Titillating Titles

When I was an undergraduate at OU in the 1980s I sought out the campus film series so I could see some of the greatest films ever made. This was before DVDs, and VCRs were still expensive and the selection of VHS tapes at the local video stores was sketchy. Even when I found a good tape, I’d be watching it on my 19″ CRT television at an effective resolution of 333×480. So watching a pristine 16mm or 35mm print on a huge screen in one of the big lecture halls was a real treat.

It was in that setting that I saw for the first time what critics laud as two of the greatest films ever made: Welles’ Citizen Kane and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Both feature music by Bernard Herrmann and Vertigo has a Saul Bass title sequence to die for. Be sure to watch it in full screen at the highest resolution available.

You really can’t grasp the power of this any more. Even the Blu-Ray version on a big HD television won’t give you the sensation I had watching that for the first time on a wall-sized screen in a huge auditorium. That sucker swallowed scores of people around me. We drowned in its depths.

Bass had seen Lissajous figures in a math book years before and he realized that putting those spirals into motion could symbolize the vertigo of the protagonist and the abyss awaiting him. I’d seen such figures animated before, not on a movie screen, but on an oscilloscope. Back in 1958 John Whitney devised a sine wave pendulum to etch such figures into glass and collaborated with Bass to produce the mechanical animations for Vertigo. After seeing the movie I went home and began programming trig functions in BASIC, eager to try to produce similar animations on my Tandy 2000 home computer.

Saul Bass is probably the most famous title designer of all, having worked repeatedly for some of the best directors, such as Hitchock, Preminger, and Scorsese. Here’s a neat quick look at many of his efforts. Be sure you click the options for HD and fullscreen.

And here’s a neat student animation project about Bass with Kraftwerk’s great early song “Ruckzuck” from the album they refuse to acknowledge these days.

When you think of memorable title sequences, I’m sure you think of James Bond films, most of them the work of Maurice Binder. It is hard to pick out my favorite, and some of them look rather dated, such as the neon make-up and laser images in A View to a Kill. But when I was a prepubescent boy I found those sequences terribly provocative. My eyes opened wide…and then hurriedly scanned the room to make sure my parents didn’t know what I was watching.

A movie many people disliked but which I found enjoyably disturbing was Frankenheimer’s 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau with Marlon Brando at his most weird. I remember being drawn in by Thomas Cobb’s powerful title sequence. Again, you really need to see this on a big screen in full res.

Yes, that’s the same guy who did the scary titles for Se7en.

Title sequences can go awry, of course. I remember Mr. Jennings, my 7th grade math teacher, complaining to my class about the very long title sequence in 1978’s Superman with the big swooping letters. Well, at least you have John Williams’ score pounding away to relieve some of the monotony.

I had fun browsing through this list of great title sequences. As I peruse the list, I’d say their last pick is one of my first: the huge lips and great geeky song by Richard O’Brien from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

It’s simple, cheap, and memorable, focusing your attention on the song…once you get over the fear of being bitten!

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife, Wendy, and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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