You’ve gotten your popcorn and taken your seat. Your cellphone is turned OFF. You settle back as the house lights finally dim after 20 minutes of trailers. The production logos vanish and so the opening credits begin. Sometimes this is the best part of a movie. The mood is set—a world of possibility opens up and nothing has come afterwards yet to muck it up. The title sequence acts as a decompression chamber—a transitional portal to another time and place. Some of the best title sequences could work as short films in their own right.
Up until 1950 or so, there were no opening credit sequences per se. The backgrounds and lettering might change, but the format was by and large standard. Then, in 1955, something new happened. Otto Preminger hired New York graphic artist Saul Bass to design the titles for The Man with the Golden Arm. The animated cutouts that Bass set to Elmer Bernstein’s music were influential. Preminger instructed movie projectionists to open the curtains before the credits started, something they weren’t in the habit of doing, and the results changed movies forever.
So, without further ado, let the curtains open for five of my favorites—and then on to yours.
1. The Age of Innocence (1993)
Saul Bass was the undisputed king of title design. A graphic designer from the world of New York advertising, he designed some of Alfred Hitchcock’s grandest titles: Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho. He worked with directors as diverse as Otto Preminger, Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder, Robert Wise, Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Kramer, and John Frankenheimer. Click here and scroll down to see some of his most famous corporate logos. Saul’s work with wife Elaine for Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence ranks among his finest. More than just an intro, it’s an integral part of the film. The submerged passions of Edith Wharton’s novel are literalized up front. Through a veil of lace and Wharton’s handwriting, succeeding images of flowers are shown blooming in time-lapse, each one dissolving into the next. Set to Gounod’s music for Faust, red hibiscus blooms (representing delicate beauty and love, according to the Victorian language of flowers) give way to yellow hibiscus (dying love, platonic love, and infidelity). It’s beautiful and outrageously sexual—almost scandalous. The blooms increase in tempo, until the romantic rhythm reaches an orgasmic crescendo and we see a yellow flower open repeatedly, spreading its petals over and over and revealing its pistil. Finally, a volcanic eruption of red petals peels back and dissolves into the hemisphere of a dandelion (faithfulness, happiness, and wishes come true). It’s the most daring and sexually explicit scene in The Age of Innocence—a movie about Protestants made by a man with Catholic appetites.
2. Dr. No (1962)
A white dot moves from left to right across a black screen. It expands into a rifled gun barrel. We look down the barrel, taking aim at a well-dressed man walking left. We are about to pull the trigger, but he gets the jump on us, whirls and fires his Walther PPK. Blood cascades down before our eyes as the white dot begins to shimmy back and forth to Monty Norman’s jazzy “James Bond Theme”. What just happened here? It’s assassin vs. assassin. We went from voyeuristic aggressor to ecstatic victim in only a few seconds. The rest of Dr. No’s credits are a cacophony of flashing, dancing dots, and a riot of 60’s color that is reminiscent of the opening credits of TV’s Lost in Space. The dots give way to superimposed Jamaicans dancing the limbo, and then as the music segues into a calypso reworking of “Three Blind Mice,” we see silhouettes of the three blind assassins with walking sticks tapping across a blue and red, purple and orange, nebulous void.
Maurice Binder, who once partnered with Saul Bass, created the credits for 14 Bond films. His style, ranging across decades, is filled with brassy belly-dancers and silky nude silhouettes shot out of a gun; it is humorous and sexy at the same time, and instantly recognizable the world over. Binder took a break from the next two Bond pictures, but came back for Thunderball, but not before the second Bond film, From Russia with Love, initiated a new device that’s been copied by television shows ever after: the pre-credit sequence.
3. The Pink Panther (1963)
Cue Henry Mancini’s immortal “Pink Panther Theme” (dead ant, dead ant.) Enter the Pink Panther, not the titular diamond with a small flaw shaped like an animal that the movie is actually about, but Friz Freleng’s irrepressible creation, an animated panther that would frame the rest of the series and go on to have a cartoon career of his own, one that kept Freleng going after his years at Warner Brothers. This is the one that put cartoon credit sequences on the map. It’s my tribute to all those cartoon titles that were in vogue in the 60’s like Bell, Book, and Candle and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as well as retro-60’s titles like the ones for Andrew Bergman’s Honeymoon in Vegas. The Pink Panther rearranges names from anagrams. He purrs up against Capucine’s name. He ogles Claudia Cardinale’s name. He wears a monocle and smokes a cigarette from a holder. He gives himself credit where credit isn’t due. He mocks and cajoles various technicians. He gets chased around by Inspector Clouseau (look up bumbling in the dictionary) and leaves pink paw prints everywhere. He entertains us while the names go flashing by. And all the while, Mancini’s music keeps playing…
4. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Last I heard, this 10 minute credit sequence for Leone’s epic western still held the record as the longest. In fact, everything about this masterpiece is long, even the title in Italian (C’era una Volta il West) isn’t much shorter. These credits take their time getting done. Welcome to the world of Sergio Leone, where the slightest action—a facial tic, a sideways look—is amplified and writ large. Leone took Fred Zinnemann’s classic opening for High Noon, turned it inside out, and then inflated it to near bursting.
Three gunslingers in long dusters descend on a quiet Arizona railway station in the middle of nowhere. There’s no Ennio Morricone score yet, just the symphonic, complexly orchestrated sound effects: a creaky door, wind, chalk on a board, a bird in a cage, a rooster and some chickens, and always, throughout, a squeaking windmill. After dispatching with the old stationmaster, and sending an Indian woman packing, they find out the train is two hours late. And so they wait. The three killers spread out across the deserted station, as the empty tracks spread out across the desert. Woody Strode (Stony) walks with slow, purposeful, spur-clinking steps across the rough hewn, impossibly immense loading platform to stand underneath a water tower. Al Mulock (Knuckles) dips his hand in a water trough. Jack Elam (Snaky) yanks out the wires of a clicking telegraph machine (killing the soundtrack momentarily) and then tries to take a nap. A drip of water lands on Stony’s bald head. He puts on his hat to catch the falling drops. Snaky’s nap is thwarted by a buzzing fly. Knuckles cracks his knuckles ...loudly. Snaky catches the fly in the barrel of his gun. A train’s whistle is heard in the distance. The men listen. Stony slowly removes his hat, and drinks the water it has collected. The train approaches as Stony cocks his sawed-off repeating rifle, and the three bad men get ready for a confrontation.
All this happens without dialogue; in a western that somebody once described as an opera in which the arias weren’t sung, but stared. Leone’s genius for the tactile textures that film is sometimes capable of is evident throughout. Whiskey bottles look dank and dusty; guns look heavy; clothing appears thickly woven and layered; faces in closeup look as craggy and pockmarked as Monument Valley. The beginning credit sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West is the most self-consciously comical part of the movie, but it sets the immense stage for what follows: a complete triumph of style over content.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
“Loving care” is the phrase that comes to mind when I think of this title sequence. I find it the most emotionally powerful scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. Elmer Bernstein’s music swells with retrospective innocence and helps things along as we watch the hands of a little girl (Scout’s) opening her cigar box of keepsakes and taking them out to play. Extreme closeups of the objects within make them look like architecture; it’s as if title designer Stephen Frankfurt made a miniature camera and got a miniature crew to operate it. As Scout uses her crayons to draw and color a mockingbird, Russell Harlan’s exquisite black-and-white photography, through slow loving pans and bittersweet dissolves, shows us a fountain pen, figures of a boy and a girl carved out of soap, a silver whistle, some pennies from 1900, a key, a harmonica, some jacks, one marble rolling up against another, a pair of spectacles, and, of course, Atticus’ watch and chain. Many of the credits are tied to appropriate objects; “music by Elmer Bernstein” is paired with the whistle, for instance. By the end, the girl completes her picture, then tears it. The sequence is suffused with nostalgia; we are already looking back on the story we are about to be told.