The Most Iconic Film Title Sequences of All Time

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Today marks the opening of Goldfinger: The Design of an Iconic Film Title, MoMA’s focus installation — in conjunction with the film exhibition 50 Years of Bond — featuring the first film title sequence to enter the museum’s permanent collection. Designed and directed by Robert Brownjohn, the Goldfinger titles are believed to be one of the best examples of title design used to produce a pertinent film component that’s not just a necessary afterthought. As the show’s catalog states, “Brownjohn deployed type in dynamic, abstract forms, in this case illustrating both his mastery of modern graphic design and his ability to apply sophisticated graphic treatment to popular media.”

In honor of Bond’s golden anniversary and a long-standing legacy of outstanding opening credits, we’ve taken a look at the art of the title through the ages. From Saul Bass’ pioneering early work all the way up to the exceedingly clever introduction to nerd dramedy at its best, click through to check out the most iconic film title sequences of all time. Let us know in the comments what designs you’d add to this list!

The Man With the Golden Arm by Saul Bass (1955)

The title sequence that introduced the man that would become one of the greatest graphic designers the world has known was an abstraction of a very taboo subject matter in the mid-50s: the life and times of Frankie Machine, a jazz musician (played by Frank Sinatra) battling a heroin addiction. As controversial as the film itself, Bass chose the arm as the central image of his design.

As one analysis of the sequence states, “the titles for the film feature spiny, cut-out projectiles, vaguely redolent of veins and syringes, that manage to be disconcerting despite the accompaniment of Elmer Bernstein’s rather brassy jazz score. Privileging the director’s credit, the titular ‘golden arm’ (which actually refers to Frankie’s prowess as a card dealer and not the location of his track-marks) appears as a bent and tortured appendage, reaching out for either redemption or a fix.”

Vertigo by Saul Bass (1958)

In describing Bass’ opening credits for Vertigo, Ben Radatz, contributor to Art of the Title, wrote that “there is a threshold in art and design where a work can become so iconic as to transcend its own scope and become a symbol for its medium.” This design did just that. Combining artist John Witney’s pioneering spirographic images — an early example of computer arts — with sensual close-ups of the film’s star, Kim Novak, Bass that frames the film’s premise through evocative-yet-unlikely imagery and Hitchcock’s unique branding eye.

Anatomy of a Murder by Saul Bass (1959)

Using cut-out animation, the Saul Bass legacy continues with what has become his most celebrated film sequence. Collaborating again with director Otto Preminger (The Man with the Golden Arm), this similarly controversial film was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to address sex and rape in graphic terms.

North by Northwest by Saul Bass (1959)

The last Bass design we’ll feature (we easily could have dedicated this piece to him!), the North by Northwest title sequence opens with lines crisscrossing the screen like railroad tracks. The lines then come to form a different shape: a skyscraper. In large block letters, the film’s title and the names of the featured actors move up and down the screen like elevator cars. Soon after, the lines merge into an actual shot of a building, with a sea of yellow taxis reflected in its façade.

Setting the tone for what’s to come, Bass brilliantly conveys the mood of the film down in a brief but compelling graphic narrative.

Dr. No by Maurice Binder (1962)

The 1960s ushered in a new brand of motion graphic pleasure: the James Bond title sequence. Maurice Binder would design 14 of the Bond films’ iconic intros, but Dr. No was the first, and in it he established the often imitated, never duplicated signature gun barrel sequence.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Stephen Frankfurt (1963)

Stephen Frankfurt’s compelling still life sequence was the inspiration for Kyle Cooper’s haunting snapshot of a serial killer for Fincher’s neo-noir thriller, Se7en. The designer explains his mold-breaking macro masterpiece by saying that “the goal was to find a way to get into the head of a child.” As Cooper would later do with a psychopath.

Note: The only filmic version we could find to share online is a re-score. This is not the original soundtrack. Click here to watch the original version.

Dr. Strangelove by Pablo Ferro (1964)

Would Cuban designer Pablo Ferro ever have guessed that his groundbreaking title sequence for Kubrick’s war satire would go on to inspire the next century’s hipster movement? Geoff McFetridge’s version for Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are kicked off a national obsession shared by everyone from America’s favorite denim brand to corner coffee shops the world over.

Ferro’s full-screen graffiti-like scrawls comprised of thick and thin hand-drawn letters were unlike any movie titles before it. One downside of working with hand drawn type: after the film was released, Ferro notice that one word was misspelled: “base on” instead of “based on.” Whoops.

Goldfinger by Robert Brownjohn (1965)

Set to one of Shirley Bassey’s signature tracks, Goldfinger, Brownjohn’s original opening sequence – as stated by the curator of MoMA’s focus installation – captures the sexual suggestiveness and wry humor of the James Bond mythos. Scenes from the film are projected strategically onto starlet Margaret Nolan, while minimal credit texts balance each shot.

Made in U.S.A. by Jean-Luc Godard (1966)

There’s speculation that Godard designed this font — what went on to become his signature typeface — and also this sequence. A playful, patriotic interpretation that almost reads as propaganda for a French film that is unabashedly commenting on America’s increasing global presence.

Thomas Crown Affair by Pablo Ferro (1968)

A lesser known, but equally iconic design by the Cuban legend Pablo Ferro.

Se7en by Kyle Cooper (1995)

“When I was a kid and I would watch horror movies, the monster didn’t come out until the third act,” designer Kyle Cooper has explained. “I was lucky to watch Se7en early on, and I remember thinking that after I saw it, I wanted to see the killer earlier on… to somehow introduce the killer in the titles. I asked if I could look at all the props and anything that [David] Fincher might have to look at, and there were a couple of prop notebooks that had excessive writing in them, and I thought it would be good to do a tabletop shoot with them and have it be about their preparation, as though it was John Doe’s job to prepare them.”

Catch Me If You Can by Kuntzel + Deygas (2002)

Quite clearly inspired by Saul Bass, Kuntzel + Deygas felt that his real genius was finding an idea and then linking it with the music. In Catch Me If You Can, the action takes place between 1963 and 1969. They designed the characters with ’60s haircuts, clothes, and postures, but the music by John Williams brings a lot more of that sixties feeling. As the designers offered, “try another piece of music and you’ll see it does not fit.”

Napoleon Dynamite by Jared Hess (2004)

(Click the above image to view the video.)

Hands down the most iconic title sequence of the last decade. Brilliant, beautiful, and appropriately bizarre.

I Am Love by Marco Cendron (2010)

IO SONO L’AMORE – Opening titles sequence from POMO on Vimeo.

The Italian designer studied old iconic Milanese shop signs for inspiration. The product of a collaboration with calligraphist Luca Barcellona, the gorgeous white lettering floats above film footage of a bleakly beautiful Milan. Combined with Brooklyn-based House Industries’ Neutraface font, a nod to the severity of the Fascist style that characterizes many Milanese buildings, the contradiction of the Italian city (a major theme in the film) is beautiful represented over Pier Paolo Ferrari‘s imagery.

Enter the Void by Tom Kan (2010)

Set to LFO’s “Freak,” all we’re going to say about this one is: watch it.