Saul Bass is the master of film title design. Here’s his opening title sequence for “The Man With The Golden Arm.”

The backstory:

When the reels of film for Otto Preminger’s controversial new drugs movie, The Man with the Golden Arm, arrived at US movie theatres in 1955, a note was stuck on the cans – “Projectionists – pull curtain before titles”.

Until then, the lists of cast and crew members which passed for movie titles were so dull that projectionists only pulled back the curtains to reveal the screen once they’d finished. But Preminger wanted his audience to see The Man with the Golden Arm’s titles as an integral part of the film.

The movie’s theme was the struggle of its hero – a jazz musician played by Frank Sinatra – to overcome his heroin addiction. Designed by the graphic designer Saul Bass the titles featured an animated black paper-cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm. Knowing that the arm was a powerful image of addiction, Bass had chosen it – rather than Frank Sinatra’s famous face – as the symbol of both the movie’s titles and its promotional poster.

That cut-out arm caused a sensation and Saul Bass reinvented the movie title as an art form. By the end of his life, he had created over 50 title sequences for Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, John Frankenheimer and Martin Scorsese.

“Anatomy of a Murder” title sequence.

Saul Bass: A Film Title Pioneer offers Bass’ thought process behind his titles:

Saul Bass: “My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it”

As Bass went forward, he proceeded in perfecting these thoughts, creating mini-narratives which would help bring the viewer into the film.

Writer Ken Coupland feels that in this respect, Bass is something of a magician: “I believe that a great title sequence almost literally hypnotizes you, especially the work of Saul Bass where there’s a very strong repetitive swirling motion and abstract things that happen that’s putting you into a dream-like state.”

More of Bass’ title sequences after the jump.

Bass’ “Around the World in 80 Days” title sequence. has an interactive image gallery of titles designed by Bass. His various techniques are discussed in the site’s introduction.

Bass’ techniques are various and decidedly inconsistent: cutout animation, montage, live action, and type design to name only his more prominent exercises. Secondly, Bass exhibits an exemplary use of color and movement. Often sequences begin with a solid, empty frame of color (as with Exodus’ blue or North by Northwest’s green). His design tactic in this context, although characteristic, possesses subtly and variety.

“Psycho” titles.

Martin Scorcese on Bass:

His titles are not simply imaginative identification tags. When his work comes on the screen, the movie itself truly begins.

“Walk on the Wild Side” titles.

“It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” titles.

“Bunny Lake is Missing” titles.

“The Human Factor” titles.

“North by Northwest” titles.

“Vertigo” titles.

Preview of “Why Man Creates” (a short film by Bass).

Saul Bass movie posters
Video: Star Wars vs. Saul Bass