Vertigo: Disorientation in orange Paul Rennie explains the origins, details and consequences of Saul Bass' revolutionary design By Paul Rennie, The Guardian UK on April, 30 2009
Hitchcock goes to Hollywood
Hitchcock's arrival in the USA, in early 1939, gave him access to greater resources and to a global cinema audience. In the 1950s, Hitchcock was greatly admired by the young French film-makers of the Nouvelle Vague who recognised and promoted his work as that of a cinematic auteur and as a master of studio technique.
The highpoint of Hitchcock's career is generally agreed to be the sequence of films beginning with Rear Window (1954) and continuing with Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963).
Hitchcock and voyeurism
Three of these films: Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho, constitute a trilogy that explores the theme of voyeurism. This was especially significant in the later 1950s, as it introduced a psychological concept that had been explained to a popular audience, in part at least, by Freud.
The voyeuristic observer, hidden or otherwise, and with the obsessive personality associated with sexual dysfunction, became a staple, not just for Hitchcock, but for the whole of cinema. The cinematic experience became understood as psychologically contiguous to voyeurism. Hitchcock even developed a special zoom effect used in the film to suggest the sensation of vertigo.
The voyeuristic eroticism associated with Hitchcock's exploration of psychological suspense was heightened by the director's use of cool and elegant blondes. In Vertigo, Kim Novak leads.
The poster for Vertigo is by Saul Bass, who was a pioneer of film-title sequences and of film poster design. Bass conceived the title sequence as an integral part of the film and as something that could, through the use of music, typography and moving image, establish the mood and emotional register of a film.
Before Bass, which is to say, before about 1955, film titles were presented as a throw-back to the silent era. Titles and credits were shown as a sequence of static cards with the acting and production credits drawn onto them.
The big colour productions of the 1950s greatly extended the production credits. Incorporating this extra information into the title sequence made it too long. Accordingly, the credits began to be organised so that title and big names were placed at the front of the film and production and general credits at the end. So, part of what Bass was doing was a pragmatic choice to organise this information clearly.
Bass famously worked with Otto Preminger and with Alfred Hitchcock. He designed the posters and title sequences for Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. Martin Scorsese persuaded him to create the title sequence for Casino (1995).
The poster for Vertigo combines several elements that we've discussed previously. The design is based on a simplified two-colour process that uses hand-cut lettering against a bright orange background. The tiny portraits of James Stewart and Kim Novak are the only photo-mechanical elements in the design.
The technical specification for the poster reads as a screenprint. The small photographic elements, hand-cut type and solid bright orange are all indicators of this process. Accordingly, the film is positioned as an edgy and psychologically complex story, slightly outside the Hollywood mainstream.
Hand-drawn lettering and hypotrochoid curves
The tradition of hand-drawn lettering goes back to the German expressionist films of the 1920s. These films were pioneers of the horror genre and created a film world of oblique angles and vertiginous perspectives. The hand-drawn lettering for these films rejected the curves and serifs of traditional typefaces for something altogether more edgy and visceral.
The main visual element in the Bass poster is a geometric pattern based on hypotrochoid curves. These curves are familiar from the popular Spirograph toys of the 1970s. The curves provide a complex manipulation of the normal grid-spaces of our concrete and psychological environments.