During our time of “lockdown”, “safer-at-home”, or whatever your state, country, local government have named their attempts1 at stemming the spread of COVID-19, many of us have retreated to the relative safety of watching movies at home or on mobile devices. With that, seemed timely to return to one of my favorite Martin Scorsese films — Casino — for its rendering of Nicholas Peliggi’s chronicle for “…Las Vegas in the 1970s, and for descent of the Mafia into Hell.”2
The above quote from Peliggi himself to what the famed graphic designer, Saul Bass (in close collaboration with wife Elaine) achieved with their opening title sequence for the film. This, care of a fine summary post at the Art of the Title site by Pat Kirkham, who authored Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design. I highly recommend reading both as they encapsulate one of Saul’s last title efforts, and one of his best, which says a lot considering the breadth of his work3
Casino the final of the five he did for Scorsese (Goodfellas, Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence, and A personal journey with Martin Scorsese the others). Also, the seventh of ten title sequences Saul Bass designed with his wife. That graphic style and history climaxes this sequence, and spectacularly so. Visually, after the coral-tinted, mob-tainted Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) walks out to key his Cadillac, the resulting explosion of surreal color and motion a pinnacle for the medium.
Pat put it best:
“In the sequence, the main character’s excess energy and flashiness are rendered simultaneously distorted and hyperreal, repulsive and desirable, not unlike the strip of casinos itself. The result is a work of startling visual poetry. There could be no more befitting finale for the greatest film title designer of the century, or a more moving elegy to his long and fertile collaboration with Elaine.”
This celluloid inauguration resonates with anyone who’s made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas and viewed its distinctly lit extravagance. All the more, if having glimpsed the underlying decadence and lived to tell the tale4. The titles ignite the viewer’s imagination to its possibilities and figuratively places them there, even if they’ve never visited. Right before the famed film director has a chance to turn back the clock in his parable of how the Mob lost its bloody control over “Lost Wages”5.
Music with a religious focus, the “passion” used here to denote the suffering of The Christ
Which brings us to the equally deft music selection for the segment, one that audibly initiates and sets the fervor for the movie viewer and protagonist. The appropriately dramatic piece of classical sacred music6 of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion (aka, Matthäus-Passion). The accompanying oratorio alights what’s on visual display, musically. Soon enough, the flung figure lifted with the passion of the fiery orchestral and choral notes, the end result of what he’s wrought on himself.
“Saul described it thus: “Think of Dante’s Inferno and Hieronymus Bosch, set against Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and you begin to get an impression of what we’re after.” In Saul and Elaine’s vision, Ace’s body, or soul, rises and falls within a fiery Las Vegas purgatory.” ~ Pat Kirkham, The Art of the Title
Come to think of it, you could say this opening title sequence a metaphor for what’s happening to us, now.
- With varying degrees of success, rebellion, and out-in-out failure that are on display, if you care to look. ↩
- Your mileage may vary in relation to our current pandemic. ↩
- Opening title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho), William Wyler (The Big Country), and Otto Preminger (Carmen Jones, The Man With the Golden Arm, In Harm’s Way) to name only a few, let alone the movie posters he fashioned or the corporate logos he retooled. ↩
- Your wallet ever the lighter for the experience. ↩
- So coined by Milton Berle. ↩
- As Thomaskantor Johann Sebastian Bach provided Passion music for Good Friday services in Leipzig. The extant St Matthew Passion and St John Passion are Passion oratorios composed by Bach. ~ Wikipedia ↩