When Saul Bass Met Hitchcock

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Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho are three back-to-back films from Alfred Hitchcock’s late golden period—and three films that legendary designer Saul Bass also left his stylistic mark on. Bass’ title designs for the films remain some of the most striking (and often haunting) in the canon of American cinema.

Interestingly, as Bill Haig—who later worked with Bass when he was in full logo-design swing—notes, “He never made money on his film work, he told us. So much time an effort to do, say, the murder scene in Psycho. Logo design was more profitable. But the similarity between the two can be seen in his work. Saul said that a film symbol is like a company logo but with a shorter life to do its work. A film symbol still had to attract, and like a record cover or book cover, had to nonverbally express the essence of the movie (or record artist or book story). Thus he ‘invented’ the film symbol and film credits accordingly. The design of the film symbol and credit before the film started told the mood of the story before the story.”

Vertigo (1958)

The New York Times tells the tale:

“While he was browsing in the bargain bin of a book store on Third Avenue in Manhattan, the young graphic designer Saul Bass was struck by the spiraling images in a book about the 19th-century French mathematician Jules-Antoine Lissajous. He bought the book and experimented with ways of replicating those spirals. ‘I made a batch. Sat on them for years,’ Bass recalled. ‘And then Hitchcock asked me to work on Vertigo. Click!”


Saul Bass’ poster for Vertigo

As for the legendary title sequence, Bass wanted the Lissajous spirals to be 100% accurate, which seemed physically impossible to pull off at the time. To overcome the tech barriers they were facing, the team called in computer pioneer John Whitney, who rigged up a giant World War II anti-aircraft computer that was capable of rotating nonstop. (Read the fascinating background on the machine here, which also cites the title sequence as one of the first examples of computer graphics in film.)

North by Northwest (1959)For the titles of Bass’ second collaboration with Hitchcock, he employed kinetic (moving) type—and many have attributed North by Northwest as the first film to do so.

Psycho (1960)And then there’s perhaps Bass’ most famous Hitchcock effort—the jarring, nervous-breakdown–inducing titles for Psycho.

Bass was also called in to design a precise staccato storyboard for the film’s infamous shower scene—which eventually led to a longstanding debate between Bass and Hitchcock about who directed the scene. Check out a side-by-side comparison of the storyboards and the finished product below.

Who Directed the Shower Scene in PSYCHO? from Vashi Nedomansky on Vimeo.

Zachary Petit edits Print.