Monday, October 17, 2022

By Design: The Joe Caroff Story, on TCM

He was James Bond’s and Woody Allen’s Saul Bass. Over the years, Joe Caroff developed some truly iconic title treatments for the posters and opening credit sequences used by a number of classic films. He helped mold the identity of some of your favorite films, but he has remained largely unknown to most movie fans. The spotlight finally falls on the designer in Mark Cerulli’s documentary, By Design: The Joe Caroff Story, which premieres tomorrow on TCM.

Caroff’s designs and typography really define an era of movie history. He created the 007 logo for the James Bond franchise. It is such an iconic image, it hasn’t been cancelled yet, even though it has a gun coming out of the seven. He also created the
West Side Story poster with the stylized fire escape and the whimsical lettering for A Hard Day’s Night, including the Beatles’ knotted-guitar logo.

Refreshingly, Caroff does not apologize for any of the films he worked on, including
Last Tango in Paris or probably close to a dozen Woody Allen films, starting with Manhattan. However, Caroff’s anecdotes make it clear he and Allen were never exactly close. It was just good work to get. Admittedly though, Caroff had reservations regarding the lurid poster for Tattoo, produced by Joseph E. Levine, with whom he had a good working relationship.

By Design
is fairly succinct, running under an hour (not including commercials), but it still devotes a good deal of time to Caroff’s early life, including his WWII service and his courtship of his wife. The film also covers some of his early book jacket work and his designs for television (particularly those commissioned by ABC).

Caroff was largely considered an ad guy by the studios that hired him, but he has substantially shaped the way we picture many of the films he worked on. When we think of
West Side Story (the one from 1961 that people have actually seen), the fire escape design immediately comes to mind. The same is true of the black and red field of thorns for The Last Temptation of Christ.

It is rather fascinating to see how the relatively anonymous Caroff has had such a disproportionate impact on popular culture. Cerulli makes that case quite efficiently throughout the doc. Highly recommended for those who appreciate film and poster art,
By Design: The Joe Caroff Story premieres tomorrow night (10/18) on TCM.