What do the typefaces of classic film titles say about California? Let’s take a look a five films set in the Golden State to find out.
California shimmers like a mirage in the American psyche. We collectively envision a land of plenty bathed in golden sunshine, a place where dreams come true. Since the 19th-century days of Manifest Destiny, folks have endured great hardships to reach this state at the edge of the Pacific, overlooking the fact that they will arrive at a destination with its own unique share of hardships—earthquakes, wildfires, sandstorms, rattlesnakes, scorpions. California provides the raw material for plenty of tragedy (the Manson murders, the O.J. Simpson saga, the Donner party) even as it holds out the tantalizing promise of success (the gold rush, Hollywood stardom, California Here I Come) that seduces people to leave their former lives behind in hopes of achieving Nirvana in the West.
Here, we take a look at five film titles set in the Golden State, from the 1950s on, to see how the design and typography of the title sequences for this most Californian of mediums reflects and reinforces the notion of the 31st state as a uniquely American, utopian/dystopian state of mind.
— 1958— Director: Alfred Hitchcock— Title Design: Saul Bass— Music for Opening Sequence: Original score by Bernard Hermann— Starring: Kim Novak, James Stewart, Barbara Bel Geddes
Film and design lovers everywhere adore the Saul Bass title credits for this film, and for good reason. The synchrony of imagery, type and music creates a mood that perfectly matches the dread and anxiety (and yes, vertigo) felt throughout the film by Scottie, the protagonist played by James Stewart. The typeface Clarendon, a slab serif used here as bold outlines, serves as clear and legible communication over extreme close-ups of Kim Novak’s face. The title Vertigo, coming toward us from its unsettling origin deep in the pupil of Novak’s eye, is accompanied by swirling spirographic patterns (technically, they’re known as Lissajous figures) created by computer pioneer John Whitney Sr. to add to the overall discomfort. Apart from their bull’s-eye accuracy in setting up the film, the titles mirror a growing social unease and anxiety that was building as the ’50s drew to a close and the ’60s loomed large—a time when most of the country, but California in particular, became one large social experiment. When you can’t see around the corner but suspect that something terrifying awaits, the first inklings of change tend to be met with dread and resistance.
— 1967— Director: Mike Nichols— Title Design: Wayne Fitzgerald— Music for Opening Sequence: “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel— Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, Anne Bancroft
The credits open with a shot of Dustin Hoffman’s blank, frozen expression as his plane prepares to land and the pilot announces, “We’re about to begin our descent into LA.” This routine information is almost a spoiler—the descent is literal in terms of the airliner and Hoffman’s character Ben Braddock, and in a larger sense, for the entire nation thrashing through the social upheavals of the ’60s. The camera follows Hoffman through the airport as the credits appear in the blocky, bold sans serif typeface Eurostile, black, all caps. The assertive font lends the words a square decisiveness, as if the comforts of Californian suburbia and a safe upper middle class existence (complete with swimming pool and Alfa Romeo Spider convertible) were set in stone, immutable, a birthright. Of course this is not at all how things work out, and the credits come to a bookended close with Hoffman sitting in front of a tropical fish tank at home, now metaphorically as underwater as the miniature deep-sea diver in the tank, eternally blowing bubbles behind Braddock’s still-expressionless face.
— 1974— Director: Roman Polanski— Title Design: Wayne Fitzgerald— Music for Opening Sequence: “Love Theme From Chinatown” by Jerry Goldsmith— Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
This movie’s gorgeous cinematography—all honeyed light and velvety shadows—echoes in the deceptively simple title design by Wayne Fitzgerald, who created close to 1,000 film and television title sequences over a career spanning more than five decades. A 1930s-ish fat face font, Metropolis, paired with Kaufmann, a titling script, spells out “Chinatown” and the names of the cast in a rich cream color (with a deep black drop shadow), scrolling over a dramatically lit background reminiscent of polished walnut veneer. The effect is of fine, heavy Art Deco furniture and logotypes from another era—overall, more evocative of time than of place or plot or character (the movie takes place in 1937). However, the effect of California sunlight in the titles, muted as if filtered through semi-opaque blinds, hints at secrets held by someone cowering inside a well-appointed home, afraid to go out into the dazzling sunshine where truths may be revealed and veneers stripped away. A minimal masterpiece.
— 1980— Director: Paul Schrader— Title Design: Uncredited— Music for Opening Sequence: “Call Me” by Blondie— Starring: Lauren Hutton, Richard Gere
All the tawdry, costly trappings of Richard Gere’s life as a high-class gigolo are on display in this film title sequence. We see him shopping in an upscale boutique for designer clothes paid for by one of his middle-aged female clients (while he stands discreetly off to the side, insulated from the ugly reality of expense); later, he appears at another client’s architecturally significant home. But the most envy-generating moment, perhaps, is watching Gere blasting down the highway in his black Mercedes 450SL convertible, top down, his hair ruffling in the breeze. What could be more Californian, more free, more relaxed? So it’s fitting that the likely handlettered title for the credits is reminiscent of automotive chrome script lettering, though its style feels more 1950s than 1980s. Digging a bit deeper, the credits illustrate one of the unsavory truths about the 31st state: You can have everything, as Gere appears to, but what you thought was freedom may turn out to be just another optical illusion.
— 1994— Director: Quentin Tarantino— Title Design: Uncredited— Music for Opening Sequence: “Miserlou” by Dick Dale— Starring: John Travolta
, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson
Quentin Tarantino’s films are known for, among other things, the director’s penchant for violence, fondness for referencing film history, dark humor, and a certain degree of attention to typography. The credits for Pulp Fiction mix up several typefaces—first, we get a cheesy dose of Busorama at the very beginning of the title sequence, followed by the main film title set in Aachen. Familiar to readers of dime-store novels everywhere, Aachen as it’s used here has a 19th-century poster feel thanks to the letters’ dimensional rendering (more cheese) in red and goldenrod. Actor credits appear in white Benguiat to start, and later on switch into yellow. The schizophrenic jumble of typefaces is right on message for the film’s collage of vignettes about people on the fringes of society (and sometimes the fringes of sanity). It also parallels the way in which the California dream fractured toward the end of the 20th century, making the point—not with one story or typeface, but through many—that when the center cannot hold, the bottom drops out.
All told, the subject matter of the films featured here varies wildly, as do the prevailing social and cultural conditions at the time each was produced. But these film titles provide clues not only to what each movie is about, but to the bigger picture of what California means to us as a society. Together, perhaps, they form a mosaic of the truth.
This piece on California film titles is excerpted from “Golden State / Silver Screen,” which appears in the Spring 2017 issue of PRINT magazine.