Saul Bass, "Phase IV"

Dennis Harvey July 25, 2007

How many people not employed as directors, producers, cinematographers, costume or production designers have had as much impact on the “look” of movies as Saul Bass? His was a unique position: He virtually introduced graphic design (which he had helped to greatly innovate in the advertising world) to the movies from the mid-‘50s onward.

Before, credits sequences had been as uniform and boring as a theater playbill — necessary acknowledgement of personnel to be got through before the movie really began. In his influential work for some of the major films and directors of the 1955-1965 era (Preminger, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Kubrick, Frankenheimer), Bass totally changed the game. His dynamic, bold, abstract credit designs set the tone for the movie — and were even sometimes its imaginative highlight. From that point on, if a flick’s first few minutes were little more than a scroll of names, audiences felt cheated.

Yet Bass grew tired of this limited role. Before his 1996 death he returned to design some title sequences (notably several for Scorsese), but otherwise abandoned the craft for over two decades, focusing instead on other creative endeavors. One of them was his only feature as a director: 1974’s “Phase IV,” one of those movies that has “cult object” and “no commercial value” written all over it from birth. Indeed, Paramount did little to promote this too idiosyncratic exercise in the otherwise marketable cautionary sci-fi-horror genre. Among other films of the era that got similarly overlooked were George Lucas’ “THX-1138” and Mike Hodge’s still-underappreciated “The Terminal Man.”

Like them, “Phase IV” has flaws on the levels of narrative and emotional engagement. But it’s so striking to look at, so unique in tone that it’s a memorable experience despite not being an entirely “good” movie. When a species of superintelligent (but not giant-sized in the usual sci-fi mode) ants is detected in the Arizona desert, mad-bad scientist Nigel Davenport plus assistants Michael Murphy and Lynne Frederick construct an experimental dome there to study them. The ants have destroyed all their natural enemies, and are now interested in conquering the last: Man. Facing an onslaught, the characters experience the mystical, rather inscrutable dawn of a new evolutionary era.

With its frequently arresting imagery (much of it extreme-closeup insect footage shot by documentarian Ken Middleton) and dislocating atmospherics, “Phase IV” is classic Arty Horror. It’s certainly among the more enduring, less campy of ’70s genre films that saw Nature striking back at disrespectful mankind.

There are a number of them in the PFA’s current“>“Eco-Amock! An Inconvenient Film Fest” series, which each Wednesday through Aug. 29 showcases mainstream (if sometimes mainstream-drive-in) takes on what pollution ‘n’ such might wreak on us — before Global Warming hit anyone’s consciousness. Next Wed. (Aug. 1) there will be a doozy — John Frankenheimer’s 1979 “Prophecy,” a gory bad-cinema classic in which Talia Shire and others are menaced by mutant bears.