The Man With the Golden Arm (Saul Bass, 1955). Bass’s first title sequence was for Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones in 1954. But it was the director’s next assignment for Bass that made everyone take notice: for The Man With the Golden Arm, a tale of heroin addiction, he uses disjointed lines that eventually form an addict’s arm. Also impressive here is Elmer Bernstein’s striking score — certainly not the first time jazz elements were incorporated in a Hollywood film, but still a highly influential work.
Vertigo (Saul Bass, 1958). This Alfred Hitchcock tale of obsession begins, fittingly, with close-ups of a woman’s face, mouth, and eye, followed by hypnotic spiraling graphics that seem to emerge from her pupil. The great Bernard Herrmann (who began his film-composer career in 1941 with a little something called Citizen Kane) wrote the score — one of his finest.
Psycho (Saul Bass, 1960). Disjointed lettering comes together and breaks apart, accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s mad scherzo for strings. It’s interesting to note that in addition to the titles, Bass drew storyboards for some of the film’s key sequences, and at one point he actually claimed that he directed Psycho‘s most famous sequence — the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the shower — not Hitchcock. Nearly everyone associated with the film, including Janet Leigh and assistant director Hilton A. Green, has refuted this claim, however. You can view the sequence on Turner Classic Movies’ website.
Bullitt (Pablo Ferro, 1968). Simple white titles slide across the opening sequence of Peter Yates’s police thriller starring Steve McQueen, leaving behind transparent letters that take us into the next image. The very cool score is by Lalo Schifrin.
Innerspace (Wayne Fitzgerald and David Oliver, 1987). We begin in some kind of strange, crystalline world as the camera slowly floats around, eventually pulling back to reveal that all along we were in the molecules of an ice cube.
Catch Me If You Can (Florence Deygas and Olivier Kuntzel, uncredited, 2002). The title sequence here is very much inspired by the work of Saul Bass, with its disjointed lines and arrows depicting airports, travel — and deception. Plus, Deygas and Kuntzel even throw in a piano for composer John Williams’s credit. It’s a wonderful nod to title sequences of the ’50s and ’60s.
Spider-Man (Kyle Cooper, 2002). The titles break apart and come together as they get caught in an abstract world of spiderwebs, with brief flashes of the film’s hero thrown in for good measure. The effective score is by Danny Elfman.
Thank You for Smoking (Jenny Lee, Ari Sachter-Zeltzer, and Gareth Smith, 2005). The titles for Jason Reitman’s directorial debut are cleverly laid out in the style of cigarette packaging.
Watchmen (Garson Yu, 2009). To introduce us to an alternate reality in which comic book heroes actually exist, director Zach Snyder and designer Garson Yu (founder of yU+co) create a title sequence demonstrating how the Watchmen have affected the course of history and score it with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Casino (Saul and Elaine Bass, 1995). Casino boss Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) walks out to his car, gets inside, and starts the engine. The car explodes and his body slowly falls through the flames as well as images of Las Vegas, which is presented as a kind of hell on earth. Saul Bass and his wife, Elaine, also worked on the titles for Martin Scorsese’s three films from the first half of the ’90s: Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), and The Age of Innocence (1993). I felt it was fitting to end with this film since Casino‘s title sequence was the last one Saul created before his death in 1996. (He’s credited with the title design for Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho only because the titles mimic the design of his work from the original film.)