TYLER MALONE’S FAVORITE OPENING TITLE SEQUENCES
PMc Magazine’s Resident Film Critic Lists His Favorite Film Title Sequences
By Tyler Malone
You may have noticed an elaborate Google Doodle earlier this week which incorporated elements from a number of famous film opening title sequences. That’s because May 8th was the 93rd birthday of Saul Bass, known as perhaps the greatest designer of title sequences in the 100-or-so year history of the feature film as an artform.
So what makes a great title sequence? Well, Bass himself summed up what he tried to do, and I think that’s as close to an understanding as we can get: “My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set the 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.”
In memory of the great Saul Bass, and as a belated birthday celebration of the man and his extraordinary oeuvre, as well as the oft underappreciated output of the rest of artists in the field in which he worked, I decided to create a top ten list of my favorite title sequences in movie history.
Obviously, trying to whittle the list down to ten was quite difficult as there are almost as many great title sequences as there are great movies. Naturally some of my favorites and some of the ones generally recognized as “the best” got left out (I’m thinking specifically of the title sequences from Raging Bull, The Shining, Se7en, Dr. Strangelove, Alien, Barbarella, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and pretty much every Bond film from Dr. No to Skyfall), but here’s what I came up with…
10. Life of Brian: There were a number of Bond title sequences I could have included on this list, and I considered a handful of them, but none made the final cut. Yet the Terry Gilliam opener to Monty Python’s Life of Brian with its pseudo-Bond theme just had to weasel its way into my top ten. The parody of a Shirley Bassey style Bond song is brilliant enough (with mock-epic lyrics like: “He had arms, and legs, and hands, and feet, this boy whose name was Brian. And he grew, grew, grew, and grew, grew up to be–yes, he grew up to be–a teenager called Brian”), but the visuals just knock it out of the park. Gilliam’s exquisite animation was always one of the best parts of every Monty Python film, and in the title sequence of Life of Brian Gilliam basically embarks on a surreal destruction of ancient Roman Empire statues and edifices that works on so many levels. On one of the more basic levels, one could say these structures crumble as if to warn us that any vestiges of the past that we cling to, and hold sacred, will soon be demolished by the take-no-prisoners comedy we’re about to witness.
9. Pierrot le Fou: The title sequence to my favorite film by Jean-Luc Godard (and one of my favorite films of all time) is abecedarian. By that I mean both that it is in a way quite simple and also that it literally unfolds alphabetically. It is a single black title card upon which the names of the two lead actors, the filmmaker, and the film title will eventually appear. First the As appear, then the Bs, then the Cs, and so on, until the viewer is finally able, about midway through the alphabet, to start making out what these letters spell out. As the words appear piecemeal, the viewer is forced to confront the space between the letters, the gaps, and to wonder specifically about what symbols represent, and what signs signify–questions which arise again and again in Godard’s complex film. Once the end of the alphabet arrives, the great Jean-Paul Belmondo begins reading from a book on Velázquez off screen. The names drop out, leaving only the film title remaining, then the title drops out except for the two Os from the words Pierrot le Fou. One O drops out first, then the final remaining letter vanishes as well–foreshadowing the film’s two lonely souls and their eventual fate–leaving us again with a blank black screen, a space between forms, before the film’s first images are given to us.
8. North by Northwest: Ending with one of Alfred Hitchcock’s more famous cameos, where he just misses a bus, the title sequence to his film North by Northwest is a Saul Bass classic. In the beginning, as lines criss-cross across a flat green plane to form a grid that quickly establishes itself as the façade of a modern building, we are immediately ushered into the chaos of the fast-paced capitalist society of the day. The criss-crossing of those lines before they coalesce into the form of a building is important though, as much of the film can be seen as thematically interested in intersections and crossings, hence the directional title of the film North by Northwest. The title credits then themselves move like elevators, scaling the building’s façade, stopping at a given floor just long enough for us to read them, and then zooming off again. The drawn building fades, transitioning into a “real” building photographed, and then, as the titles continue, we’re overwhelmed by hoards of cars and people. These nameless, faceless masses of commuters going every which way across the intersections of busy Manhattan streets only further the film’s criss-crossing motif. Bernard Herrmann’s seemingly frenetic score works brilliantly in tandem with the Bass imagery to heighten the tension of this chaotic opening scene.
7. Fahrenheit 451: The title sequence from François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 isn’t the first to feature a complete lack of text, where all the title information is given in voice-over, but it is the one that best utilizes the effect due to the nature of the material. In the dystopic future in which Fahrenheit 451 is set, reading is forbidden, and thus it makes sense, within the context of the narrative, that all text would be entirely absent from the film’s opening sequence. Instead, the information is given to us by the cold voice of a disinterested radio broadcaster, over monochromatic images of TV antennae. As the camera zooms in on these futuristic apparatuses, we are unnerved and set off balance by their creepiness, conjuring up ideas of technology, surveillance, and control, which the film itself will delve into more deeply.
6. The Third Man: In the pre-Bass era, there’s really only one title sequence I can think of that can rival the amazing things that Saul Bass, his contemporaries, and later generations did, and that is the title sequence to Carol Reed’s The Third Man. The phenomenal Anton Karas’ zither score accompanied by the image of the vibrating strings of the zither over which the title text is laid may seem basic, but it sets the film up perfectly. As the strings vibrate seemingly of their own accord, independently of one another, we feel the discordant, ruined world of post-war Europe just beneath the surface, and yet the music has a sweet sense of old world nostalgia in it as well. The opening wonderfully encapsulates that blend of strange sweet surface with a sinister underpinning that will typify the film and its mysterious iconic character Harry Lime. Cuckoo clocks be damned, it’s really the zither that makes the film.
5. Enter the Void: Great title sequences aren’t all that common these days, but they still do exist. Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void is one of the most recent films with an absolutely astonishing title sequence, and we have designer Tom Kan to thank for it. Tom Kan told the website Art of the Title: “Gaspar already had an idea for it: he wanted a fast-paced compilation of typefaces, all very different, inspired by films, flyers, and neon signs to announce the tone of the film.” Kan then went about trying to tie specific names to typefaces which would represent their characters. These are then thrown at the viewer at breakneck speeds to LFO’s techno track “Freak” (which feels as in-your-face as the titles themselves). It’s all very confrontational, an affront to the viewer’s senses in a way that can only be compared to the neon lights on the Las Vegas Strip or in Times Square (or, perhaps, it’d be more appropriate to say “in a way that can only be compared to the neon lights all over Tokyo”). I couldn’t imagine a better entrance to the void.
4. Punch-Drunk Love: Another one of the few great title sequences of this new millennium, the opening credits to P. T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love isn’t really a title sequence at all. There are no actual credits until the end, but in lieu of a true title sequence, there is a lovely sequence of brilliant splotches of color courtesy of artist Jeremy Blake. These colors in the film’s palette, mostly vibrant reds and blues, chart the course of the two main characters of the film: Barry Egan, who in his loneliness and isolation embodies the color blue, and Lena Leonard, whose boldness takes on the more fiery red. The gorgeous painterly abstractions set the romantic, surreal tone that the film itself will continue to evoke throughout, but it isn’t only the mood that the opening sequence elicits, P. T. Anderson actually chose to feature the wild colors of Jeremy Blake’s digital paintings throughout the movie, utilizing abstract art in a way that it is rarely used in film: almost as a part of the narrative itself, creating a refreshingly new cinematic language.
3. Lost Highway: Under the barrage of the industrial beats, clamoring piano stabs, and angelic vocals of David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged,” the titles for David Lynch’s Lost Highway begin with the image of lane dividers illuminated by a car’s late-night headlights zooming by. The viewer has the car’s POV, and as our car speeds on, plunging us further into the darkness, the bright, bold yellow text of the titles jumps out from the black of night mimicking the bright, bold yellow of those lane dividers. This idea of lane dividers, and the divisions between two things, is a sly evocation of what is to come in the film, yet you’ll notice that the car is traveling down the center of these dividers, not choosing a lane, ambiguous as always, forcing connections between two seemingly opposing things. Perfection, as only Lynch (via designer Jay Johnson) could provide.
2. Vertigo: Saul Bass’ title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo begins with a face. Much has been made of the placement of James Stewart’s name over the freeze-framed lips, and the name of Kim Novak over the seemingly nervous shifting eyes. It certainly hints at something about the nature of the male gaze and female autonomy, ideas that the film is not only thematically and tropologically interested in, but very obviously about even in basic plot and story elements. The title of the film itself inevitably erupts from the pupil of one of the woman’s eyeballs, followed by a potentially vertigo-inducing spiral created by artist John Whitney specifically for Saul Bass’ use in this sequence. The following series of Whitney’s spirographic imagery is utilized to evoke that sense of vertigo which Jimmy Stewart’s character, John “Scottie” Ferguson, is susceptible to. It’s one of the most quintessential title sequences I can think of, and begins with an eerie bang what the prestigious Sight & Sound poll just determined was the greatest film of all time: Vertigo.
1. Psycho: It’s fitting that both the first and second place spots on this list are taken by Saul Bass, as he truly is the best of the best, even to this day. Long before we know, see, or comprehend Norman Bates’ own ruptured psyche, Bass’ opening title sequence of Hitchcock’s Psycho lets us know that the world we are about to witness is full of fractures through its ever-shifting fragmented lettering over very basic line arrangements. Just as in the beginning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we are warned that “the time is out of joint,” so too does the brilliant (and brilliantly simple) Bass title sequence here, in conjunction with Bernard Herrmann’s spastic score, alert us to the “out of joint-ness” of Psycho. To watch these first two minutes of the film, before even a moment of the “real” film begins, is to become riddled with anxiety. It’s easy to take a simple sequence like this for granted, but don’t be fooled by its simplicity, this is great filmmaking at its finest (on the part of the best title sequence triumvirate: Hitchcock, Bass, and Herrmann).
Tyler Malone writes for various publications, runs Reading Markson Reading, and is working on a forthcoming novel. He is the Editorial Director of and Film Critic for PMc Magazine. He lives and works in New York City.
Written and Compiled by Tyler Malone
Film Still from Psycho, Courtesy of Paramount Pictures & Universal Pictures
Design by Lulu Vottero
Film Still from Psycho, Courtesy of Paramount Pictures & Universal Pictures