a cowboy for a Western, a book for a literary adaptation, or a rolled parchment for a film set in medieval times. The status of the opening credits was so low that in many cinemas they ran as the under-curtain was raised, while audiences chatted and ate popcorn. Interestingly, some earlier U.S. films did feature imaginative title sequences and openings. The spectacular prologue for Intolerance (1916, directed by D. W. Griffith) stands out as one of the most imaginative in early cinema, and the interwar years saw greater attention paid to titles, from jazzy Art Deco lettering to titles spelled out in petals on water or pebbles in sand. Moving backgrounds were more in evidence after World War II, but in the second half of the 1940s and the early 1950s — and beyond, in many instances — titles were often less interesting than in earlier years. But things were changing: television made increasing inroads into cinema audience figures, the production studios lost control of distribution, and a new breed of independent producers and producer/directors came to Hollywood (where Bass relocated in 1946) and began to make new types of films, with new types of topics and new types of actors.
Saul Bass, poster for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955, directed by Otto Preminger). © Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.Saul Bass, frames from title sequence for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955, directed by Otto Preminger). © Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Some of those directors/producers, including Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and Otto Preminger — all three of whom were interested in design and would later commission Bass — had long been interested in finding more interesting ways to open films. Wilder, for example, used credits that appear to be painted on a road behind an automobile (Sunset Boulevard, 1950), while director John Ford opened What Price Glory (1952) with a silent prologue, and special effects maestro Fred Sersen transformed bands of red, white, and blue into symbols of the United States for With a Song in My Heart (1952, directed by Walter Lang). Whirlpool and Where the Sidewalk Ends (the credits are written on a sidewalk), both 1950, show Preminger trying more imaginative openings four years before Bass created his first title sequence for him. Compared with that, these sequences pale in significance.
Impressed with Bass’s film advertising, Preminger hired him in 1954 to create a full advertising campaign, complete with a trademark and main posters, for Carmen Jones, a tale of love and desire based on Bizet’s opera but with an all-black cast and contemporary dress. For the trademark Bass submerged a symbol of love (a rose) in a symbol of passion (a flame), adding ambiguity by making the rose both red and black. When Preminger approved his idea of making the symbol move at the beginning of the film, Bass shot a live flame at very high speed to capture the sensual, quixotic, and volatile nature of the female lead, played by Dorothy Dandridge, and found himself with a new career. While those lusciously beautiful images made quite an impact in the film world, their impact on the viewing public was nothing like that of Bass’s more visually sophisticated and viscerally powerful opening sequence for the next film directed by Preminger, The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), an adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel about drug addiction, then something of a taboo topic. That sequence catapulted Bass to international fame (see image below).
Bass’s challenge was to create a symbol that captured the drama and intensity of the film without resorting to sensationalism. The result was a compelling image of a distorted, disjointed “arm,” the semiabstract form of which helped distance the image from the harsh realities of shooting up drugs, although they are implicit in the (dis)figuration (see above image). As well as being disembodied, the black “arm” has the appearance of being petrified and transformed into something else, just as the Frank Sinatra character in the film is transformed by his addiction. The reductive metaphorical symbol was featured in a comprehensive advertising campaign notable for its scope and uniformity as well as for the fact that images of the stars were either excluded or minimized. The highly nuanced articulation and rearticulation of the imagery and colors across a wide range of advertising is a joy to behold and shows Bass on a roll, ideas pouring out like a musician riffing. When the symbol alone was used on one side of the marquee at the New York opening (at the Victoria Theater, Broadway), Bass achieved his ambition to create graphics that would “announce” a film rather than “sell” it with advertising that crammed in as many aspects of the film as possible.
The title sequence was equally compelling. Bass stated that the title, like the symbol, “in an abstract way, attempted to convey the distortion and jaggedness, the disconnectedness and disjointedness of the addict’s life — the subject of the film.” Set against a black background and accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s driving jazzlike score, with its disjointed sounds expressive of anguish and torment, the sequence features white bars that appear, disappear, and form abstract patterns before finally coalescing into the symbol of the “arm.” Contrasts between the black and white heighten the strident intensity, and the disjunctures encapsulate the mood of the main character, a downbeat drummer with a penchant for gambling and drugs.
One can never quite recapture the moment when a particular work of art first makes a huge cultural impact, but, upon learning that I was interested in the work of Bass, hundreds of people have told me of the huge impact that this sequence had upon them when they first saw it. A few examples must suffice here. In Tokyo, Katsumi Asaba, now a graphic designer, saw The Man with the Golden Arm
in the mid-1950s when he was a student: “I used to be a film freak, and went to see movies every day. . . . The title back so struck me that I hardly remember the movie itself. It was extremely innovative, and made me aware that title backs could surely be considered as respectable design works.” A frequent visitor to the American Cultural Center in Tokyo, where a range of art and design magazines could be consulted, he began to copy designs by Bass. Although his style in the 1990s was far different from that of Bass in the 1950s, he stated that throughout his career he had felt Bass’s presence, “giving me a soulful gaze just as a father would do to a son.” Bass became so famous in Japan that he was mobbed when he arrived at Hamada Airport in Tokyo for the World Design conference in 1960. New York-based designers Lella and Massimo Vignelli, young students of architecture and design in Milan, were hugely impressed after seeing the film when it was first released in Italy. Massimo, who already showed a prodigious talent for graphic design and knew of Bass’s work from graphics magazines, dreamed of going to America and working with his hero, Bass.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the young designer Art Goodman, who had not yet heard of the man for whom he would later work for more than thirty years, found the billboard poster so compelling that he pulled off the road when he first saw it and sat for an hour, “simply marveling and looking at it . . . the adrenalin pumping. You always remember moments like that because they are so rare.” In New York a teenage Martin Scorsese sneaked into a movie house to see the film and over the next few years sketched out title sequences inspired by it and others designed by Bass. Over thirty years later, upon discovering that the hero of his adolescence was still alive and working, he invited the Basses to create title sequences for his movies.
Although The Man with the Golden Arm
made Bass’s name in terms of titles, some other directors had already spotted and commissioned this newly emerging cinematic talent after the release of Carmen Jones. Robert Aldrich, for whom Bass already had designed trade ads and personal promotional material, commissioned a title sequence for The Big Knife
(1955), and then for Attack!
(1956). José Ferrer commissioned him for The Shrike
(1955), Henry Hathaway for The Racers
(1955), and Billy Wilder for The Seven Year Itch
(1955). Wilder, whose interest in modern design dated back to the late 1920s and early 1930s when he worked in the German film industry and bought tubular steel furniture designed by Bauhaus “master” Marcel Breuer, recalled being encouraged to commission Bass by his friends the designers Charles and Ray Eames, and remembered how the beautifully animated and delightfully witty sequence (the letter “I” in “Itch” scratches itself) far exceeded his expectations. Expensive to make (shot in CinemaScope at a cost of $8,000, as opposed to about $3,000 or less for other Bass sequences made about that time), this was the only title sequence designed by Bass for a movie directed by Wilder, but Bass went on to design advertising for several films for which Wilder was the producer as well as the director, and as such had a greater say in who was or was not hired.
Bass’s collaboration with director/producer Preminger totaled thirteen films in all.
Of all the directors Bass worked with over the years, he considered Preminger to have the strongest grasp of design, even more so than Wilder or Hitchcock. Preminger always pressed his point of view and, according to Bass, at that time “it was stimulating to me as a designer to have such strong opinions from someone who knew what he was talking about in terms of design. The dynamic was a productive one for me.” Fifteen years Bass’s senior, the autocratic Austrian could be extremely difficult to work with. But once Preminger realized that Bass was prepared to quit rather than be bullied into decisions he did not agree with, however, their battles changed from “fangs bared” fights to more or less dignified rituals.
Between The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955 and Hitchcock hiring Bass in 1958, Bass designed title sequences for another seven movies: Storm Center (1956, directed by Daniel Tardash); Around the World in Eighty Days (1956, Michael Anderson); Edge of the City (1957, Martin Ritt); The Young Stranger (1957, John Frankenheimer); Cowboy (1958, Delmar Daves); The Pride and the Passion (1957, Stanley Kramer); and The Big Country (1958, William Wyler). Fresh from The Pride and the Passion, Gregory Peck, in his capacity as the producer as well as the star of The Big Country, pressed hard to hire Bass for both a title sequence and ad campaign. So too did director Wyler, and Bass was paid top dollar out of production and marketing budgets for his services. Thus, by 1958, when Hitchcock asked him to create a title sequence for Vertigo, Bass was already a known talent sought after by leading Hollywood figures.
Bass on Title Sequences
Bass believed that films, like symphonies, deserved mood setting overtures and used ambiguity, layering, dissolves, and texture as well as startlingly reductive imagery, animation, and live action — sometimes using both animation and live action in the same title sequence — to shape how people experienced the time before a film began. In Seconds
the mood was unease bordering on horror (see image below), in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
(1963, directed by Stanley Kramer) one of good cheer and old-fashioned fun. Bass also encouraged audiences to see things in hitherto unconsidered ways in order to heighten awareness, create ambiguities, or raise expectations that something unusual was about to happen. In Walk on the Wild Side
we see an ordinary cat as a mysterious, prowling predator, and in Vertigo,
we experience the human eye as never before. As well as using titles to symbolize and summarize the film and to establish mood, Bass began to integrate his titles into the narrative process. He used the term “time before” for prologues dealing with the time before a film began. It could be years, as in those between the two world wars (The Victors
, 1963, directed by Carl Foreman), the months it took a stagecoach to cross the American West (The Big Country
), the hours before the assassination of Gandhi (Nine Hours to Rama
, 1963, directed by Mark Robson), or the minutes before the start of a Formula One race (Grand Prix
, 1966, directed by John Frankenheimer).
Saul Bass in collaboration with Elaine Bass, frames from title sequence for Seconds (1966, directed by John Frankenheimer). Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
By 1958, when Hitchcock first approached him for a title sequence, Bass usually offered film studios a package: main and credit titles, a symbol or trademark, TV trailer, screen trailer, posters (four sizes), trade ads (up to six per film), newspaper ads (up to twenty per film), album cover, and New York subway car advertisement card. Ironically, although he came from advertising graphics and had won numerous awards for such work, he found it easier to get commissions to create minifilms than to develop main advertising, because his designs for the latter were considered too unconventional. Today, when his posters and advertisements command high prices at auction, it is difficult to comprehend the level of resistance within the film industry to the type of work he produced, hence the popular assumption that Bass designed a poster for every film for which he created a title sequence. Large amounts of money were at stake if a film bombed, and, because posters were then considered the main means of selling a film to the public, the film studios were reluctant to chance using adventurous modes of expression or, indeed, any that differed from the norm. Conventions favored posters in which several aspects of the film were represented at the same time, often in a highly illustrative manner and sometimes in a sensationalist one, too. It was really only with Preminger, who bullied executives into submission, and, to a lesser degree, Wilder, who claimed to cajole them with his wit, that Bass created unified advertising campaigns. Whenever Bass was asked to do a title sequence, he always pitched for the advertising too, on occasion suggesting he might refuse to do one without the other. Even when he was paid in full for an ad campaign, however, it was often amended or changed at the studio level. As we will see, Hitchcock fell afoul of studio executives over Bass’s advertising for Vertigo
Between 1960 and 1966, five directors or producers asked Bass to undertake work on a film in addition to titles and advertising, work in which he was called upon to function variously as production designer, art director, choreographer, assistant director, and second unit photographer.
The specific tasks ranged from scouting locations for the Nubian mines in Spartacus
and visualizing the opening dance scene in West Side Story
(see image below), to visualizing and storyboarding sequences within the movies themselves — the racing sequences in Grand Prix
, the shower sequence in Psycho
, the battle scene in Spartacus
, and a cartoon about the green-eyed monster of jealousy and transpositions within Not with My Wife, You Don’t
. When Bass designed and storyboarded battle scenes for Spartacus
, for example, he functioned as a production designer, art director, choreographer, and assistant director rolled into one. When he conceptualized and made preliminary sketches of the gladiatorial school for the same film he functioned more as a production designer. Indeed, his work on that occasion was handed over to production designer Alexander Golitzen for development and realization. Golitzen was concerned that his credit be distinguished from that of Bass, as was Boris Leven, production designer for West Side Story
production designers (their official credit was art directors) Robert Clatworthy and Joseph Hurley seem to have had no such concerns. Clatworthy recalled thinking that giving the storyboarding of the shower scene to Bass was a “good idea,” stating that “Saul wouldn’t fall into the cliché as we might readily do.” Although what Bass did came to be referred to as visual consultancy, there was then no established industry term for this type of work. Hitchcock preferred “pictorial consultant,” while Stanley Kubrick favored “visual consultant,” a term Bass came to prefer.Saul Bass in collaboration with Elaine Bass, research stills for opening dance sequence in West Side Story (1961, directed by Robert Wise; Jerome Robbins). © Copyright Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The first person to engage Bass as a visual consultant was Kirk Douglas in his capacity as producer and star of Spartacus
, and he deserves credit for his foresight in involving Bass to a far greater degree than any other filmmaker hitherto. An ardent admirer of Bass’s work since his ad campaign for Champion
(1949, directed by Mark Robson), Douglas gave Bass a wide-ranging brief. In addition to the roles noted above, he conceptualized and made preliminary sketches for the gladiator school for this epic tale of a slave who led uprisings within the Roman Empire
. Douglas stated, “Saul is a tremendous talent. A real artist who captures real feelings. He went much further than anyone could have imagined in visualizing key scenes. And on top of that, he came up with a most powerful graphic image for the ads. . . . What Saul brought to us was this image of a slave with a sword and a broken chain: when you saw that you knew the issue was freedom.” Hitchcock, having already commissioned titles for both Vertigo
and North by Northwest
, was next to employ Bass as a consultant.
“It’s the Film That Counts . . .”
Although Hitchcock later denied Bass credit for the shower sequence, Bass enjoyed extremely good relations with those for whom he worked, from CEOs of leading companies and voluntary organizations for which he provided pro bono work, to film directors and producers, including Hitchcock at the time: “He seemed to like me; to like me hanging around and asking questions about this shot or that” (see image below). From Preminger to Redford to Scorsese, Bass forged lasting friendships with many people who admired not only his talents but also his integrity and warmth. He was always extremely respectful of the directors from whom he learned a great deal about filmmaking when he was new or relatively new to the game, repeatedly referring to Preminger, Wilder, Wyler, and Hitchcock as “my masters” and “mentors” in filmmaking. Bass recalled:
“Anybody who worked with Hitch has no doubt that he was in total control of everything that happened on his film. There’s no doubt he was an autocrat. But, as far as I was concerned, he was a benevolent autocrat — open to new ideas, generous with his praise, always helpful and supportive. And, what really impressed me, a wonderful teacher. I hung around as often as I could to watch Hitch work and hear him talk. He seemed to like having me around. His understanding of film was profound. It was a revelation to me. Why something worked, why something else didn’t. Hitch was the master and I was the student. It was the graduate course in film theory I never took. I’d ask him, ‘Why did you select take five when take four seemed better?’ And he’d typically say, ‘You don’t understand. I’m only using the first half of five. Then I’m cutting away to the other angle, and will come back to five for the end moment,’ and so on. He had the whole film in his head. He knew what he wanted to achieve with each sequence in advance, so what happened on set, in a sense, wasn’t new information”.
Contact sheet of photographs taken on set of Psycho: Saul Bass, Alfred Hitchcock, and Janet Leigh, 1960. © Copyright Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Bass’s creative watchword in terms of film was “It’s the film that counts,” and he saw his role as working for the director, stating, “I think the creation of a title, which is obviously a small appendage on the film, has to be approached very conscientiously and with some sense of responsibility within the film’s total framework — because it is, after all, the tail of the dog and the tail does not the dog wag.” He argued, “The script is only the bones. I must know how he [the director] is going to flesh it out, what his point-of-view is and how he is going to articulate that script. . . . My work is always preceded by very, very, thorough discussions with the director . . . about what he’s going to do so that I can understand it, be responsive to it, to support it.” When asked if he felt it necessary to adapt his title sequences to the style of a director, however, he replied: “Not really. I think what is most important is that the introduction to the film (which is what a title is) be true to its content and to its intent. Therefore, something has to be created that is expressive of that. A more profound relationship must exist beyond a superficiality of style. If you understand style to be attitude, yes, I have to conform to style, but if you think of style as confined to the visual, then I would say no.”
Bass and Hitchcock: Vertigo and North by Northwest
Hitchcock had been interested in graphics since his youth; indeed, his first job in filmmaking was creating intertitles for silent movies. He kept abreast of the field, subscribing to Graphis, a leading graphic design magazine that had already featured Bass’s work before Hitchcock engaged him for Vertigo, a film that the latter hoped would establish him as an artistic filmmaker. So pleased was Hitchcock with the results that he invited Bass to work on North by Northwest and, after that, on Psycho.
is now considered to be one of Hitchcock’s most admired films, contemporary audiences, including many critics, did not know quite what to make of it. In the titles, Bass sought to express the mood of this film about love and obsessing and to capture the state of disequilibrium associated with vertigo. He explained, “Here is a woman made into what a man wants her to be. She is put together piece by piece. I tried to suggest something of this, and also of the fragmented mind of Julie [played by Kim Novak], by my shifting images.”
The sequence opens with the camera exploring different parts of a woman’s face, an act that hints at obsession with a woman’s appearance and at the constructed nature of femininity. The camera comes to rest on one of her eyes — an organ Bass thought the most vulnerable in the entire body and which he used again in Psycho
in the shower scene. Then, from the depths of the eye and to shatteringly violent chords, comes the title of the film. Spiraling light patterns emerge from the pupil as the music climbs vertiginously. The rest of the credits play out over the mesmerizing beauty of forms spiraling in space and time and the sounds of a darkly pessimistic love theme. Colors change as each new form overlaps the previous one, until one disappears into the pupil itself and out comes the final director credit.
The poster also encapsulated the sensation of vertigo by having a couple sucked into a vortex (see image below). The slightly off-kilter capital letters of irregular lengths also hint at the vertiginous. The figures were drawn by Art Goodman, who recalled Bass specifying and sketching out a black silhouette for the man and a light outline, like an apparition, for the woman of his obsessions. The advertisements, together with the title sequence, immediately began to win awards and have always been among the most admired in Bass’s repertoire.Saul Bass with Art Goodman (illustrator), poster for Vertigo (1958, directed by Alfred Hitchcock). Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Saul Bass, frames from title sequence for Psycho (1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock). Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In 1957, the year before the film’s release, and before Bass’s involvement, Paramount Pictures executives worried about the film’s financial viability, considering it too costly, too arty, and too abstruse.
The publicity department declared Hitchcock’s proposal to name the film Vertigo
(the working title was From Among the Dead
) as a “handicap” and a “minus” value to selling the movie, believing that many cinemagoers simply would not understand the word and that those who did would probably not choose to see a film they would assume to be about a disconcerting medical condition. Panic set in when, in the first few days, the film failed to attract large audiences, and, according to Robert Kapsis, a new hard-sell advertising campaign that placed more emphasis on the stars was authorized. Surviving advertising, however, suggests that there was no new campaign or, at least, one that was actually implemented. Perhaps the studio executives, who already considered the film a lost cause, were unwilling to throw more money into the project. Whatever the case, box-office receipts remained poor. Rebello points out that that Hitchcock, a “proponent of the old Hollywood axiom, ‘If the picture flops, blame the ad campaign,’” took note of the comments about the ad campaign being too “arty” and was well aware of the differences between the posters designed for the French and U.S. releases of Les Diaboliques
(1955, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot), the film Hitchcock sought to emulate. The French posters were informed by Modern Movement graphics and surrealism; the U.S. posters featured a photograph of film star Vera Clouzot in a nightdress. Although Hitchcock commissioned Bass titles for his next film, he sought more conventional film advertising to promote it.
The cool sophistication of the North by Northwes
t title sequence reflects that of the main character, a New York advertising executive who is mistaken for a spy, and plays on the theme of mistaking one thing for another. It opens with what Bass described as a violent-green screen over which dark blue lines race in from top and side to form a latticework pattern. Credits appear from out of the top of the frame, running up and down like an elevator that pauses between floors, enabling them to be read. After the title of the film has appeared, and as a live-action scene dissolves through the image, viewers realize that the lattice pattern was an abstraction of a huge glass skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. Traffic is then reflected in the glass as the credits continue to run up and down the building. The view finally shifts to bustling street scenes, and the sequence ends with the director credit running over Hitchcock, who is playing a pedestrian rushing to catch a bus, but the door shuts in his face and the bus speeds off. On that humorous note, the film proper begins. Thus, when Hitchcock decided to make a low-budget horror/suspense film about a psychotic manager of the Bates Motel and asked Bass not only to create titles but also to act as a consultant, the “uncommon meshing of sensibilities” between Bass and Hitchcock had already resulted in two stunning title sequences and award winning advertising.
Bass and Hitchcock: Psycho
In the case of Psycho Hitchcock involved Bass from the earliest stage. They had several meetings before writing began, presumably so that Bass could be fully briefed on Hitchcock’s vision of the film, and thereafter Bass received each section of Joseph Stephano’s screenplay (adapted from the eponymous novel by Robert Bloch) as soon as it was completed.
For the opening sequence Bass, who had read the complete works of Freud in his youth and had been fascinated by psychology ever since, created a mood of dysfunction within a wider sense of order and used permutations of simple bars to suggest “clues” coming together without ever offering a solution: “Put these together and now you know something. Put another set of clues together and you know something else” (see image below). Bars slide onto the screen in various patterns, disturbed by irregularities of speed and length. Oppositions are strong: black and white; vertical and horizontal; short and long; on- and off-kilter; on- and offscreen. Parts of each credit appear on different bars, and the typography is legible only when the bars briefly align. Bernard Hermann’s score moves from tension to terror and back to harmony, sometimes reflecting, sometimes complementing the unpredictability and slippages between ease and unease, function and dysfunction that lie at the heart of this sequence. At the end, the lines align with what become the edges of buildings in Phoenix, where the first scene takes place. The most expensive Bass title to date, it cost $21,000 to produce. Bass was paid $3,000 for designing the title sequence, with an additional sum of up to $2,000 in the contract for production sketches.
According to Bass, his task as consultant was to “strangify” the “house on the hill” and “do something” with the shower sequence, the revelation of the dead body of the mother, and the murder of the detective (the scene to which Hitchcock referred in the 1966 Truffaut interview). His suggestions for the way the detective might use the staircase were not taken up, and his suggested positioning of the mother in the revelation scene was amended. He told Rebello, “I devised a small idea for that, which I call the ‘Whistler’s Mother’ thing.” Alluding to the famous painting by James McNeill Whistler, Bass stated, “The mother sits in a rocker and there’s a framed painting on the wall. So I set up the thing based on that . . . and there’s a wall vent . . . where there the frame is in ‘Whistler’s Mother.’”65
In the event, the vent/painting reference was removed.
In his attempts to make strange the house, Bass built a model and experimented with different ways of lighting it, none of which satisfied him. “It all looked hokey and obtrusive,” he recalled. “Finally, I hit on it. I matted a time-lapse moonlit, cloudy night sky — but no scudding clouds — just moving somewhat faster than normal. In the two-to-three second cuts to the house (which was not long enough to reveal the abnormal rate of movement), it resulted in an undefined sense of weirdness” (see image below). The solution, like so many Bass special effects and imagery, was simple, economical, and highly effective. Once again an outside source corroborated Bass’s version of events; Bass’s account of tweaking sky footage is confirmed by Terry Williams, assistant editor to George Tomasini on Psycho, who supplied the footage that Bass then speeded up.
Saul Bass, frames from the house on the hill sequence for Psycho (1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock). Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Case for Bass: Visualization and Storyboards
Despite Hitchcock’s strong implication that Bass did not work on the shower scene, a great deal of evidence exists to the contrary; from testimonies by people working on the film to the visuals themselves, it points to Bass as the person who visualized and storyboarded that section of the script, a section prioritized by Hitchcock for special handling because he knew that audience expectations would be shattered by the disruption of cinematic conventions involved in murdering the attractive young “heroine” less than halfway through the film.
This was not the first time Hitchcock had brought in an artist to create a special sequence within a film; the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali had created a dream sequence for Spellbound (1945), and American abstract expressionist John Ferren did the same for Vertigo. The latter work appears amateurish when compared with Bass’s title sequence for the same film, a comparison apparently not lost on Hitchcock.
According to Stephano, Hitchcock told him, “I’m going to get Saul Bass to do a storyboard for the shower scene so we know exactly what we’re going to do,” and Stephano sent Bass each section of the script as it was finished. Janet Leigh told Donald Spoto that “the planning of the shower scene was left up to Saul Bass, and Hitchcock followed his storyboard precisely. Because of this . . . [the shooting] went very professionally,” and she told Rebello that “Mr. Hitchcock showed Saul Bass’s storyboards to me quite proudly, telling me in exact detail how he was going to shoot the scene from Saul’s plans”. Another crew member who confirmed that Bass visualized the sequence was Psycho
art director Robert Clatworthy, and we know from Harold Adler, who worked for National Screen Services, the company that produced the Bass/Hitchcock titles, that Bass storyboards were always “very complete and precise.”
Other evidence pointing to Bass as designer of the shower scene includes the very substantial sum of $10,000 paid to him for the consultancy — more than Hitchcock paid for the rights to the novel. Hitchcock’s financial advisers argued against paying Bass so much because Hitchcock was using his own money to produce the film (the budget for which was just over $800,000), but Hitchcock vetoed all suggestions that Bass’s fee be lowered. Bass’s fee as a visual consultant equaled that of supporting actor Vera Miles, and his weekly rate of pay was three times that of the film editor (Tomasini). The total paid to Bass for all aspects of his work on the film came to nearly $17,000, just short of the $17,500 fee paid to Hermann for scoring the entire movie, and also to Stefano for the script.72 Furthermore, Hitchcock was a director who gave art directors and other creative people considerable artistic leeway. Further evidence becomes apparent as the narrative unravels.
For Spielberg the “flat Venetian-blind credits that came charging in from all sides of the screen start Psycho like a knife to the throat,” and something of that sensation is echoed in the shower sequence. Some of the images were prompted by the script; others, including the pulling down of the shower curtain, came from Bass’s imagination. Bass translated the script into powerful visuals, designing a highly stylized murder, fast cut after fast cut in simulation of the frenzy of the act itself — an act the audience does not see. Skilled at the visualization of ambiguity and metaphor, Bass used montage, tight framing, and fast cutting to render a violent, bloody murder as a ritualized, impressionistic, near bloodless one.
The dramatic intensity was reinforced by repetition. As Bass put it, “She’s taking a shower, taking a shower, taking a shower. She’s hit-hit-hit-hit. She slides, slides, slides. In other words, the movement was very narrow and the amount of activity to get you there was very intense. That was what I brought to Hitchcock. By modern standards, we don’t think that represents staccato cutting because we’ve gotten so accustomed to flashcuts. As a title person, it was a very natural thing to use that quick cutting, montage technique to deliver what amounted to an impressionistic, rather than a linear, view of the murder.”
Hitchcock felt uncertain about Bass’s bold conception, fearing audiences might not accept such a stylized and staccato-like, symbolic, and abstracted sequence. Bass recalled, “Having designed and storyboarded the shower sequence, I showed it to Hitch. He was uneasy about it. It was very un-Hitchcockian in character. He never used that kind of quick cutting; he loved the long shot. Take the opening shot in Psycho, where the camera moves over Phoenix, over the buildings, closes in on a building, into a window and into a room where Janet Leigh and John Gavin are making love. That sort of camera move was his signature. My proposal was from a very different point of view.”
That Hitchcock was not completely convinced about the concept worried Bass. “His misgivings made me a bit nervous too,” he recalled, “so I borrowed a camera (a little Eymo wind-up with a twenty-five foot magazine) and kept Janet Leigh’s stand-in on the set after the day’s shooting. I put a key light on her and knocked off about fifty to a hundred feet of film. Then I then sat down with George Tomasini and we put it together following my storyboards, not worrying too much about finesse — just wanting to see what the effects of these short cuts would be. We showed it to Hitch. He liked it.”
In the end, Hitchcock gave it his approval but wanted two additions: a spray of blood on the chest of Marion Crane/Janet Leigh as she slides down the tiles, and a close-up of her belly getting stabbed. When Philip Skerry interviewed Hilton Green, Hitchcock’s assistant director, he pressed him hard about the latter shot, insisting that the knife penetrated the skin. Green was adamant that no such thing was shot, stating, “We never did a thing like that. And that was before the computer things where you could do things like that”; when pressed further he said, “We never shot it. According to Bass, the effect of a knife stabbing the belly was achieved by pulling the knife away from her skin, reversing the shot, and cutting away just as it touched the skin. Such knowledge suggests that Bass was closely involved with the filming of the shots.
When I asked Bass how he felt about the additions, he stated that, despite his huge respect for Hitchcock, “deep down I was not really happy”: “It impinged on the purity of the concept, a ‘bloodless’ murder with no knife contact. My idea was to hold back the horror of showing blood until the very end when it would be seen swirling down the drain. I was surprised at my response. I was in awe of Hitch. How could he be wrong? I told myself it did indeed make the sequence more effective.” He paused for a long time, deep in thought, before adding, “Sometimes there’s a little voice inside me that says it was better without them.” In terms of design, that was probably the case; within the film, however, Hitchcock’s decision to add more blood and overt violence undoubtedly raised the sensational tone of the sequence and helped ensure its infamy.
As filmed, the scene closely follows the storyboard, and all of Bass’s images were probably shot. In the final edit, Hitchcock left out some images and moved others around, but the resemblance between the original design and the finished sequence is quite remarkable, especially for Hitchcock, who greatly relied on creative editing. Visual clues are the overall modernist design sensibility of the piece as well as more specific imagery, such as the transition from the drain in the bathtub to Leigh’s eye, which recalls the unsettling eye in Bass’s Vertigo title sequence and the huge eye in Bonjour Tristesse, while Leigh’s desperate outstretched hands recall those of concentration camp inmates in the opening of The Victors. The circular form of the showerhead and drain are seen in several Bass titles, including Attack!, Walk on the Wild Side, The Victors, and Grand Prix, while the Walk on the Wild Side sequence is a good example of the power of the close-up in a short, tight sequence.
For the most part, film historians have ignored such visual evidence. Furthermore, such has been the power of auteur theory in film studies that many of those who have written about the shower scene give Bass no credit, despite his film credit as “pictorial consultant.” Yet often one can substitute “Bass” for “Hitchcock” without losing any of the sense. William Rothman, in Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze (1982), went so far as to state that “nothing that makes the sequence a summation of Hitchcock’s art derives from Bass’s designs,” while neither the original nor revised editions (1989 and 2002) of Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films Revisited bothers to mention Bass in relation to Psycho. Nor does David Sterritt’s The Films of Alfred Hitchcock (1993) mention Bass, despite drawing a parallel between the eye in the Vertigo credits and the eye in the shower scene, or David Thompson’s The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder (2002). In The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (1983), the first to publish testimonies from people involved the scene, Donald Spoto gave Bass full credit for designing and storyboarding the sequence, as did Stephen Rebello, who also interviewed people involved for his Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990). The 1999 doctoral thesis of Andreas Timmer, who first came to Bass’s work via movie posters rather than film studies, includes the only study of the shower scene to date written from an understanding of the broader range of Bass’s work: graphics as well as film. Timmer’s consultation of the production records before, during, and after the scene established that, as far as they went, they tallied with Bass’s versions of events. For Hitchcock at Work (2000) Bill Krohn also consulted the production records, which, as summarized in the text, corroborate Bass’s version of events. Krohn emphasizes the collaborative nature of the scene, pointing to Bass’s visualization of a murder already impressionistic in Stefano’s script, whereas assistant director Hilton Green feels that “as you read [the script] you would never dream that the filmed shower scene came from it.” Both points of view have some validity.
When preparing Hitchcock’s Notebooks: An Authorized and Illustrated Look Inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock
(the book was authorized by the Hitchcock estate after Hitchcock’s death in 1980), Dan Auiler came across two slight sketches and a more detailed one, apparently by Hitchcock, in Hitchcock’s files related to the shower scene. The most clearly sketched is of an eye peering through a hole in a wall; in other words it is a Peeping Tom shot rather than one relating to the shower scene itself. Of the other two, one shows a knife entering a frame; the other is a close-up of a woman with mouth and eyes wide open — something of a “given” for horror/suspense genres. Given the claims he would make, it is incongruent that Auiler devoted only ten lines to the shower scene, partly because there were no storyboards in the Hitchcock files. After stating that “the debate . . . over this scene and Bass’s input” was “familiar,” he went on to refer to the sketches as “storyboard frames” and, taking a huge leap, claimed that they “tend to tip the scales in Hitchcock’s favor by showing, as in the case of the Psycho
screenplay, Hitchcock collaborating fully in the visualization process.” It is difficult to see how these two slight gestures on paper can be said “to tip the scales in Hitchcock’s favor.” In what ways, one wonders? No one would contest that Hitchcock may have roughly sketched out a face and a dagger, either before or after seeing either the Bass storyboards or the rough cut that Bass shot of the scene. Weighing these two slight sketches against those in the Bass storyboard, however, surely tips the scale in the other direction. This additional example of reluctance to give Bass due credit again suggests the auterist strength in relation to Hitchcock.
Ironically, Bass himself always spoke of Hitchcock’s overall “authorship,” telling Cinefantastique
, “It was Hitch’s decision to agree to do what I was proposing to do. So it’s his baby. I don’t feel uncomfortable with that notion.” He understood that Hitchcock found the scene difficult to deal with after it became so famous, telling an American Film Institute seminar, “You make a film and you have somebody work on a sequence that turns out to be the one that everyone talks about.” He rarely voiced his disappointment at Hitchcock’s reply to Truffaut, and, although I got to know him fairly well during the last five years of his life, I never felt that I wanted to open up that topic with him. My role in the early-to-mid-1990s was to write about the new title sequences that he and Elaine Bass were then making. Had I known I would go on to write a book about him, I might well have asked different questions. Nonetheless, one day when we had been talking about quite personal matters as well as film, I asked him if Hitchcock denying him credit upset him. He replied, “Was I disappointed? Of course I was. We had been close. Yes, it hurt that he did not acknowledge my work. I’m proud of it. Of course I’d cut it faster today but that’s another story. But I designed it, storyboarded it, shot a rough and supervised the final shooting with him. I had too much respect for Hitch to make an issue of it; after all, it is his film. . . . He’s a man whose friendship I valued. A man who gave me opportunities. That aside, he was always very generous to me.”
The tendency of certain people to see Hitchcock as sole author of everything in the films he directed, including the shower scene, was reinforced by a furore over a supposed claim by Bass to have “directed” the shower sequence. This is how Bass told me about a particular series of events, as well as how he told the story to others and in public:
“When the time came to shoot, I was on stage near Hitch, who was sitting in his elevated director’s chair in his Buddha mode, hands folded on his belly. He asked me to set up the first shot, as per my storyboard. After I checked it through the camera, I turned to him and said ‘Here it is.’ Then Hitch said ‘Go ahead, roll it.’ ”
“It was an amazing moment. On Hitch’s set, no one would issue orders other than Hitch. So I swallowed hard, gulped and said ‘Roll camera! . . . Action!’ He sat back in the chair, encouraging me, benignly nodding his head periodically, and giving me the ‘Roll’ signal as I matched each shot to the storyboard.”
Since Hitchcock often shot to storyboard for key scenes and, according to Bass, was sitting immediately behind him, this was a spontaneous “token” gesture, one more akin to a rite of passage than to any abrogation of directorial authority. Indeed, as a young assistant at the Famous Players-Lasky film company in London, Hitchcock himself had been allowed to do much the same. The shots involved were short and simple, and therefore Hitchcock was not taking much of a risk, especially since he had already carefully inspected Bass’s setting up of them; both Hitchcock and Bass were meticulous about preparation.
Bass told this story many times in the 1960s without incident. The trouble began in 1973 when the London Sunday Times
published an article on Bass. Only 130 of the approximately 700 words in the article were about Psycho
and the shower scene, but Bass considered the comments therein “totally untrue,” especially the journalist’s bald statement that Bass had “wound up directing” the scene. The claim in the article upset many people, who felt that Bass was trying to usurp Hitchcock’s role. Positions polarized again in 1986 after articles in Variety
raised the issue anew. Bass answered a question from a Variety
reporter about Hitchcock taking all the credit for the shower scene by stating, “It was Hitch’s of course. He was the director of the film,” and he told Cinefantastique
, “It came time to shoot and Hitchcock benignly waved me on. It was spontaneous. Not something he planned, discussed or organized. At that time, nobody paid much attention. There were lots of people milling around, doing what everybody has to do on a set. And the fact is, Hitch was always there and his ‘presence’ naturally dominated the set. As far as everybody on the set was concerned, including me, he was in charge whether or not he said ‘action’ or ‘cut’ or not.”
My sense is that if those who were upset had ever heard Bass’s telling of the story, as opposed to learning about it from hearsay or magazine articles, it would have been apparent to them that he was not claiming a great deal. Indeed, it says much about the reverence in which Hitchcock was, and is, held that “Hollywood” people — many of whom have considerable experience of their own when it comes to newspapers and magazines wildly misrepresenting their own remarks, to say nothing of their personal lives — took those supposedly uttered by Bass at face value. As already noted, Bass’s film work was based on doing the best that he could within the parameters of the director’s vision. Janet Leigh was particularly upset. She acknowledged that Bass was on the set but insisted not only that did he not “direct” her, but also that she was on set all the time and therefore knew exactly what had happened. But, as others working on the film recall, and production records confirm, she was not present on days when a body double was used or for shots that did not involve a body at all, and more than one camera was used. Some others who were on the set were also upset at “director” claims, but no one who interviewed them seems to have asked whether Hitchcock might have made such a gesture to a younger man whose company he seemed to enjoy.
The issue as I see it is not whether someone was on the set all the time, but rather that the people who got upset about what Bass was supposed to have claimed had (and some still have) a very different understanding of what Bass meant when he spoke of Hitchcock extending to him the courtesy of calling “Action!” For Bass that courtesy remained not only as a fond memory of a man with whom he had enjoyed a close working relationship — from whom he learned a lot by watching him on set, and for whom he had produced some brilliant work — but also as evidence of Hitchcock acknowledging the very thing he denied in 1966, namely, Bass’s substantial role in the shower scene. This was a very cheap and quickly made film, with things happening at considerable speed in circumstances far from ideal, and thus it is perfectly plausible that what passed between Hitchcock and Bass either was not noticed or its significance to Bass not appreciated. Given the hectic schedule, it is also plausible that Hitchcock, during a period of well-documented frustration trying to shoot the shower scene according to Bass’s storyboard (the “shower” set was often soaked, and the moleskin body coverings worn by Janet Leigh took hours to dry out, thus greatly slowing down filming), was relieved to be pressing on with his movie and, happy with the efforts of his meticulous consultant, felt sufficiently confident in their joint planning to allow the younger man the thrill of calling “Action!” as he himself had been allowed to do many years earlier.
At the end of the day, however, there is only Bass’s word for the claim that Hitchcock made this gesture. In Bass’s favor, he was a man of strong moral backbone and personal and political conscience.
It is somewhat ironic that Bass should have been involved in an issue over credit because, unlike many designers of the postwar period, he went out of his way to credit others, unlike contemporaries such as Charles Eames or George Nelson. In Eames’s case, with the exception of his wife, Ray, several members of the team involved in bringing to fruition the molded plywood furniture that was shown in 1946 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, resigned because the objects were billed as “New Furniture by Charles Eames”; the same applied to the manufacturer’s labels. “Eames Office” was later used but the convention at mid-century was that credit went to the (male) head of the design office, and therefore designs by Lucia DeRespinis and others in the Nelson office went out under Nelson’s name. When asked, “Does ‘Saul Bass & Associates,’ as you’ve sometimes been credited, mean that you weren’t as personally involved as usual?,” Bass replied, “No, I’ve been personally involved on every one of them, but I’ve been aided and abetted by a number of associates that I want to give recognition to. So it’s not ‘Saul Bass and Associates’ like a company but Saul Bass and his associates.” I have written elsewhere about collaboration and credit, and when working in the Bass Archive, studying contemporary design and film magazines, and interviewing people who worked with him, some for twenty or thirty years, I have been struck by how often he credited staff and “associates.”
It is telling that, after Hitchcock’s comments to Truffaut, Bass took greater care to protect his credits, ensuring that his next montages within a film were given a separate credit so that there could be no doubt about who had done them. The racing sequences within Grand Prix
, therefore, have a separate “montage” credit, along with a separate credit for the title sequence and another separate credit for the visual consultancy. Plans are currently afoot for a feature film about the making of Psycho
. What will happen when it comes to the shower scene, I wonder? Will Bass be given any or due credit? Will the film, like Rashomon
(1950, directed by Akira Kurosawa, Japan), accept that there may be more than one way of seeing or remembering something, and that individuals often bring to situations quite different things as well as take away quite different things from them?