This Monday marked the death of main title designer Wayne Fitzgerald at the age of 89. One of the great movie and television craftsmen of the past half century, if you don’t recognize Fitzgerald by name, you’re probably still familiar with his body of work, which included a filmography boasting more than 450 credits and which earned him three Emmys over the course of his career.
Alongside the likes of Saul and Elaine Bass, Dan Peri and Pablo Ferro, Fitzgerald turned the craft of title design – so often taken for granted – into an art form unto itself. The full measure of Fitzgerald’s legacy is too large to cover all at once, but the following examples should provide a broad overview of his nearly 60-year career.
In honor of his passing, here are 10 of William Fitzgerald’s best and most memorable title sequences in film:
Pillow Talk (1959)
The first film to pair Rock Hudson and Doris Day, this bright, peppy, clever battle-of-the-sexes comedy opens with an equally bright, peppy, clever title sequence. A man and woman lounge in separate beds on either side of a room, kicking up their feet and tossing pillows up and down and over at one another, all while the credits are projected, in perfect symmetry, against the room’s center divider.
This sequence perfectly captures the sly sex appeal and carefree tone that made the Hudson-Day films such big hits at the time, and which lends them their charming mid-century appeal today.
Cat Ballou (1965)
Another splash of colorful nostalgia, the opening title sequence of this western musical comedy is staked with surprises, starting with the transformation of the Columbia Pictures torchbearer into a fiery, pistol-popping Jane Fonda. After a long song-and-dance prologue (featuring Nat King Cole on banjo), we’re brought to an eye-popping title card program printed on neon-colored paper and laid out in gorgeous Old West typography.
The influence of this sequence can be seen in films as recent as Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, which gives the sequence a direct shout-out during its own kitchen-sink opening, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which uses a similar meta-narrative framing device.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
The year 1967 is considered one of the most important in movie history, the moment it became obvious the studio system was beyond salvaging and a changing of the guard was inevitable. Fitzgerald was front and center for this transition, having designed the titles for four of that year’s five best picture nominees: two Sidney Poitier social dramas, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night (the night’s big winner), as well as New Hollywood game-changers The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde.
Of the latter films, The Graduate contains arguably the more memorable title sequence, but Bonnie and Clyde lays claim to this spot for two reasons. First, its Depression-era photo montage displays Fitzgerald’s penchant for dramatic layering just as well as The Graduate airport fugue: the ominous report of the Brownie camera starts to sound suspiciously like gunshots as the sequence moves along, while the white title cards filling with red clue us in to the blood-drenched finale that lies in store.
Second it was during his work on this sequence that Fitzgerald decided, at the behest of the producer and star Warren Beatty, to strike out on his own and form his own design studio, Wayne Fitzgerald FilmDesign.
The Conversation (1974)
It’s safe to say that, of the various film-makers Fitzgerald worked with on multiple occasions (including Beatty, Roman Polanski and John Hughes), his greatest collaborator was Francis Ford Coppola. Fitzgerald did the titles for several of the director’s films, including Apocalypse Now (end credits), The Outsiders, One from the Heart, The Rainmaker and The Godfather: Part II and III. While it’s tempting to highlight his simple, but powerful title sequence for The Godfather: Part II, The Conversation marks their finest partnership.
There’s a strong case to be made that The Conversation is Coppola’s greatest film, and a large part of that argument rests on the masterful opening shot: the slow-zoom into a public San Francisco park from high above, a cacophony of sounds overwhelming our auditory receptors, the sharp white of the corner-set titles cutting against the long shadows cast by the surround trees and architecture. It all combines to build a mood of quiet dread that hangs over the rest of the film like fog from off the Bay.
Murder by Death (1976)
Fitzgerald’s filmography is filled with sequences boasting ambitious art design, but in terms of pure creativity and originality, nothing quite tops this bit of pop-up animation for which he teamed with the Addams Family creator Charles Addams.
The sequence gleefully lays out the grisly parlor games to follow, succeeding not only in introducing us (in “diabolical order”) to the cast, but also clueing us in to their characters’ personalities and potential motives.
It’s as good – and arguably better – than anything that follows, and one hopes that the resurgence of whodunnits we’re currently witnessing eventually produces a title sequence as fun and rewatchable as this.
The Domino Principle (1977)
This espionage thriller, directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Gene Hackman and Candice Bergen, may have faded into obscurity following its release, but if nothing else, it deserves to be remembered for Fitzgerald’s startling and powerful title sequence.
The whole thing is sadly mournful and subtly menacing, conveying to us everything we need to know about the film’s hero and his predicament – how the walls have been closing in on him his whole life and how the future is always something just out of reach. The moment when the dominoes explode in slow motion, revealing a haggard and coldly smoldering Hackman behind bars, is a cut for the ages.
9 to 5 (1980)
One recurring motif throughout Fitzgerald’s title sequences is the close study of crowds, particularly the way human bodies maneuver within them. His work on Sixteen Candles is a great example, but even better is the opening sequence from 1980’s beloved feminist workplace comedy 9 to 5.
The mix of music and motion, along with the use of clocks to move the narrative forward, make the whole thing feel like a self-contained music video, one worthy of Dolly Parton’s earworm anthem.
The Big Chill (1983)
Speaking of the perfect mix of sound and image, is there any film more closely associated with its soundtrack than Lawrence Kasdan’s boomer nostalgia drama, The Big Chill? For that matter, out of all the musical sequences in the film, is there any as instantly iconic as the opening montage set to Marvin Gaye’s rendition of I Heard it Through the Grapevine? (Yes, yes, the Ain’t to Proud to Beg dance scene, I suppose).
Along with the above-mentioned entry, this sequence established Fitzgerald as the best in the game when it came to setting a title sequence to pop music.
National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985)
As fun as Fitzgerald’s title sequence for the first Vacation movie was, its eclectic use of colorful postcards a triumph of art design, his work on 1985’s sequel is even better.
Set once more to the head-bopping sounds of Lindsey Buckingham’s Holiday Road, the use of passports title cards is ultra-inspired, while the sped-up editing and various sight and sound gags perfectly convey the silly and clever irreverence viewers had come to expect from the National Lampoon brand.
City Slickers (1991)
Speaking of silly, clever irreverence, we’ll close out with this utterly gleeful cartoon title sequence from Billy Crystal’s slapstick smash hit. Drawn by Kurtz and Friends, this was the first notable animated sequence of its kind since the Pink Panther films. What makes it extra-worthy of inclusion here is the way Fitzgerald’s titles are made into a character, being literally roped into the action and causing all types of ridiculous havoc.
Something about the titles also just screams early 90s, in a way that feels evocative rather than dated. It speaks to Fitzgerald’s ability to time into whatever decade he found himself working in order to both capture and shape its attitude and aesthetic.