Motion pictures have always included title sequences, but it wasn’t until Bass that they became a full-fledged art form. In the 1950s, many American movie theaters would play the credits while patrons were still chattering and taking their seats—in fact, Bass had to ensure that every reel of The Man with the Golden Arm came accompanied by a message forbidding the projectionist for starting the show too early. Bass had a point: because his title sequence does more than simply provide information, it demands full attention. The twisted arm, which evokes the rituals of heroin injection, is both cartoonish and shockingly realistic, and the grotesque combination complements Preminger’s lurid style. In other ways, Bass’s sequence went above and beyond what Preminger was capable of showing. At the time, censorship codes forbade directors from depicting drug use onscreen; knowing this, Bass designed what was essentially an abstract short film that paired long, needle-like lines with an arm—and left audiences to imagine the rest.
Understatement is equally important to the other title sequences Bass designed in the 1950s and ’60s. During the credits for Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), it’s remarkable how much dread he conjures from a stack of thick grey lines crawling left and right across a black screen—perfect for a film about the horrors lurking in ordinary places. Other sequences helped prove Bass to be a first-rate cartoonist: The titles for It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) are as funny as anything from the rest of the movie, and the end credits for Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)—a 10-minute animated version of Jules Verne’s story—are a good deal more entertaining than Around the World in Eighty Days itself.
Bass’s influence looms large. These days, there’s scarcely a memorable title sequence—from the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can to the TV shows Mad Men and Westworld—that doesn’t pay homage to his pioneering work.
Bass’s own career as a film director is a mixed bag. Alongside his wife and creative partner, Elaine, Bass won the 1968 Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject for Why Man Creates, a 25-minute meditation on the artistic process that is a good deal more light-hearted than it sounds. His only feature, a science fiction extravaganza called Phase IV (1974), fared worse, baffling most critics and failing to earn back its budget. Partly because of its director’s reputation as a graphic designer, the film has a cult following today, although the consensus seems to be that Bass the filmmaker was predictably brilliant at crafting memorable images, but didn’t always know how to shape them into a strong story. (Tellingly, Phase IV was the first of many science fiction films in which crop circles signal an impending invasion—this one by hyper-intelligent ants. Leave it to Bass to rebrand something as simple as the circle.)