- Phase IV:Saul Bass’s Sci-fi Vision Lost and Regained
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In early 1973, a reporter visited Pinewood Studios in England, where graphic designer and filmmaker Saul Bass was overseeing the final setups of the first and only feature film he would direct. The reporter described the scene being shot: a young boy splashing out of a small pool for the overcranked camera. In postproduction, this image of rebirth would be layered with a blood red filter and woven into the film’s phantasmagoric final sequence. The article cheerfully reported that “Bass and company are a couple days over-schedule, but Paramount loves the montage idea, so it’s okay.”1 Months later the studio had grown increasingly nervous about the project, with the abstract coda ultimately withdrawn, and Phase IV, as it became known in the ensuing decades, would scarcely resemble Bass’s original vision.
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It could be a stretch to call the film ultimately released by Paramount Pictures a misunderstood masterpiece or lost classic, but this ambitious and occasionally inspired film deserves further consideration. What was ostensibly a genre film about an insect uprising also freely indulged in more impressionistic impulses, as was typical of [End Page 28] science fiction in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Some plodding exposition and underwritten characters woodenly played are an invitation for easy scorn (indeed, the film as released was one of the earliest targets for Mystery Science Theater 3000), and the film was met with a quiet shrug from moviegoers and the derision of critics who indulged in puns such as “This one didn’t get the bugs worked out before release.”2 In fact, it was the intervention of baffled test audiences and nervous studio representatives that reduced what could have been a bold and visually stunning sci-fi film to a more conventional and less distinguished alien invasion creature feature.
Nonetheless, the film earned more admirers over the years even while the existence of the montage sequence remained unknown, inspiring speculation and curiosity about the fantastic imagery that had been cut from the released film but that remained in the theatrical trailer.3 In 2012, the extended montage ending as it appeared in preview versions of Phase IV resurfaced in the Saul Bass Collection at the Academy Film Archive, along with evidence of other cuts made along the way. The rediscovery lent further support to the legend of Bass at odds with a cast of formidable studio executives, including Robert Evans, Frank Yablans, and Peter Bart, but the true story is more equivocal than the familiar tale of a first-time filmmaker being bullied into changing his film against his wishes. At the time, Bass held a paradoxical place in the industry as both a respected veteran and an unproven director. With Phase IV, this master of short-form, visually expansive, usually nonnarrative works would struggle to translate his skills to the feature film. This article surveys the development and realization of Phase IV, explores the uneasy fit of Bass as an auteur in the New Hollywood, and more accurately characterizes this archival find.
Saul Bass (1920–96) is known to most as the first true artist of feature title sequences, perhaps the only practitioner of the form to become a household name, and the creator of the mini-opuses that opened multiple films by directors Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Martin Scorsese, and others. His recognizably stark design sense is evident in numerous theatrical film posters and in corporate logos that still populate our everyday visual landscape. As a filmmaker, Bass honed his skills with television commercials and sponsored films. He demonstrated increasing ambition and sophistication by contributing two films to the 1964 New York World’s Fair and winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject with Why Man Creates (1968).
“I knew that sooner...