The Man with the Golden Arm
Silkscreen poster for Otto Preminger's 1955 drama. For more information about Silkscreens click here.
In 1954, Preminger again defied Production Code guidelines when adapting Nelson Algren's powerful novel about drug addiction, a taboo topic in mid-century America. The challenge facing Saul was how to create a symbol that captured the drama and intensity of the film without resorting to sensationalism.
He created an arresting image of a distorted, disjointed arm. The semi-abstract form helped distance the form from the harsh realities of shooting up, although they are implicit in the (dis)figuration. As well as being disconnected from a body, the black arm has the appearance of being petrified and transformed into something else, just as the Frank Sinatra character in the movie is transformed by his addiction.
The title sequence was equally compelling. Here was modern art on the movie screen. Saul stated that "the intent of this opening was to create a mood - spare, gaunt, with a driving intensity... (that conveyed) the distortion of jaggedness, the disconnectedness and disjointedness of the addict's life - the subject of the film."
Accompanied by Elmer Bernstein's driving jazz-like score, and set against a black background, white bars appear, disappear and form abstract patterns before finally coalescing into the film's symbol. Contrasts between the black and white heighten the strident intensity, and the disjunctures encapsulate the mood of the main character, a downbeat drummer with a penchant for gambling and drugs. Because of the extremely tight schedule, Bernstein had to compose the music at the same time that Saul Bass was creating the title. Saul explained, "he gave me a beat, the 'counts' as we say, and I designed to that beat. It was a helluva moment when we first screened it."
When prints went out to theaters all over the country, Preminger made sure they were accompanied by a note instructing the projectionist to run the first reel only after the curtains were drawn back.
The symbol was at the center of a unified and comprehensive advertising campaign, unprecedented in American cinema, indeed world cinema. The advertisements "broke the rules about what a campaign should do because they focussed on one thing - the arm. They were reductive. They were metaphorical." The highly nuanced articulation and re-articulation of the imagery and colors across the wide-range of advertising reveal Saul on a roll, ideas pouring out.
When the symbol alone was used on one side of the marquee at the New York opening (at the Victoria Theater, Broadway), Saul knew he had achieved his ambition to create graphics that would announce a film rather than sell it. Most exhibitors, however, thought that it was insane to advertise a film with such reductive imagery.
Preminger defended Saul's work in his dealings with anxious executives at the releasing company, United Artists, who feared that box office receipts would suffer if advertising did not carry large images of film stars. On one occasion, Saul recalled walking into Preminger's office during a phone conversation between the director and the owner of a theater chain in Texas. "I've got to have pictures of Sinatra and Novak in the ads!" the exhibitor shouted, loudly enough for his voice to penetrate the earpiece. "Now you listen to me!" Preminger thundered back. "We have considered everything you said, and we have decided this is the campaign as it stands. If you change the ads one iota, I will pull the picture from your chain and sue you!" Sadly, Preminger lost the battle to keep the advertising completely free of film stars, but Saul managed to place them judiciously within the designs.
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