Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Credit Where Credits Are Due

There's an amusing clip travelling the Internet, of Star Wars credits as rendered by Saul Bass. It's well done, even if Bass would have cleaned up the spelling, but it reminded the Siren of something she misses in current Hollywood movies, along with great character actors, intertitles that tell her things like "meanwhile, as the lava approached the little fishing village" and editing that lets her actually focus on a beautiful shot for a moment: credits.



A good credit sequence puts your head in the right place, whether it's the great "wooooooo" of wind at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz or the man on crutches, steadily advancing toward us at the beginning of Double Indemnity. For a while there our contemporary directors were jettisoning the whole notion of credits. You'd maybe get a title card and then THUMP, in media res. The Siren likes this approach to movies about as much as she does to romance. Lately we are edging back toward real credit sequences but there's still a desultory quality to a lot of them. Put some pizazz in it, fellas.

So, the Siren finally figured out this embedding wheeze. To celebrate, she's sharing two of her all-time favorite credit sequences. The first, by Wayne Fitzgerald, sets the mood perfectly for one of the great movies of the 1950s, a movie the Siren worships, along with a (perhaps) surprisingly large number of women her age and younger.


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And, just as a bonus, the Siren's favorite Saul Bass credit sequence. She even prefers these credits to Vertigo. If you go on Youtube you can watch the scene where the great Brook Benton sings the lyrics to the title song. Take that, Mr. Reed.

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Postscript: Only fair to add precisely what it is the Siren likes about these sequences.

When you walk in off the street and sit down in a movie theater, and the lights go down (at least, we hope they go down, as the Siren also detests the modern tendency to leave the lights on during the previews so you can go get those Milk Duds) you need a mental adjustment. Then or now, you've been sitting through a bunch of other stuff on screen. At the start of the golden age it would have been a cartoon, a newsreel, a lower-bill feature; later, maybe a cartoon and trailers; still later, commercials (ugh) and trailers. Afterward you need to get your brain in gear for the Big Picture.

A good credit sequence functions as an aperitif. It gets your viewing palate ready. It should be long enough to ease you into the right mindset, but not so long you're thinking "enough already," which mars the occasional Bond credits, good as they usually are. The credits shouldn't tip the movie's entire hand, as with Austin Powers or Down With Love, two movies that employed retro credits but like kids at an ice cream parlor, piled on scoop after scoop until the rest of the movie just became a slightly more elaborate version of the start.

The first sequence above is nearly perfect, in the Siren's view. It prefaces a movie that has the surface of a glossy melodrama, the plotlines of a tragedy and the theme of the most divisive, perpetually unresolved American conflict of all, race. None of this is explicit, but the credits prepare you for it. There's the slightly smoky voice of Earl Grant singing a smooth but melancholy song, and a waterfall of white, imitation jewels flashing colored light against a jet-black background. Grant's singing sounds so much like Nat King Cole that you get an added layer of "imitation," whether intentional or not.

The second credit sequence is so good that reportedly viewers would go into the theater, sit through the credits, then leave because the rest of the movie was all downhill. In a sense they were right, as this Edward Dmytryk movie isn't one of his best, although the Siren finds it better than its reputation. The film is marred chiefly by one of the worst performances Laurence Harvey ever gave. But what's good in the movie is there in the opening--the sexy strut of supporting player Jane Fonda, the quietly prowling visuals, and Barbara Stanwyck being fiercely territorial. And what's phony is there too, as the cat is strolling through some of the cleanest alleys you ever saw.

Do follow Goatdog's example in the comments and link us up to any favorite credit sequences of your own. If you post them on your blog and give the Siren a heads-up, she'll link 'em right here.

42 comments:

SoNSo1 said...

Thanks for the Walk on the Wild Side credit sequence. After viewing the Star Wars a la Bass, I thought, "Clever, but do it in the style of Walk on the Wild Side."

I miss opening credits, too. They make the ending to movies better. "THE END," then house lights should come up.

Campaspe said...

I thought so too! Come on, Darth Vader prowling around the solar system, picking a fight with a Wookie ...

I was so happy when I found the Wild Side credits on Youtube I squealed like a girl who just made the cheerleading squad.

Brian Doan said...

I love credits, too! As someone who grew up with Classic Hollywood movies, Hitchcock (saul bass) and james bond (maurice binder), I loved the way credits thrust you into an atmosphere of glamour and mystery. Those IMITATION OF LIFE credits are fantastic! And I like the WALK credits, too, although my favorite Bass is probably the opening credits to Bunny Lake Is Missing.

I guess I should've guessed that a film blogger with such a stylish banner photo would love credits, since your banner is its own form of title card. (:

Karen said...

Well said, Siren; well said.

Is there some sort of corrolation between becoming a film biff and being a credits fiend? For me it's not just the look of the credits, it's the fact of them. I don't think it even occurred to me that I watched credits closely until a few years ago, when, having sat through the stultifying Clooney Batman and Robin, I noticed the name "Jeff Dawn" in the credits for makeup and found myself thinking "Hmmm...I wonder if he's related to Jack Dawn?"

I always look for the Art Director, the Makeup, the Costumes, and the Cinematography. That way, when I see "Gowns by Adrian," I can get all excited about what I'm likely to see. Watching credits allowed me to figure out that there was some huge Westmore family that ruled make-up in Hollywood. You start to see patterns. You figure out that Sidney Guilaroff lived FOREVER, and then when you notice that the salon in The Women is named "Sidney's" you start to giggle.

Credits are the box scores of movie geeks, and I miss having the main people listed up front. Sitting through end credits is such an ordeal, listing every last assistant's assistant's assistant.

I still do it, though, and I still find myself scanning for familiar names. And sometimes you get a reward--a little snippet of extra scene that they tack on at the end to compensate you for the time you spent. And it's global--I remember going to see Les visiteurs back in '93, and at the end of the credits it goes back to a shot of the countryside, out of which Reno and Clavier pop up, waving, and saying "Hello to all the credits-watchers!!"

Filmbrain said...

Two excellent choices Siren, thanks.

The credits for Walk on the Wild Side are so damn good. A shame the film isn't as strong. Oh, for the days when Hanoi Jane was still an ingénue. . .

surlyh said...

Bass made small, discreet films, distilled introductions that are often better than the features themselves.

And wasn't Nat Cole, at the time scaring parents of white bobbysoxers all across America, the perfect choice for vocalist of the racially themed Imitation of Life? At a recent screening of Tourneur's Nightfall a man a few seats over laughed at Al Hibbler singing the title song--its lyrics too literal for his sophisticated yet untrained ear.

I share your love for great credits--I even love the cameo intros popular in the 30s, which Welles revived for Kane. I think I'll go haunt youtube...

goatdog said...

Two of my favorite opening credits sequences are from Robert Aldrich movies: The Big Knife (credits by Saul Bass) and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. They're so simple, and yet so evocative: this movie is about Jack Palance feeling out of his depth. This movie is about Bette Davis being unhinged. I'm not sure who did Hush Hush, but it's either Bass or one of his close imitators.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Those are a couple of terrific examples. What a kick to see them alone as works of art. I love credits. "Charade" (1964) also had some jazzy animated maze designs a bit like "Vertigo", back by the Henry Mancini song. "Imitation of Life" credits are great.

Flickhead said...

While we're on the subject, can we go back to the old school of end credits? "The End" followed by "A Good Cast is Worth Repeating," and fade to black. No more ten minute scrolls!

Campaspe said...

Brian, the Bond credits are always good (even Pauline Kael used to relish them) although occasionally a bit long. I'm glad you like the banner. Vera has been good to me this month, bless her.

Karen, my favorite credits-reward is at the end of La Ceremonie, where you get a positively brilliant plot payoff. I do love credits and am constantly scanning them for future big names or connections or even mispellings.

Filmbrain, Jane is SO sexy in the movie and she's wasted. Plot-wise it's a decent question as to why she is even there but boy does she look good.

Surlyh, it's Earl Grant singing there although I also thought it was Cole for years until one day I checked the end of the credits. I will haunt Youtube soon and see if Grant always sounded so much like Cole.

Goatdog, the Charlotte credits are the only part of the movie I like all that much. It's a pretty good Gothic horror-fest, although Davis pointed out quite correctly that her actions make no sense as anything other than a means to draw out the conflict. But it just didn't do much for me. However, I do find myself watching the credits sometimes! thanks for the links.

Campaspe said...

Jacqueline, I love the Charade credits too! The 1950s and early 60s seem to be the Golden Age of great credits, although like Surlyh I also like the cast intros on earlier films. "The Players" -- when we will ever see that written up on screen again?

Flickhead, amen! I sit through credits to the bitter end, a habit that used to irritate some dates. It does seem to me that it's simple enough to put more stuff up front. But some stuff just needs to be left off. I really don't care who the goddamn caterer was, and if I don't care the average moviegoer definitely does not.

surlyh said...

Campaspe, thanks for the correction. I suppose I could say how clever it was to use an "imitation" of Cole, and mention that the sound on my computer is atrocious, but it would have been far simpler if I'd actually READ the credits as they rolled, not just looked at the falling baubles. <:(

I found this mention of Grant, who was also an organist:

"His voice had a husky, dry tone similar to Nat King Cole's, and rumors persisted throughout his career that he was Cole's brother. He also appeared in several films, including Imitation of Life and Tender is the Night."

Campaspe said...

aha, so he is IN the movie? well, that will be a good parlor game for the next time I watch it! And I really do think the Cole "imitation" is a sly little nudge, as I said in my addendum. I did this post late last night and wanted to add at least a brief explanation of why I love these two sequences.

goatdog said...

I don't mind the ten-minute scrolls, because, as someone involved in the less flashy aspects of film production, I know what it's like to want (and deserve) a little bit of public thanks for my work, even if I'm just a researcher or a PA. They might be boring, but it's better than the days when the studios wouldn't acknowledge 90% of the grunt work that goes into a making a film

Campaspe said...

I'm not involved in production at all, but some friends are and I do know what you mean. I think I would just limit it to actual contributors, which research and PAs are. The caterers, not so much.

and having actual beginning credits cuts down on the crawl, for sure!

cinetrix said...

It may sound like sacrilege to Sirkians, but on the whole I prefer the '34 version. Louise Beavers? Fredi Washington? Please. Heartbreaking.

Still, that opening credit sequence for the '59 version is great. Seeing Sandra Dee's name prompted the usual flicker of annoyance caused by just thinking about her work in that film. But then Mahalia Jackson's name reminded me of the beautiful funeral procession sequence and all was well once more.

Campaspe said...

Cinetrix, I am absolutely delighted to see you here. I also love the '34 version but it's so different that I have no problem embracing both movies. I wrote about my (somewhat irrational) love for Dee a while back and I have to say I think she's perfect for the character as written. Her best scene is probably a low-key one, where she asks Juanita Hall about boys.

That Mahalia Jackson funeral scene is on Youtube as well. It's a really unusual rendition of the song, slowed down almost beyond recognition, and it's also a preparatory scene of sorts, giving the audience a moment to breathe before Susan Kohner rushes on and causes everyone to start sobbing again.

Flickhead said...

Isn't the acknowledgement one gets for their work on a film (or anywhere) reflected in their paycheck?

And if you're working for free, charity should be anonymous.

Nope...no reason for me to sit through ten minute crawls set to b-side pop tunes or elevator muzak.

None at all.

Siren, I'm hereby on strike.

surlyh said...

John Stahl and Sirk both made great melodramas, no argument. Stahl's were straightforward, with Sirk adding an often ironic visual commentary that was easily missed in the fifties. The closest Stahl came to Sirk in visual style was probably in the brilliant use of color in Leave Her to Heaven.

Campaspe said...

Flickhead, is it the residuals? I told you we'd renegotiate those later when things were--not sure what, but different.

Surly, I have NO idea what to make of your avatar. Who is Katie Price? was she in an Ozu I forgot to see? :D

Yes, I find Stahl more straightforward although as I recall Sirk often claimed to be puzzled that people missed things in his films that he thought were obvious. I also remember a commenter at a rightwing blog a while back who was sneering at Sirk for being gay, and Sirk was married twice and had a child. So people misread him in all sorts of ways.

Flickhead said...

That's alright, hon'... don't get your nose out of joint over the residuals...Oops! Sorry!

surlyh said...

My avatar is joke, an ironic Sirkian visual pun which shares a lurid technicolor pallette of...uh...I just find it a very silly bit of cheesecake. Don't read too much into it. I hope it doesn't offend.

Campaspe said...

hey R., watch the nose jokes there, lest the Siren get VERY late-period Bette on your ass! *adjusts pancake makeup*

No way the avatar offends. In fact I think every blog needs at least one picture of a woman whose poitrine stands straight up when she's flat on her back. ;)

surlyh said...

Actually that photo is upside down, she and the fake-flakes were glued to the ceiling and...I got nothing. I was just trying to top your casual use of "poitrine".

Headquarters 10 said...

I've always been partial to the animated opening credits of the PINK PANTHER films. Perfect for setting the mood of the rest of the picture, essential to their success (they seem to go hand-in-hand), and yet they stand on their own as fun little movies within the movie.

Great post!

operator_99 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
operator_99 said...

I point to the event before the credits role. I love seeing the radio tower with the lightning shooting out from it (accompanied by Morse code)to announce "A Radio Picture", that prop plane flying around the globe to announce "A Universal Picture" and of course the original "20th Century Fox" logo and spotlights. The MGM lion and the Paramount mountain peak don't quite do it for me though. I do like the early Columbia logo where the sparks actually flew from her torch to announce "A Columbia Production", but not to many early Columbia movies themselves :-). And of course the Warner Brothers shield zooming towards us to fill the screen is really cool and gets me ready for the big title splash that follows. Lastly, one of my favorite company openings - a Monogram opening where two trains are speeding through a deco cityscape and the logo is pulled by the trains - it is really nice, especially coming from a poverty row company. You can see it if you go here : http://www.archive.org/details/bride_for_henry

Dan Leo said...

What lovely coincidence, as last night I just put the opening credits of, uh, "Mannix" in my blog.

Siren, your dissertation on the purpose and potential beauty of the title sequence is so good.

I have this fond memory of the opening titles of Howard Hawks's "Man's favorite Sport" although I haven't seen that movie in -- well, let's say a long time...

Another fave of mine -- and at the tale-end of the era of great title sequences -- is "The Wild Bunch".

surlyh said...

You can't beat this trailer with Bernard Herrmann score for setting the properly eerie and ominous mood for The Day The Earth Stood Still.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbZ7KxNW_9w

Ben said...

Since we're talkin' Robert Aldrich and Nat "King" Cole, how about the opening sequence of Kiss Me Deadly, which has quite possibly the greatest use of diegetic sound (Nat Cole's singing plus Cloris Leachman's panting) in credit sequence history? This sequence has the opposite effect to what the Siren describes above. Rather than providing a smooth transition into the feature, it tosses you into the action.

I also love the credits to Powell and Pressburger's I Know Where I'm Going? (What a wonderful movie, too! I am so totally hooked on the Archers!)

Peter said...

I also like the credit sequence for Walk on the Wild Side, but I think some credit is also due to Elmer Bernstein. I love his early sixties scores. I also liked Bass credit sequences for Preminger's films.

Calliope said...

I've always been absurdly fond of Saul Bass's work on North By Northwest. Combined with that fabulous Bernard Herrmann score, what a way to set the tone and style for the film to come.

North by Northwest

As for the credits, as an assistant editor, I can tell you that credits are much more than just a thank you or an ego boo. They mean work. You must have credits to get work.

In the days of the studio system, you might work your whole career at one studio. Now you go from picture to picture, and credits are vital. The number one question I'm asked at job interviews is "Can I look you up on IMDB?"

Too bad you're bored with credits, flickhead, but nobody forces you to sit through them.

Of course, I was always an inveterate credits reader, myself.

Exiled in NJ said...

I love Indemnity with that pounding score that opens over the credits, and then closes the film too, and as soon as I hear the Mancini music for Charade I know we are in that period that began with Anatomy of Murder and died somewhere about 1968, but......and this is pure heresy......

the credits that perfectly preface the film are the simple black and white titles that roll over Beatty and Lee Grant conjugating the verbs and whatever else in the dark while the Beach Boys sing and the telephone rings in Shampoo, a film I saw when it came out and which I treasure even more today.

Sometimes I think Ashby, Beatty and Towne borrowed deeply from Richard Strauss' overture to Rosenkavalier, where the music aptly decribes what you see when the curtain goes up, but I forgive their 'plagiarism.'

Siren, I am working 90-100 hours a week now but I keep up with your part of the world every day.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I must concur with Surlyh and applaud your use of "poitrine." It made my whole day. Also, and I'm not sure I should confess something as personal as this on the Internet, but when I take vacation videos and then transfer them to DVD, I put in credits and theme music. I am ever contientious to including the phrase "no animals were harmed during the making of this motion picture." However, I make no mention of caterers.

VP81955 said...

I'm a bit surprised no one has yet mentioned the opening credits for "My Man Godfrey" -- innovative (I doubt any credits made in 1936 were like this), imaginative and perfectly congruent with the film's style and mentality. Here they are in the opening segment of the film...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOkIru_OvC4

surlyh said...

Yes! I recently watched Godfrey again after many years. While I remembered the film quite well, I'd completely forgotten about them--what a pleasant surprise.

Karen said...

Well, since we're going all YouTube-y, let me cast my vote for the opening credits of The Lady Eve which, I believe, are one of the earliest to use animation:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOkIru_OvC4

surlyh said...

In 1940, a year earlier than Eve, Jack Benny and Fred Allen carried their feud from radio over into film. In Love Thy Neighbor, their names fight it out in the amusing animated credits. The film itself is disappointing.

Like title sequences, montages were another way to slip a short film into a feature. The great Slavko Vorkapich directed this short, which was edited and used as the opening to Hecht and MacArthur's feature, Crime Without Passion.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHLMrbrAIiU

Walrus said...

I love a good credit sequence. I've seen some good ones recently in anime and I recently have gotten hooked on the credits to the TV show "Dexter" (brilliantly wry and worth checking out if you haven't).

I won't list them all here, but I did a post a while back collecting some of my favorite credit sequences:
http://filmwalrus.blogspot.com/2007/06/key-grip-aye-very-interesting.html

Noel Vera said...

Not a big fan of Vertigo's credit sequence at all (tho I love the film to pieces); much prefer North by Northwest.

Throw in Kubrick's credit sequence for Dr. Strangelove, with the phallic act of mid-air refueling setting the film's salacious tone.

Anyone remember the credit sequence for To Kill a Mockingbird? Not a fan of the film, but the sequence I thought was brilliant.

And if you liked the credit sequence to Kiss Me Deadly, check out its slower-moving ancestor in Sunset Boulevard.

Plus, my favorite of all time--the spoken credits to The Magnificent Ambersons, with that hauntingly lit boom moving away into the distance. Hello, Orson, where have you gone?

wwolfe said...

This is so, so after the fact - but I immediaterly thought of this very long, very enjoyable discussion when I was watching the opening credits of "Bunny Lake Is Missing" on TCM. There's a black screen - smaller than the full Cinemascope screen, for some reason - and we see the silhouette of a hand reach onto the screen and tear off a piece, as if it were paper. Underneath is revealed the credit, be it actor, writer, or director. Somehow, this perfectly conveyed the cold, creepy sense of violation that was an undercurrent through the entire movie. As I was watching, I thought, "This has to be Saul Bass." Happily, it was.

Campaspe said...

Oh, that is too funny, because I also saw the credits for Bunny Lake and was also struck by them. And up top we're talking about Charlton Heston and my unabashed love for The Big Country. That one has a great credits sequence too (available on Youtube), without a lot of flashy graphics, but the incredible score and all these shots of the whirling wheels and galloping horses, pure energy and motion, like every fantasy you've ever had of running away to the West.

Saul Bass too, of course. A genius he was.