You’ve seen the work of Saul Bass before. His graphic designs have represented some of the most recognizable brands in the world, with his logos literally leaving their mark on everything from United Airlines, Warner Communications, and AT&T to name a few. But his work is also inexorably linked to some of the best titles in motion picture history. Perhaps best known for his design collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on the poster art and unforgettable title sequences of movies like Psycho, Vertigo, and North By Northwest, Bass also provided the designs to such iconic films as Anatomy of a Murder, West Side Story, and The Shining. His work was instrumental in transitioning a throwaway obligation that had normally been something as inconsequential as white text on a plain black background into an essential part of the movie itself. He’d made his indelible mark on movies and he wasn’t even a filmmaker per se, but in 1974 he made the leap to feature directing with one of the most misunderstood science fiction films you’ve never seen. Thankfully, home video distributor Olive Films is putting the film out on Blu-ray for the first time this week.
Having conquered the graphic arts, Bass’ filmmaking debut came in 1968 when he directed Why Man Creates, a 25-minute documentary that mixed live action footage and animation into a sort of pop art thesis about the creative process. It went on to win an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject, opening the door for Bass to explore narrative filmmaking. When he did, he attempted to marry 1950s schlock with intellectualized sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In 1973, Bass began filming Phase IV, his first and last time in the director’s chair. Through a series of on-set controversies and disputes with Paramount Pictures, the studio that financed it, the movie was finally released in 1974. Audiences were perplexed by the story and largely ignored it. Critics were less than complimentary. In The New York Times, critic A.H. Weiler called it “a pictorially persuasive adventure,” but that despite “its good, scientific and human intentions, Phase IV cries for a Phase V of fuller explanations.” Variety cited its allegedly bad cinematography, calling it “poor quality, looking like outtakes rejected by National Geographic.”
From the start it was a hard sell. But if you have one of the greatest graphic designers in history coming off of an Oscar win … you can see the studio taking the chance. Even on a movie about telepathic sentient ants that may be trying to take over the world or usher in a new stage of evolution.
Bass recruited a relative murderer’s row of talent to help put his movie together, including eventual Star Wars production designer John Barry, screenwriter and sci-fi maven Mayo Simon, and a cast lead by actor Michael Murphy, who plays a scientist trying to understand the ants’ behavior. But Murphy and the cast, which also included Nigel Davenport as another scientist and Lynne Frederick as a girl whose family is attacked by the ants, may point to why Bass’ movie didn’t resonate.
By using a series of psychedelic montages, rear-projection shots, intense close-ups, and geometrically staged scenes of the ant colony, Bass’ designer inclination is at the forefront of the entire movie. Whole compositions look like rejected cover art for Pink Floyd albums that never were, and the meticulously placed camera makes the entire thing look as beautiful as it is isolating.
Murphy and the rest of the minimal cast are seemingly secondary to the cerebral mood and wannabe naturalist underpinnings of what amounts to the movie’s plot. It may not have helped that Murphy is ostensibly the lead, mostly because he succeeded throughout the 1960s and ‘70s onscreen as a gee-whiz supporting player in Robert Altman and Woody Allen movies. He’s too square for a philosophically inclined sci-fi freakout.
It also doesn’t help either that the best actors in the movie are the ants themselves. While Bass shot exteriors of the movie in Rift Valley in Kenya (another bizarre choice considering the movie takes place in the Arizona desert) and interiors on sound stages at Pinewood Studios in England, he had wildlife photographer Ken Middleham shoot macro photographic footage of real ants at his personal workshop in California.
Close-ups of the hundreds of ants, collective in their hive mind, only serve to have audiences sympathize with the six-legged insects over our bipedal brethren. It doesn’t do the movie any justice that the most compassionate characters can’t talk and are 12mm long. That, the compartmentalized nature of the shoot spread over three continents, and Bass’ inability to direct people instead of mere aesthetics make for a straight-up weird night at the movies.
Even more puzzled was Paramount Pictures. The studio forced the director to cut his desired ending, which was only just unearthed in 2012. Reminiscent of the Star Child sequence in 2001, the original ending of Phase IV features a newly formed Frederick emerging from the homicidal insects’ ant hill and attempting to merge with Murphy to create a benevolent half ant/half human being. It’s fascinating if not goofy stuff, and it sobers you to think that the ending is basically an affirmation of our demise in a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” kind of concession.
What’s worse is that Paramount didn’t even let Bass, the best graphic designer of the era, help market his own film. Instead of a vivid Bass poster design, the one sheet features a painting of a fiery wasteland background with an ant emerging from an open hand in the foreground. The tagline “The Day the Earth Was Turned Into a Cemetery” is scrawled across the top with the subtitle “Ravenous Invaders Controlled By a Terror Out in Space…Commanded to Annihilate the World!” People looking at the poster would easily expect one thing would inevitably be left scratching their heads after watching it.
Despite its shortcomings, Phase IV is fascinating to watch. Potentially too heady for contemporary audiences to take seriously, it remains a haunting and evocative piece of cinema in its context. It’s just too bad the singular mind behind it didn’t get a chance to expand upon his ideas with any more feature films. Bass would go on to work on title cards and poster art for the rest of his life, most notably making the opening sequences of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino, but he never directed another movie.
Genre fans kept rumblings of the movie alive over the years, either because they genuinely liked it or wanted to lord their knowledge of a secret movie classic over others. It was even lampooned on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It caused enough of a stir for the movie to be made available in low-def streams and a hard-to-find DVD, but hopefully this new Blu-ray will let people interested in design and ‘70s sci-fi discover what is truly an iconic oddity.