A title sequence is more than just a list of credits. It can be a mini-movie which sets up the film that it’s a part of. It can establish mood, period and style. A title sequence can take care of backstory. It can soothe the audience or get them agitated. Title sequences are an art form of their own.
– Big Film Design (1)
Over the past few months we have been treated to a wave of American films that have taken as their source material the film styles and genres of times gone by. Films such as Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002), Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002), Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002), Undercover Brother (Malcolm D. Lee, 2002) and Auto Focus (Paul Schrader, 2002) have shared the agenda of lavishly recreating period features whilst positioning themselves explicitly within earlier cinematic traditions. Several of these films, including Catch Me If You Can, Auto Focus and Far From Heaven, have announced their intentions from the very beginning, signalling their relationship to their antecedents by using title sequences that combine highly evocative images and musical scores. It is these films I will discuss in this article.
Each of these movies is located at a very specific point in time and space. Each is also characterised by its generic revisionism. Far From Heaven recreates the closeted suburban affluence of Eisenhower’s America in 1957. In doing so it pays homage to classical Hollywood melodrama and in particular the films of director Douglas Sirk, whose 1955 movie All That Heaven Allows forms its explicit basis. Catch Me If You Can showcases the jet-setting new prosperity of the mid-late 1960s, at the same time revisiting the caper movie so popular at that time. Auto Focus charts a course from the clean-cut home entertainment industry of 1964 Los Angeles to the deterioration of family values and the rise of home porn in late 1960s and 1970s America, its focus on actor Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) resurrecting the tradition of the celebrity biopic. In each film, the set and costume designs painstakingly emulate the fashions and decor of their respective eras. Nevertheless, they all derive their verisimilitude less from a bid for historical authenticity than from the cinematic heritage on which they draw.
All three films use their opening title sequence to signal from the outset the sensibility that defines them. To do so is a pervasive technique, as the above quotation from Big Film Design indicates. It has been widely used for decades, and is not in itself peculiar to revisionist movies. Examples range from the animated title sequence of Move Over Darling (Michael Gordon, 1963), which sets a sprightly tone and summarises the entire narrative through the witty orchestration of three wedding rings, to the ‘creepy’ lettering, oozing in front of a misty backdrop in Voodoo Woman (Edward L. Cahn, 1956), or the scratchy hand-lettering of Berlin Horse (Malcolm Le Grice, 1970). There, as David James has argued of many other avant-garde films, “authorship is inscribed not in the narrative or the imagery so much as in the self-consciously domestic manufacture.” (2)
Catch Me If You Can has been compared to “the light, sophisticated Cary Grant comedies of the 1950s and 1960s.” (3) The tale of teenage con artist Frank Abagnale Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio), ever metamorphosing his identity in the course of his relentless pursuit by an FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), it opens with a title sequence that combines the chase motif with an aura of playfulness and excitement. Designed by Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas for Nexus Productions, the sequence is a brightly coloured animation of geometrically stylised figures chasing one another through geometrically stylised scenery.
The sequence moves through a series of locations, from airport, to road, then poolside bar, a hospital, a library and a wedding party, the colour scheme changing with each new setting. Little yellow arrows point to the silhouetted figures representing Frank and Hanratty, so that their progress can be tracked as the Frank figure subtly shifts identity from aeroplane pilot to doctor and so forth. The figure of Hanratty gets ever closer as the sequence unfolds, until they finally share a frame during the producer credit. A fade out leaves the end of the tale open, upholding the suspense of the main film. Other whimsical pleasures are interspersed throughout the sequence, such as the jokey conjunction of technical credits with iconic items. For instance, the real Frank W. Abagnale, author of the book from which the film derives, is credited during the library sequence, and musician John Williams’ credit is placed next to the image of a grand piano.
These titles have been widely noted by reviewers, who have likened them to Depatie-Freleng’s celebrated animations for the Pink Panther films as well as more general design trends of 1960s titling such as the work of Saul Bass. (4) Comparisons might also be drawn with the Disney family comedy, Emil and the Detectives (Peter Tewksbury, 1964), with its three angular ‘Skrinks,’ faceless, black hatted and suited in front of a navy background. The technique of annexing technical credits to appropriate images has been used in a horde of earlier films. Fittingly, this ruse was especially prevalent during the 1950s and 1960s, where it can be found in such movies as Houseboat (Melville Shavelson, 1958), To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) and Do Not Disturb (Ralph Levy, 1965).
Sight and Sound magazine went so far as to describe the title sequence of Catch Me If You Can‘s as one of the film’s two most striking features. (5) Such acclaim in itself recalls that which greeted The Pink Panther credits. Whilst Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review of that earlier film was not altogether complimentary, he added,
There is one thing about this picture that is clever and joyous at least. That is a cartooned pink panther that runs through the main titles at the start, making mischief with the lettering, insistently getting in the way. He is so blithe and bumptious, so sweet and entirely lovable that he’s awfully hard to follow. It’s questionable whether the picture does. (6)
Indeed, such was the panther’s success that he starred in his own long-running cartoon series on television, spawning an ever-popular merchandising franchise. There is certainly no accident in the fact that Catch Me If You Can‘s title sequence, like the rest of the film, makes unmistakable its relation to its forebears. Co-designer Olivier Kuntzel comes from a family with a strong design background and is brother to the French film academic and videomaker, Thierry Kuntzel, who authored a detailed and insightful analysis of the opening title sequence of The Most Dangerous Game (Ernest B. Schoedsack & Irving Pichel, 1932). (7)
The wide critical acclaim that has greeted the titles of Catch Me If You Can is founded on several factors. Firstly, their style combines a startling modernity with a retro cool that powerfully recalls the light comedies of the 1960s. Its resemblance to The Pink Panther titles, achieved through the combination of visual imagery and a Henry Mancini-like score, offers a well-known point of reference that invokes the sprightly crime films so characteristic of that era. Secondly, it sets the tone perfectly for the tale that follows: a tale where pleasures arise no more from the story itself than from the telling of it. “Like Frank himself, Catch Me If You Can is restless and playful, forever trying out new styles,” argues Geoffrey McNab. (8) The title sequence is just the first of these. Last but not least, to watch the title sequence is a pleasurable experience in its own right. It may indeed prepare the audience for the main narrative but at the same time it provides an almost entirely separate work that contributes, like trailers and advertisements, to the diversity of the programme.
Auto Focus is a very different kind of film from Catch Me If You Can. It charts the personal and career trajectory of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane from wholesome family entertainment icon and devoted husband to a compulsive philanderer whose autoerotic obsession with home-porn spirals out of control and in doing so destroys his career, family life and personal relationships. The film, especially in its early parts, faithfully emulates the aesthetics of ’60s film and television family entertainment, only later deviating from this style in order to represent the decay of that milieu’s associated values. The title sequence, designed by Ken Ferris, acts as a point of connection between these parts: light in style and mood, but using motifs that anticipate Crane’s personal free-fall. The causes and means of his degeneration are thus present as latent images from the very beginning.
The title sequence’s visuals mark both the period in which the film was set and the ironic distance the film upholds between that era and its point of production. In doing so, they evince an almost clinical detachment from the subject of the film. “For all its dedication to showing Bob’s excesses and misapprehensions,” argues Cynthia Fuchs,
the film opens with credits, under Angelo Badalamenti’s slick-jazzy score, that posit a peculiar distance from its subject. Martini glasses, bikinis and cigarette holders, Hugh Hefner and Polaroid cameras: the images designate an era, a place, a sense of insularity, ease, and privilege. And so: L.A, mythic land of pretty surfaces and preening affects. (9)
By establishing this cultural context from the start, the film is able to pithily convey its take on the main characters. It is their “absolute inability to see themselves,” argues Fuchs, that “most clearly indicts Bob and John (Willem Dafoe). Not as perverts per se, but as products of a culture premised on consumption and illusion, endless need and promise.” (10) Nothing could signal this meaning more effectively than the title sequence that launches the film.
Like Catch Me If You Can, this sequence also exhibits debts to titling styles of the era depicted. It simply screams early 1960s, using a carefully choreographed array of silhouetted designs that move fluidly across the screen, overlapping with one another so as to provide a formal pleasure of semi-abstract animation, redolent of the animated jigsaw pieces that open The Misfits (John Huston, 1961). In the choice of shapes used, it further recalls Rock All Night (Roger Corman, 1957), whilst the sectioning of the screen into areas of pastel colour echoes Portrait in Black (Michael Gordon, 1960). As in Catch Me If You Can, and many title sequences of the late 1950s and 1960s (the first decade of widescreen cinema) the frame is emphatically a two-dimensional space, to be geometrically divided up and sectioned off, a flat canvas that attempts no illusion of scenic depth.
None of the title sequences of that period used a montage of contemporary artefacts in such a schematic way as Auto Focus, however. The first film to do so was probably designer Don Record’s arresting collage of pop art and psychedelia in How Sweet It Is (Jerry Paris, 1968). The titling of Auto Focus certainly finds its stylistic inspiration in contemporary artefacts but the way they are used is a product of the post-modern era, bearing closer relation to such recent montages as those adorning the 1998 book, Atomic Cocktails. This beautifully produced recipe book illustrates in every detail its argument that “the cocktail came to represent the unique American talent for combining disparate components into a final suitable product for mass consumption.” (11) The sequence can itself be seen as a cocktail in which commingled elements convincingly delineate both the milieu of the film and the complex interchange of agents that help determine the path of Crane’s life. Just as the masterful plot summary achieved in the opening titles for Catch Me If You Can are most fully appreciated after viewing the whole film, so the credits for Auto Focus have an added resonance on a second viewing when the implications of the montage elements are fully recognised.
Designed by Bureau, who had previously worked with director Todd Haynes to design the titles for his earlier films, Safe (1995) and Velvet Goldmine (1998), the titles for Far From Heaven are at the opposite end of the aesthetic pole from those of Catch Me If You Can and Auto Focus. The reason for this derives from the different era of filmmaking from which it draws its inspiration. However, in the way that the sequence relates to the main film it fulfils some very similar functions. Far From Heaven is an emotionally overblown melodrama with striking debts to Douglas Sirk. A well as adopting the main structure of his film, All That Heaven Allows, it emulates its mise-en-scène, mimicking its stylised mode of speech and movement as well as cinematography.
The title sequence refers to All That Heaven Allows as explicitly as does the rest of the film. Brief by modern standards, the sequence groups several credits onto the screen at once, in the ubiquitous style of 1940s and 1950s cinema. The elegant copperplate lettering signals both a historical period and a genteel and restrained style of address. Behind the titles we are introduced to the mise-en-scène of richly coloured autumn leaves that forms the film’s dominant visual motif. All That Heaven Allows had also used a crane shot to combine images of affluent small-town suburbia with the carmine leaves fluttering at the top of a tree and this repetition possesses a heady resonance. The title sequence simultaneously confirms the film’s frame of reference for the cinephilic viewers who will recognise its source material, whilst the rich colours and Elmer Bernstein’s lavish orchestral score create a heightened emotional environment that signal to all the sensibility of this singular viewing experience.
Each of the films discussed here has drawn on earlier titling styles to signal both an era and a filmmaking sensibility. In so doing, they have forged a contract with the audience at the outset, instructing them of the parameters within which the film operates, alerting them to the tonalities of the film to come, and encouraging them to approach that experience in a frame of mind where they will be receptive to the pleasures it has to offer. In each case, this continued a project that began before the viewer set foot in the auditorium, as the title sequences shared common features with a range of publicity materials. The classic lettering style of Far From Heaven was used across its print and Internet publicity. The same is true of the brightly coloured period design of Auto Focus, its poster dominated by a bikini-clad girl silhouetted in blue. A variation on the title animations dominate the website of Catch Me If You Can, and its chase motif appears in subtly varying ways on a range of promotional posters and print advertisements. These posters use pictures of the stars, Hanks and DiCaprio, instead of anonymous silhouettes, although one image simulates motion blur to such an extent that the figures are identifiable only by the names printed above them. The promotional campaign, like the title sequence, combines an impression of perpetual motion with endlessly metamorphosing identity. The title sequences for each of these films may indeed be distinctive, but they are intrinsically part of the whole package, linking the viewing experience with the expectations generated by the studio publicity.
These films are by no means the first to use retro titling styles in order to signal their relation to earlier works. Nor is it the first time that a wave of films using this technique have been released at a specific point in time. The most distinctive cycle undoubtedly occurred in the late 60s and early 70s when a significant number of title sequences examined and adapted their design heritage, persistently flaunting technique and often foregrounding the act of addressing the audience. The popularity of these devices bore testimony to an increasing self-awareness in the field, a tendency more extensively characteristic of American films of the era. Perhaps the best known of these sequences is Saul Bass’s opening for That’s Entertainment Part II (Gene Kelly, 1976) but other striking examples can be found in such films as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969), What’s Up Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972) and The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973). Whether films such as Catch Me If You Can and Auto Focus herald a new cycle of revisionist credit sequences remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that they represent inspiring additions to the varied and exciting developments that have occurred in film titling of recent years.
I would like to express my thanks to Charlotte Bavasso and Juliette Stern at Nexus Productions for their assistance in preparing this article.
Stills from Catch Me If You Can created by Kuntzel+Deygas at Nexus Productions (for DreamWorks).
- Big Film Design website, http://www.bigfilmdesign.com. Accessed 24th March 2003.
- David E. James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 144.
- “Out of the pastiche,” editorial in Sight & Sound, vol. 13, issue 3, March 2003, p. 3.
- “Out of the pastiche,” 2003; Peter Bradshaw, “Catch Me If You Can,” The Guardian Review, 31 January 2003; Philip French, “Catch Me If You Can,” The Observer, 2 February 2003; Geoffrey McNab, “Catch Me If You Can,” Sight & Sound, February 2003, p. 40; Mick LaSalle, “Catch Me If You Can,” San Francisco Chronicle, 25 December 2002.
- Bradshaw, 2003, p. 3.
- Bosley Crowther, “The Pink Panther,” New York Times, 24 April 1964.
- Thierry Kuntzel, “The film-work, 2,” Camera Obscura, Spring 1980, pp. 6-69.
- Geoffrey McNab, “Catch Me If You Can,” Sight & Sound, February 2003, p. 40.
- Cynthia Fuchs, “Auto Focus,” http://www.nitrateonline.com/2002/rautofocus.html, 22 November 2002. Accessed March 2003.
- Fuchs, 2002.
- Karen Brooks, Gideon Bosker and Reed Darmon, Atomic Cocktails: Mixed Drinks for Modern Times (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998), p. 9.