Movie Poster of the Week: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”

A look at the many faces of the newly crowned “greatest film ever made.”
Adrian Curry

Was any film ever as associated with its poster as the film that this week was voted the greatest film of all time in that bellwether of cinephilic pantheon-building, the ten-yearly Sight & Sound poll? Of course, Saul Bass, the master behind the Vertigo campaign, was an early exponent of cinematic branding, dedicated to creating a clear through-line from title treatment to credit sequence to poster to advertising. 

But Bass’s Vertigo designs are so firmly associated with the film and with its director Alfred Hitchcock that it comes as a surprise to realize that Vertigo was the only poster that Bass designed for the director. (He worked on only two other films for Hitchcock, designing the title sequence for North by Northwest [1959] and both the titles and the shower sequence for Psycho [1960]).

The poster above is not the more famous one-sheet, which you can see just below, but the enormous 6 foot 9 inch tall three-sheet poster which contains a different version of the famouse spiral pattern (designed by experimental filmmaker John Whitney) and the silhouetted figures (drawn by longtime Bass associate Art Goodman). Christian Annyas has already written eloquently on Bass’s designs and has collected the many different variations, so I won’t repeat that information here. But a few additional things are worth pointing out. It is well known that the initial critical and box office reception for the film was lukewarm. According to Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham’s essential book about Bass published last year, “...Vertigo confounded contemporary audiences. Saul’s title sequence and advertising designs, by contrast, immediately began to win awards and have always been among the most admired in his repertoire.” So it is interesting to note that the original one-sheet and three-sheet, and some of the ads, announce the film as “Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece” something you might expect on recent re-release posters but which is more surprising on the original material.

Prior to Vertigo, Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham write, “despite his international reputation as a graphic designer, Saul found himself in the odd position of being highly sought after for film titles and trade advertising, but not for posters—the most public face of film advertising.” Even three years after Vertigo, when he worked as the visual consultant for West Side Story and designed both the opening and closing sequences, he was not asked to design the poster (though the West Side Story poster has often been wrongly attributed to Bass for obvious reasons, it was actually designed by Joe Caroff). While Bass’s work was widely admired and, ever since his work on Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955, was very much in vogue, studios were nevertheless nervous about hitching their very expensive wagons to such abstract and star-less designs. In the footnotes of the book it says that “Long before the film’s release, and before Saul’s involvement, Paramount executives worried about [the film’s] financial viability, considering it too costly, too arty [hence, perhaps, the hopeful “masterpiece” tag] and too abstruse.... Saul’s advertising was regarded in much the same light... after poor opening box-office receipts, Hitchcock was persuaded that more hard sell advertising was necessary but subsequent box-office receipts remained poor.”

In the original press book (or “showmanship manual”) for the film, though Bass’s designs are front and center...

... the third page of the book contains this more conventional “supplementary ad campaign”:

and the very rare, oversized (40" x 60") “style Y” poster, below, from 1958 is a perhaps a slapdash, last-minute concession to the hard sell: a hodgepodge of Bassian elements and photographs of the stars. 

Though I’ve seen a few foreign language versions of Bass’s design (like this Norwegian example) it seems that most countries went their own ways, perhaps wary of how well the film had performed at home. I have collected a selection of international posters below.

Above: The British quad (30" x 40") which retains Bass’s color scheme and echoes of his typography, but goes for a more realistic rendition of James Stewart and a more hyperbolic, attention-grabbing tagline.

Above: The Japanese poster (20" x 29") is the most lushly romantic of all the treatments.

Above: The Italian 4-foglio (55" x 78") by Enzo Nistri uses a similar image a beat earlier (or later?) from the Japanese poster in which Novak is resisting Stewart, and introduces the paranoid element of Stewart’s face behind the door. (The Italian title translates as “The Woman Who Lived Twice.”)

Above: the similarly expressionistic Italian 2-foglio (39" x 55") by Sandro Simeoni.

Above: The French grande poster (47" x 63") by the great Boris Grinsson. The French title translates as “Cold Sweat.”

Above: The French smaller affiche (23.5" x 31.5"). Both French posters proclaim it “un film vertigineux d’Alfred Hitchcock.” The two posters however could not be more different, despite a similarity in the jagged title treatment.

Above: The small Belgian poster (14" x 21.5") is the only poster I’ve seen that incorporates the doubling of Kim Novak’s character as well as Bass’s “lissajous swirl” from his title sequence.

Above: the Indian 3-sheet (40" x 77.5").

Above: the Australian daybill (13.5" x 30").

Above: the Spanish poster by Fernando Albericio, quite similar in composition, though not in color palette, to the Australian design. The Spanish title translates as “From the Dead” which is similar to the title of the 1954 French novel, D’entre les morts, that Vertigo was based on. 

Above: A German poster (the title translates as “From the Land of the Dead” which eschews all of the elements of falling figures and vertiginous swirls. In this rendition James Stewart looks every inch his age. Hitchcock’s one reservation about the film was that Stewart was, at 50, too old to be a convincing love interest for Kim Novak, who was half his age.

Above: an alternative German poster.

Above: the 1963 Polish poster (23" x 36") by Roman Cieslewicz. I like how, intentionally or not, the finger print at the bottom of the poster hint at the vortex swirls of Bass’s design, though beyond that this is as different, and as unrecognizable as Vertigo, as you could imagine.

Above: a 1961 international re-release one-sheet (27" x 41"). Again going for the hard sell, incorporating the branding of the persona of Hitchcock himself into Bass’s design.

Above: a 1963 US double-bill re-release one-sheet (27" x 41") for Vertigo and To Catch a Thief, eradicating all traces of Bass’s design.

Above: the 1983 US re-release poster. Vertigo was one of five films personally owned by Hitchcock which were removed from circulation in 1973. When it was re-released a decade later the mystique of Vertigo was noticeably subservient to the myth of Hitchcock, though Bass’s title treatment still remains.

Above: the 1983 UK re-release quad, in which Vertigo has gone from being a “masterpiece” to being, quite flippantly, “a tall story about a pushover.”

When the film was re-released once again, however, in 1996, it was with the original poster design. Saul Bass, who passed away that same year, had been rediscovered by cinephiles, partly thanks to his stunning title sequences for Martin Scorsese in the mid 90s, and Vertigo’s masterpiece status, firmly cemented this week, was finally unassailable.

Above: the 1996 US re-release poster. Collectors should notice the altered credit block and the absence of “Paramount presents” at the top. Re-release posters sell for under $100 whereas the originals fetch around $5,000. (Though the three-sheet at the top of the page goes for up to $9,000.) The 1996 poster appears much redder in color than the original posters above, but in Bass and Kirkham’s book the original designs appear much more red than orange so perhaps the originals have faded over time.

Meanwhile I am very much looking forward to seeing the Bass-Hitchcock relationship dramatized in the upcoming film of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho” with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Wallace Langham (The Larry Sanders Show) as Bass.

Many thanks to Heritage Auctions which has sold most of these posters in the past ten years.

Postscript: as mentioned in the comments below, MUBI and New York’s 92YTribeca will be showing Saul Bass’s rarely screened sci-fi film Phase IV, the only feature film he directed, on Thursday August 9th as part of the Bastards of Hitch series. I can’t wait.

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