Over five decades Saul Bass designed opening title sequences that were sometimes better than the movies they introduced. His ambition he once said was to “make beautiful things even if nobody cares.”
Bass started out as a graphic designer and was asked by film director Otto Preminger to put together a poster for his movie Carmen Jones. Preminger was so impressed by the result that he asked Bass to design the opening titles. So began his 40-year career in movies. Bass went on to work with Preminger again on The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder, he also designed titles for Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho), and Martin Scorsese (Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence and Casino).
Additionally, Bass designed the logos for a whole range of corporations and products and even had time to direct the cult science fiction movie Phase IV. As a designer he set a standard for other to follow, which is evident from this hour-long selection of his title work from 1955-1995.
I saw Mean Streets in my teens on late night TV after the parents had gone to bed and I’d stolen a couple of my mother’s cigarettes to smoke. Fourteen going on fifteen and pretending to be grown-up, but once more being made aware by that picture box in the corner of a world somewhere out there where things really did happen. That’s what Mean Streets made me feel. It made me want to go and live in New York and find and meet the people who made this film and learn more about them and their lives. It was a fantasy, just like the fantasy world Robert De Niro’s character, Johnny Boy, lived in, yet, there were some connections that made sense. When you’re a kid, if you can’t be a superhero then you want to be a gangster. I guess you could say I unfortunately had the pedigree for that—one uncle had served time convicted of manslaughter, another robbed a Territorial Army barracks for weapons but left drunk laden only with booze. I was working class and raised a Catholic with family hopes of the priesthood and was all too aware of that old country superstition that kept Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in check—the fifteen decades of the holy rosary and the candle-lit novenas to saints. How their world of Little Italy was caught between the traditions of the past and the monetary reality of the future which loomed large on screen in the form of the newly built Twin Towers.
The title for the film came from Raymond Chandler, who wrote in The Simple Art of Murder:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.
According to the producer Jonathan Taplin, Martin Scorsese had wanted to make Mean Streets for so long that he had “literally drawn out every single shot.” In 1970, Scorsese briefly moved out to LA to make the big time in movies and find someone to produce his film. He met Taplin at his house and they talked by the swimming pool. Taplin in trunks, Scorsese wearing a long black leather coat, like the kind the Gestapo used to wear in those wartime B-movies. All through their discussion under the blazing Californian sun, Scorsese never took off the coat, just sat melting into the deckchair, enthusing about his project. LA was not Scorsese’s kind of a town, New York was what he knew and what he liked.
Growing up in Little Italy, Scorsese had first considered being a priest, like a lot of Catholic boys do, but found a better vocation from watching movies on TV. This was where he learnt his trade, watching B&W films on television. For a time he attended seminary school, but gave it up to study film at NY University. Here he met the first of the people who would later play a major part in his life: a young court stenographer called Harvey Keitel and an Iranian born immigrant called Mardik Martin. Together this trio of ambitious film makers would star, write and direct in Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967), a film that took four years to make, which explains why Keitel visibly aged during its 90 minutes.
When he moved to LA Scorsese wanted to make a film about Little Italy and the people who lived there. He had a story, a script, one actor, and all he needed was the finance. Taplin had worked with Bob Dylan and had relocated from the east to the west coast with an ambition to make big movies. If he could organize 150 Dylan concerts then he could certainly put a movie deal together. Taplin raised the $500,000 needed and Scorsese went back east. The final piece of Mean Streets came together when Scorsese auditioned a young actor called Robert De Niro. The pair hit it off from the very first meeting mainly because, as De Niro later explained:
We were both brought up in the same area, and we see things the same way, I think, also, we both had a sense of being outsiders.
Mean Streets was shot quickly, on location, on the streets, with real people in the background not extras. Scorsese shot up to 36 set-ups a day often hand-held which gave the film a rough urban documentary feel. From its opening shots it felt like you were watching real people living real life—not actors saying lines on the screen—which is probably why I wanted to go live in Little Italy when I first saw the film all those years ago.
This selection of behind-the-scenes photographs captures Martin Scorsese directing Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro and the co. during the making of Mean Streets.
More urban realism from ‘Mean Streets’ after the jump…
Prepare yourself for a little bit of gore, but make sure you don’t miss this one. Clocking in at under six minutes long, Martin Scorsese’s 1967 experimental short, The Big Shave is an amazing little film. Set to the sentimental jazz notes of Bunny Berigan’s 1937 rendition of “I Can’t Get Started” (a Ziegfeld Follies number with Gershwin lyrics), a young man enters the bathroom for a shave, only to nonchalantly gouge at his skin with progressively violent strokes of the razor. The resulting imagery is hypnotic.
Scorsese wrote the piece in the depths of a depression when he had difficulty shaving himself, and while it’s a simple enough concept, it was written as a fairly explicit political statement. Alternately titled Viet ‘67, the film was produced as a metaphorical protest against the Vietnam War—part of a weeklong production, “The Angry Arts Against the War.”
The subversive metaphor and captivating depiction of self-mutilation won The Big Shave Le Prix de L’Age d’Or at the 1968 Festival of Experimental Cinema in Belgium.
After Hours, released in 1985, is far from Martin Scorsese’s greatest film—it feels a bit tossed-off—but its strange fascination persists to this day. I would wager that for a lot of people who grew up in the ‘80s, it was After Hours (Desperately Seeking Susan, too) that most cemented the image of downtown NYC as a strange and wonderful nocturnal wonderland of hostile eco-activists and winsome/menacing artistes that would be a fun place to spend one’s twenties. What makes After Hours so remarkable is that each of its dozen or so vignettes could easily be a movie on its own—it’s just so packed with stuff....
This week the NYC dream pop band Au Revoir Simone released its latest album Move In Spectrums, and with it comes an amusing music video for the song “Crazy,” which, with uncanny accuracy, lovingly rejiggers the 100 or so minutes of After Hours into a tight, three-minute wordless narrative—populated entirely by women, with the exception of a brief shot of a male bouncer (I think?). (The band’s name is a Pee-Wee Herman reference, so their 80s bona fides are not in doubt.)
In 1991 French filmmaker and sometime actor André Labarthe released The Scorsese Machine, a cinema verité documentary featuring oodles of interesting footage of Scorsese living his life, interacting with his mother, and editing “Life Lessons” (his contribution to the omnibus movie New York Stories), and so on. Some enterprising Scorsese fan has isolated the 13 minutes of the movie in which Scorsese is in the editing room with his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and the result is surprisingly engaging.
In the clip, Scorsese has lunch with his hero and friend Michael Powell, debates with Schoonmaker over whether an Eric Clapton solo or Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” should serve as the music for a scene, describes how his editing room became a “bunker” after the controversy over Scorsese’s 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ broke, gushes over the movies he’s recently seen on Ted Turner’s “new” cable channel TNT, and explains some salient details from his childhood, most of which will be familiar to Scorsese fans. Scorsese is well known as a big talker, and he addresses the documentary crew constantly, asking them about Godard’s 1963 movie Le Petit Soldat, among other subjects. Scorsese refers to the “LEM” equipment that Schoonmaker, her back almost always to the camera, is continuously laboring on—film editors will recognize the acronym as standing for “Lightworks editing machine.”
The entire movie is available on YouTube in seven parts, or you can just watch the editing-related clips below:
Ah, Samuel Fuller. The great director, on some levels, exists in his very own category, creatively hitting up in the Kubrick/Kurosawa/Bergman leagues and yet hardly most people outside of serious film geeks have ever heard of him.
Arguably, Fuller has been largely ignored historically because, even in the 50s and early 60s he was cranking up the intensity to levels that simply could not be tolerated by most cinema-goers or even movie critics. Confronted with Fuller’s incendiary vision, American society collectively slapped their hands over their ears and repeated, No, this can’t be the way things are. But they were that way, and Fuller presented it in such a way that you couldn’t deny it. Forget about mom, apple pie and the postwar American dream, Samuel Fuller’s films metaphorically lifted Marilyn Monroe’s skirt to reveal a maniacally grinning demon underneath.
For instance, here’s white supremacist Trent from Shock Corridor, and remember this came out in 1962:
See what I mean? If you’ve never experienced that scene before, right now you’re probably saying, “Holy Shit…”
Sam Fuller was a classic cigar-chomping old school man’s man who’d been a crime reporter in the 1930s and then shipped off to World War II. He fought on the beaches of North Africa, Sicily and Normandy before helping to liberate the concentration camp at Falkenau, where shot some of his earliest film footage.
By the time he made his first movie in 1949 at the age of 37, Fuller was already loaded for bear with levels of life experience most of us would never even wish for. His films combined newspaper sensationalism sprinkled with bits and pieces from his own life. Although not nihilistic, Fuller didn’t have heroes or villains in the classic sense but populated his films with real characters with good and bad all mixed together. You know, like in real life.
Like any artist or writer or, well THINKER worth a damn, you can’t easily pigeonhole his world view. In Sam Fuller, The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera, a documentary about Fuller’s life, Jim Jarmusch describes the iconoclastic director as an “anti-totalitarian anarchist,” though Fuller took heat from both the right and left for Pickup on South Street (which was accused of “Red baiting” and anti-Americanism at the same time!). In the film you can also see Fuller describe both the fascists and mid-20th century communist regimes as “Enemies of humanity.”
Like Luis Buñuel, Fuller got kicked to the curb for a number or years for just going too damn far, with the controversial White Dog—which never did see a US release—about a dog trained to hate black people [A neighbor of mine in Brooklyn had a doberman that hated black people, so this isn’t as far-fetched as you might think], whereupon he moved to France, where he was, of course, hailed as a genius, and finished out the rest of his creative career.
Here’s the entire film about Fuller, shot during his lifetime so that there are plenty of classic quotes from the man. Just as amusing are the shots of Quentin Tarantino and Tim Robbins rooting around in Fuller’s pre-France work-space, uncovering all sorts of Fuller’s old treasures, even as they imitate him and invoke his spirit at a distance:
In the above letter, Martin Scorsese asks New York’s city planners to protect the “grittiness” of the Bowery. As someone who has made Manhattan’s unique character an essential element in his films, Scorsese must be deeply saddened as the city continues to lose its glorious star quality to the encroaching blandness of chain stores and soulless glass and metal monstrosities.
Listen you fuckers, you screwheads. Here’s a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit…”
Substitute “dogs” and “cunts” with “landlords” and “Realtors” and suddenly Travis Bickle’s rant starts to sound sane.
There are certain directors who have a real gift for using rock ‘n’ roll in their movies. Martin Scorsese is a master at it. In Mean Streets, Scorsese relies heavily on The Rolling Stones to add a certain magic in scenes (“Jumping Jack Flash” and “Tell Me” are put to great use), but it is The Chips’ “Rubber Biscuit” that really energizes the moment when Harvey Keitel gets shit-faced in a bar. The combination of the woozy fish-eye lens and surreal doo-wop manages to replicate the kind of drunken disorientation and euphoria that usually proceeds blacking out. You can see Keitel struggling to get a grip on things as the song pummels him into oblivion.
This is the first in a series of great rock ‘n’ roll moments in the movies. You got a few?
As if there weren’t already enough cinematic goodness in Austin, Alamo Drafthouse has just announced a mini-festival of restored classic films from Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation. Here’s the good news:
Mondo & Alamo Drafthouse have partnered with The Film Foundation, Martin Scorsese’s film preservation organization, for a very special screening & poster series of eight classic films this May & June at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, TX with beautifully restored 35mm prints. The Film Foundation is the leading non-profit organization dedicated to film preservation and has worked with the nation’s archives to save over 560 titles. The foundation provides public access to the restorations and educates future generations about film language and history.
The Film Foundation and its partners have provided pristine 35mm prints for King Kong, The Night of the Hunter, The Old Dark House, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Rashomon, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, The Unholy Three and Film. The films will also get the Mondo treatment with an original, stunning work of art available for sale at each of the screenings
The posters by Mondo Tees are quite beautiful, with King Kong (artist: Laurent Durieux) and Shadow Of A Doubt (Alan Hynes) being my favorites so far. For info on tickets for the screenings and to purchase posters visit The Alamo Drafthouse’s website.
On the heels of Madonna’s half-time spektakular and the new M.I.A. video (torrents of Arabia), may I present the The King of Rock and Roll (the white one) immortally preserved in hi-def.
Elvis on Tour was shot during a 15 city tour of the States in 1972 and Elvis is in fine Vegas form, wearing enough bling, satin, scarves and hairspray to make Liberace look like Bon Iver. Chubbier than in his sleek ‘68 Comeback Special, Presley still puts on a dynamic, though somewhat predictable, show.
The montage (split screen) sequences were directed by Martin Scorsese. I guess the producers thought if they replicated the look of the film Woodstock that hippies would suddenly think Elvis was hip. Had The King’s handlers let him stick to his lean mean black leather look of the ‘68 Comeback Special that might have happened. Afterall, a decade or so later, Morrissey found the look compelling enough to imitate it.
MOJO: Years ago, John [Lennon] was quoted as saying that George was ‘the kid’ when the Beatles began and that John treated George as such. How long did that last?
PAUL: It probably lasted a couple of years. Just because of his age, in a group of men who’ve grown up together, particularly round about their teenage years - age matters. In John’s case, who was three years older than George - that meant a lot. John was probably a bit embarrassed at having sort of ‘a young kid’ around, just ‘cos that happens in a bunch of guys. It lasted for a little while. It was particularly noticeable when George got deported from Hamburg [in November 1960] for being underage. Otherwise, when he first joined the group, he was a very fresh-faced looking kid. I remember introducing him to John and thinking, Wow, there’s a little bit of an age difference. It wasn’t so much for me ‘cos I was kind of in the middle. But as we grew up it ceased to make a difference. And those kind of differences iron themselves out.
MOJO: I’m curious about George’s process in the studio. Do you recall any stand-out moments where George brought something in or made a song click?
PAUL: Oh yeah, sure. There were quite a few. I would think immediately of my song “And I Love Her” which I brought in pretty much as a finished song. But George put on do-do-do-do [sings the signature riff] which is very much a part of the song. Y’know, the opening riff. That, to me, made a stunning difference to the song and whenever I play the song now, I remember the moment George came up with it. That song would not be the same without it.
I think a lot of his solos were very distinctive and made the records. He didn’t sound like any other guitarist. The very early days we were really kids and we didn’t think at all professionally. We were just kids being led through this amazing wonderland of the music business. We didn’t know how it went at all - a fact that I’m kind of glad of ‘cos I think it meant that we made it up. So we ended up making things up that people then would later emulate rather than us emulating stuff that we’d been told.
In the very early days, it was pretty exciting. I remember going to auditions at Decca and each of us did pretty well, y’know. We were in a pub afterwards having a drink and kind of debriefing and coming down off the excitement, but we were still pretty high off it all. And I remember sitting at the bar with George and it became kind of a fun thing for us for years later. I would say, [adopts awed voice] When you sang [Goffin & King’s] “Take Good Care Of My Baby,” it was amazin’ man!’ I’m not sure we said ‘man’ or even ‘amazing’ in those days, but… That was a special little moment and it just became a thing between me and him: [awed voice again] ‘When you sang Take Good Care Of My Baby’...’
Part 2 is here. Below, the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s upcoming documentary George Harrison: Living In The Material World, out next month.
Alfred Hitchcock made a habit of appearing in his own films, it became such a distraction that the great director ensured his trade-mark profile appeared soon after the opening titles, so audiences could concentrate on the intricacies of the plot rather than play Where’s Alfie?.
Over the years, other directors have adopted the Hitchcockian cameo (M Night Shyamalan being the most irritating), or turned it into a memorable scene - Martin Scorsese’s creepy cameo as a cuckolded husband in Taxi Driver is a small film all of its own. There have also been the directors who give cameos to the film-makers who influenced or inspired their careers - Jean-Luc Goddard’s homage to the genius Sam Fuller in Pierre le Fou, where the legendary director of The Steel Helmet, Underworld USA, The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor expounds on cinema:
“Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word . . . emotion.”
Here is just a small selection of some notable cameos by directors in their own and in other director’s films.
Legendary director Sam Fuller appears in this party scene from Jean-Luc Goddard’s ‘Pierrot le Fou’ (1965)
More directors in front of the camera, after the jump…
Woody Allen’s dialog from Hannah and Her Sisters almost fits perfectly into this scene from Taxi Driver, with Robert De Niro and Cybill Shepherd. It works so well that it even presages what we know happens in Martin Scorsese’s film
“A week ago I bought a rifle. If I had a tumor, I was gonna kill myself. The thing that might’ve stopped me: My parents would be devastated. I would’ve had to shoot them also.
And my aunt and uncle….It would have been a bloodbath…
...I need answers. Otherwise, I’m gonna do something drastic.”
Now if only the Three Stooges had made Goodfellas.