You know who Saul Bass is, even if you don’t. But Saul Bass isn’t (only) what you think. He’s also the guy who stepped forward to welcome our new insect overlords. That’s what the man does in Phase IV, the only film he ever directed, and probably the best bug-fuck mind-fuck movie in existence.
A shame, as practically no one has seen it — but that’s because Phase IV is not what you think and, also, in Phase IV, things are not what you think — but we’ll get there.
Firstly, most know the name Saul Bass in relation to his brilliant, award-winning work as a title designer. Those distinctively stunning title sequences that launched films by Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, and many other — all designed by Saul Bass.
Here’s a brief refresher if his name brings nothing instantly to mind:
Having achieved such success with his art, Bass in 1974 moved from designing titles, movie posters, and logos (such as those for AT&T and United Airlines), and directing sequences in other director’s films (including the prologue to West Side Story and debatably the shower scene in Psycho) to helming his own film: Phase IV.
I can tell that’s so because almost everyone thought what you think, then they didn’t see Phase IV, and it flopped hard.
Yes. Phase IV, written by Mayo Simon, does involve some space ants and, indeed, some invasive conquering — but what film doesn’t? Or what film worth watching doesn’t?
From it’s opening images of planetary alignment and its voice-over concerning magnetic fields and spiritual discombobulation, Phase IV does not so much remind of a cheesy B-movie but of no less than 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is clearly a film directed by a man — Saul Bass — who understood visual communication and the language of style. Working with cinematographer Dick Bush and wildlife photographer Ken Middleham, Bass spins a story that quickly leaves the realm of reason, unless you reason like a space ant.
We are told a cosmic confluence sparked something strange in the desert of Arizona. We see, in extreme close up, the ants. They are up to something anty with their flickering antennae and gribbly mouthparts. They look, frankly, awesome.
These are no giant rubber bugs waving plastic feelers at mouth-clutching starlets. These are real, real tiny, ants in smooth geometrical tunnels, moving with purpose, plotting your doom. And you may think “how could that be possible?” but you don’t think like an ant and that’s the whole point.
The cast primarily consists of three players: Nigel Davenport is Dr Ernest Hubbs, the serious entomologist who’s sussed the danger; Michael Murphy (whom you may recognize from M*A*S*H) plays game theorist / cryptographer James Lesko, tasked with interpreting to and from ant; and the impossibly lovely Lynne Frederick, one-time wife to both Peter Sellers and David Frost, is Kendra, the impossibly lovely girl who thinks like neither man nor any ant.
Into a deserted desert, our scientists delve. There they set up shop in a geodesic lab, filled with 1974’s versions of supercomputers. They construct their citadel with a speed that’s superhuman — or impossible — depending on whether or not you still think your thought processes reign supreme, which they don’t. We have already entered the world of the ant.
Outside this gleaming base, a series of towers stand like vast organ pipes constructed by insects. During phase I, our protagonists and (sorry) antagonists square off. You think you know how this will go, but what you think doesn’t matter, unless you’re an ant.
For in Phase IV, things happen that might make sense, or mightn’t, if only you could get your mandibles around them. Could ants do the things they do in this film? What about people? In the past I’ve written about the scarcity of truly alien concepts in cinema, but Phase IV dares to travel there, exposing the unknowable mind of the space ant. You could understand too if only you’d deign to lower yourself into their hill, to face their queen.
As the film progresses through phases II and III, there is death, and battle, and a tug of war of intelligences. All is oblique and otherworldly and just liminally not right. Also; its beautifully, sleekly, insectually stunning. As you gawp, the thoughts you think twist through tiny tunnels and emerge yellow, and adapted, and magnetically tempered and proven.
Admit it. The ants are right. They are superior. Fight if you must, but slough off your sense of entitlement for this world is no longer yours.
Saul Bass keeps Phase IV ahead and off-kilter the whole way through. I was enrapt from start to finish. Upon its release, however, Paramount Pictures felt otherwise. They shied from the fullness of the director’s vision, cutting the final five minutes of the film — phase IV — to soften the ending.
It didn’t help. People weren’t ready to think like ants, even softened ants. The film tanked.
Now, however, Bass’ final phase is available for view and it is as psychedelically astounding as anything Kubrick did in his saga of otherworldly intelligences. Phase IV is a trip down and in. It is pulsing of your mind and a fracturing of your psyche. It is totally bug-fuck crazy awesome.
Seek it out. Watch what genius Saul Bass attempted. Appreciate his alien ideas and think you’ve pushed past the skin of sanity — then watch phase IV below in a (sorry) somewhat crappy telecine copy.
If you want to survive, you must adapt, submit, and succumb to cinema. Start with Saul Bass’ Phase IV.