Saul Bass: Anatomy of a Poster

anatomy of a murderer, poster design by saul bass

Saul Bass changed everything when he designed the poster for “The Man With the Golden Arm.” In 1955, so many film posters read like a paperback cover or a magazine ad. Plenty of those designs conveyed all the refinement of a ransom note collage.

Go ahead and run an image search for 1955 movie posters. Between the beefcake and cheesecake, and assorted, lurid layouts, “The Man With the Golden Arm” is just plain revolutionary. Depending on your eye, and monitor, the artwork leaps right off the page.

Bass threw out the whole history of one-sheet design. His approach centered on symbolizing a movie, boiling it down into a basic, essential representation. His work turned the film poster and title logo from bad commercial design into the realm of visual substance. A framed print of “Rebel Without a Cause” is memorabilia; “The Man With the Golden Arm” is a piece of Art.

Above: The bright colored poster for a courtroom-crime film starring James Stewart.
"The Man With the Golden Arm" (1955).
The first suggested poster design by Bass, the studio pressured the designer and the result is the release of another one in 1955.

The Man With the Golden Arm

This is the one that broke all kinds of ground. First off, Bass trashed the idea of showing the flick’s star, Frank Sinatra. Instead of headshots or scenes, he represented the film iconically. The crooked arm, the surrounding, ruggedly rendered san-serif type and geometric blocks of solid color—the one-sheet created as much of a splash as his design for the movie’s title sequence.

"Saint Joan" (1957).
An ambiguous image for a movie that “that explores many dichotomies.”

Saint Joan

The Bass signature strikes again: another simple, broken figure. The designer received part of his training from Gyorgy Kepes, who had worked with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1930’s Berlin. The European influence is obvious through most of Bass’s work, whether Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism or German Expressionism. In the case of “Saint Joan,” Bass again focuses on a single symbol. The partial figure holding a broken sword, like an incomplete woodcut, contrasts the smoothly lettered title. All against a background that smacks of Klimt.

"Anatomy of a Murder" (1959).
In addition to providing poster design services, Bass often worked on the whole branding from main titles to screen trailers.

Anatomy of a Murder

Quintessential Bass: this lone symbol superbly synthesized is arguably his best. There’s no misreading the broken figure, the cocked head, even before you catch the title. The work is so spare, you might see any number of influences within it. You might see Picasso in the chunky forms, or the line of Matisse. This Bass classic is so influential that it was blatantly lifted for the original poster for Spike Lee’s “Clockers” (1995). Designer Art Simms claimed, “It’s a salute rather than a rip-off.” Bass didn’t believe it for one second: “The convention is when anyone steals something, they call it an homage.” 1

"The Shining" (1980).
The designer made various stippling compositions that were not to Kubrick’s liking. This one survived the taste test.

The Shining

The poster may not say, “Bass,” but it’s just as bare bones powerful as his most recognizable pieces. Again, a single background color sets off the film title and the resonating face (rendered in a photographic/stippling effect). Leave it to Bass to boost “The” twice as large as “Shining,” and make it work. It’s reported that Bass worked up 300 designs before Kubrick settled on this version.

1. "Anatomy of a Murder." IMDB. Retrieved on November 9th, 2013.
Images © Saul Bass. "The Shining" poster © Warner Bros.
Ben Solomon

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Ben lives and writes in Chicago, Illinois. When he's not dabbling in the Scene 360 scene, he pens a monthly, hard-boiled detective series. Subscription info, samples and more can be found at thehardboileddetective.com. Follow the author @ and view more articles.