Something you don’t see much these days: taking a few minutes of screen time to set the mood for the film you’re about to see. The main title sequence is a bit of a dying art now, but (like dinosaurs and woolly mammoths) once they were commonplace.
(Speaking of a dying art, may the “overture” rest in piece — the last movie I saw in the theater with an actual overture was Disney’s The Black Hole in 1979. People were yelling things like “picture” and “movie” because they thought there was a projection problem. I wanted to scream out “It’s an overture you fucking morons!” but couldn’t muster the courage to do so.)
Spartacus (1960 – Saul Bass). I’d like to start off with something by Saul Bass because when I was putting together this list, it was actually difficult to refrain from making them all Saul Bass. He’s worked on so many great title sequences that I did not include on this list, such as Psycho, Vertigo, The Man with the Golden Arm, Walk on the Wild Side and many others. Let’s begin with Spartacus, as I feel it’s just about as perfect as a title sequence can be and encapsulates quite well the genius of Bass. I’ll let the sequence speak for itself (except to point out the striking music by Alex North, who turns the familiar Hollywood “Roman Epic” score on its head).
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Superman (1978 – Denis Rich). My favorite title sequence on this list, probably because at 13 years old I was at the perfect age to have my mind blown. Talk about a mood-setter! Immediately after the stylized “Daily Planet” prelude, “Marlon Brando” whooshes by and John Williams slowly begins his familiar 6/8 rhythm, building to that incredible moment where the giant Superman shield appears onscreen and that rhythm breaks loose to the full London Symphony in all its glory. The titles soar past and after all of that, we’re ready for just about anything.
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Alien (1979 – Saul Bass, uncredited). This is just a cool idea: having the title of the movie slowly form at the top of the screen while the rest of the credits play out at the bottom. I was trying to include a few non-Saul Bass titles, but then discovered that it was Bass himself who designed the titles, uncredited. It figures.
Seconds (1966 – Saul Bass). Strange reflective imagery of distorted human faces, coupled with Jerry Goldsmith’s unsettling music sets the tone perfectly for this disturbing John Frankenheimer thriller (in which a secret organization offers people a second chance at life through plastic surgery, but at a hefty cost).
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North By Northwest (1959 – Saul Bass). Lettering with arrows is combined with lines forming a grid, which eventually dissolves to a shot of the UN building — accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s fandango-inspired score.
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The Spy Who Loved Me (1977 – Maurice Binder). Of course I had to include at least one James Bond film here. In addition to creating the famous “gun barrel” opening, Maurice Binder worked on the title sequence for 14 Bond films, from Dr. No (1962) to Licence to Kill (1989), excluding From Russia with Love and Goldfinger. They’re all great, but I’ve always really loved The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the few 007 title sequences which actually featured James Bond (plus some gratuitous gymnastics to boot).
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Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964 – Pablo Ferro). Ferro’s iconic hand-drawn elongated style, giant letters combined with tiny letters, plays over images of a B-52 bomber refueling in mid-air. But if you look fast during the Strangelove titles, you can actually spot a typo: “Base” on the book, instead of “Based.” This style was also used for Jonathan Demme’s concert film Stop Making Sense — also designed by Ferro (who worked on many of Demme’s films).
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Philadelphia (1993 – Pablo Ferro). Again with Ferro’s simple hand-drawn lettering. But it’s not the title so much here as it is the images: shots of people in Philadelphia going about their day, ranging from the middle-class to the destitute, just people doing the various things that they do — the kind of thing that director Jonathan Demme is great at capturing. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have it all backed by an Oscar-winning Bruce Springsteen song.
Se7en (1995 – Kyle Cooper). I suppose if any contemporary title designer is going to carry the torch for Saul Bass, it could very well be Kyle Cooper. He sets the tone for David Fincher’s thriller using flash cuts: scratched film, jumping words and — oh hell, I’m not sure exactly sure what’s going on here but it’s sure unsettling. Cooper also worked on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, another really cool title sequence.
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Seven Days in May (1964 – Saul Bass). I started with Saul and I’ll close with Saul. This might actually be my favorite of his titles, though that’s admittedly difficult to choose. But there’s something about the way that the silhoutted tips of missiles transform into the white house gate! It’s a fitting overture to a story about a newly-elected president who wants to sign a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets and the U.S. military possibly plotting to overthrow him.
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And, just for fun, here’s some YouTube goodness — what might have happened had Saul Bass designed the titles for Star Wars.
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