The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

Saul Bass

The Man With The Golden Arm, directed by Otto Preminger and released in 1955 is a story about a man who is struggling to get his life back on track after being set free from prison. Throughout the story Sinatra’s character is attempting to come to terms with his drug addiction

Saul Bass is a legendary graphic designer who is famed for creating the posters and titles of many Hitchcock movies as well as the branding for some of the world’s biggest firms. Bass has an instantly recognisable style consisting of very basic shapes and usually only two or three colours. Bass would also very often create typefaces for his work. Bass has had a massive influence in Graphic Design, especially with how he tries to communicate abstract thoughts and feelings — something especially apparent in his poster for Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”.

One of Bass’ mandates for designing for film was informing the audience of the tone and story of the film before the first scene appeared on the screen. This is an aspect of his design which is blaringly obvious in The Man with the Golden Arm — white lines, referencing the drug addiction through their stabbing motions towards the audience, as if they were needles, but also representing — at times — his desire to be a musician, more specifically, a drummer (the white bars often appear in pairs, being analogous to drum sticks).

Title sequences seem to be something that are almost ignored by modern film makers, often just being cast names superimposed over the opening shots of the movie. Instead, this art of the title has been shifted to the first ending credits (the ones before the predictable after-credits scene) and while they are often visually stunning, they do lack the charm and character of Bass’s titles. I saw an article recently which said that Bass’s titles for North By Northwest were superior as Bass incorporated a third dimension to the work, and that there for his work had evolved. NBNW was almost an isolated case — Bass rarely used 3D again, and I’d have totally agree with his decision to keep style over trends. Bass’s 2D title work has went on to inspire the titles for other such films such as Monsters Inc.

It was not only the Title Sequence that Bass designed for Preminger — to keep a visual consistency Bass insisted on doing the posters for the film, also. Bass took an incredibly unconventional approach for the time; most film posters consisted of a large shot of the leading actor, with a few supporting cast members, and the name of the film in a script font, the name of the lead often being as large, or larger than the film’s title itself.

As you can see, Bass’ poster design was completely different from anything else at the time. The image of a bent and broken arm reaching down, towards addiction, is central to the theme of the movie, and so Bass made it central to the poster. We live in a privileged time where if we want to hear music we fire up Spotify — for free; if we want to watch a movie, we can look up a trailer and then hop over to Netflix. This just wasn’t possible in the time that Saul Bass created these graphics — he had to grab someone’s attention and let have some idea as to what they’re getting into. A portrait of Frank Sinatra just doesn’t show that. By being different, and using exaggerated forms and bold shapes Bass manages to capture your attention and make you wonder “What is that?” In the time, the only way to find out was to pay you money and watch it.

I greatly admire Bass’s work, and he is definetly one of my ten top three designers. While I’ve not actually seen many of the movies that he’s worken on I have seen almost all of his titles and posters for them. Bass’s style is incredibly distinctive, something that I think must be pretty hard to pull off when often all you’re dealing with is a few slightly squint rectanles in monochrome, and I beleive they are all incredible peices of design which deserve to have their own Archive all to themselves.