Posted on Tuesday, June 26th, 2012 by Russ Fischer
Saul Bass is widely known for his work as an artist, title designer, and corporate logo craftsman. His movie posters and title work for films such as The Man With the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder and many movies by Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese cemented his ideas as cornerstones of cinematic storytelling and advertising. The logos and icons he designed for companies such as Quaker Oats, the United Way, AT&T, and Girl Scouts of America all defined those companies’ public image for years.
Saul Bass also directed one feature film: a very strange and wonderful sci-fi picture called Phase IV, in which a colony of ants evolves into a collective hive mind. When two humans begin investigating the ants’ desert home, the insects go on the offensive. The ants are played by real insects, shot with beautiful macro photography, and the film is defined by a sci-fi ethos that is somewhere between “hardcore” and “dreamlike.”
Which is to say, Phase IV isn’t a traditional film. It prioritizes image over dialogue and is a pure expression of Bass’ design interests. The movie has had a lasting influence on other designers (you can see its influence in other sci-fi, in comics and on album covers) but it originally ended in a way different than what most audiences have seen. And now that original ending is making its way to the public.
The 1974 film gained new fans when it was used as material for Mystery Science Theater 3000, and has recently experienced a minor revival thanks to brief availability via the Netflix streaming service. (That status has expired, sadly.)
This past weekend, however, The Cinefamily screened a print of the film in Los Angeles. With that print was a newly discovered reel, featuring the ending that Paramount cut from the movie in ’74.
An acid-trip freakout reportedly similar to the ending of Kubrick’s 2001, Paramount cut the sequence from the film and it was never shown to audiences, nor made available as bonus material on home video release. But the screening Sunday highlighted not only that the footage fits perfectly with the rest of Bass’ meditative, inventive visual style, but it brings together the ideas that are explored but never fully paid off in the theatrical cut.
The trade also gives an account of the new ending, and notes that “with the exception of a few shots that feature nudity or imagery charitably described as disturbing (a pair of fingers punctures a bald man’s forehead – from the inside),” it is difficult to understand why the footage was cut in the first place.
Ironically, some of the images Bass created for the ending — such as the “fingers through the forehead” bit — did make their way into the film’s trailer, which you can see below.
There is no indication that we’ll see this newly discovered footage on DVD or Blu-ray, but we can hope. Even in its originally truncated release, Phase IV is absolutely worth seeing out, especially for those who prize science fiction oddities and visually stimulating movies.