Revisiting Saul Bass’s Iconic ‘Grand Prix’ Film Title Sequence
This article was originally featured under the title “The Enduring Genius of Saul Bass” in the Formula 1-focused publication, Lollipop. Focused on an in-depth and frankly gorgeous view of Grand Prix weekends, Lollipop Magazine is the premier vantage point for motorsport’s pinnacle series. Visit their site here, and check out their juicy Instagram feed here.
Creative Director: David Gray
Writer: Libero Antonio Di Zinno
“Saul Bass wasn’t just an artist who contributed to the first several minutes of some of the greatest movies in history; in my opinion his body of work qualifies him as one of the best filmmakers of this, or any other time.”
— Steven Spielberg
Long before the advent of the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality of today’s F1’s launch control standing starts and other soul-crushing tropes like team orders, there was a moment in time when the seminal purity of the sport was artfully rendered into celluloid amber … a time capsule of cinematic sorts. The Saul Bass montage in the opening title sequence of GRAND PRIX (1966), is the consummate masterpiece of excellence in graphic design, sound editing, and visual delight.
The sequence is a bonafide treasure chest slash time machine precisely because of the intimate memento mori portraits of the real-life drivers in their element on the grid for the ’66 Monaco GP without a shred of pretense to “act the part.” In the era when the cruel mistress of a sport averaged a fatal injury for one of every three drivers, the sequence has the uncanny effect of a love letter to a vanishing breed. (Factoid: 10 of the 32 drivers featured on screen were killed over the subsequent 10 years.)
It is only fitting to compare the most influential American graphic designer of the last century, Saul Bass, who was to his art form of graphic design in general, and title sequences in particular, what Colin Chapman was to Formula One and Team Lotus. Where Chapman’s legacy is inextricable from his luminous counterparts—Clark, Rindt and Andretti—so too is Saul Bass’s body of work vis-à-vis the many historic collaborations with the cinematic giants of Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Scorsese. Each partner a genius in their own right, but who ultimately lacked the ability to fulfill the ultimate expression of their vision without the alchemy of such precious avatars.
Consider how both Bass and Chapman embodied the “agents of change” label long before it became idiomatic. As disrupters, they lived to see their most radical designs rejected for verging on, and on occasion, trespassing well over the border of avant garde. The stark, iconic Saul Bass poster for GRAND PRIX was actually discarded when the studio instead chose to go with a more conventional montage of the ensemble cast.
The final one sheet was eventually illustrated by artist Howard Terpning, who was known for movies like the Sound of Music, Laurence of Arabia, and The Sand Pebbles. Ironically, the same interminable Sand Pebbles production starred a chap named Steve McQueen, who as fate would have it was the real-life next-door neighbor of GRAND PRIX’s leading man, James Garner. McQueen was said to be so famously pissed-off to miss out starring in Day of the Champion (the working title in pre-production) a reality based racing movie that the “King of Cool” couldn’t bring himself to speak to Garner for the next four years!
In posterity, the making of Le Mans, was nothing less than a supreme version of “How you like me now?” posturing. The starting line scene in Le Mans pays clear homage to the Saul Bass GRAND PRIX sequence. From the atmospheric sound design to the contrapuntal silent interior world of the drivers heart beat, it’s a perfect tribute in the form of imitation as the highest form of flattery. One could literally read between the lines. Steve exacting his revenge with that two finger “V” salute, “Garner, you SOB, you might have got the best F1 movie of all time, (damn you), but now I own sports cars forever!”
[SFX: insert sound here of grown man dropping mic and walking off the stage]