“If I had been a tube of blue paint, he would have liked me more.”
That was actor Michael Murphy talking about Saul Bass, legendary designer and less-than-legendary filmmaker. In fact, although he designed iconic posters and opening-credits sequences for films like “Vertigo” and “The Man With the Golden Arm,” Bass made just one film as a director, the 1974 sci-fi thriller “Phase IV.”
Underseen for decades, “Phase IV” has resurfaced, and it played at the Wisconsin Film Festival on Saturday morning with a somewhat chagrinned-looking Murphy talking about it. “I heard some inappropriate laughter, dammit!” he joked to the audience after the film.
The foundation of the film is a rather silly sci-fi premise, that ants are starting to evolve and fight back against their predators, including humans. A pair of scientists (Murphy and Nigel Davenport) have come to a remote part of Arizona to study the phenomenon, and find themselves trapped in an escalating war of wits with the collective little buggers.
Universal Pictures sold the film to audiences as a horror movie in the vein of “Kingdom of the Spiders,” and there are some of those cheesy elements in there, to be sure. But Bass also brings a striking visual style to many scenes, including many close-up shots of the ants, and a gonzo original ending fully of trippy, baffling images that turned off test audiences.
After years working with improvisation-friendly director Robert Altman (such as on “Brewster McCloud,” which Murphy screened at the festival on Friday) Murphy wasn’t used to the strict hit-your-marks style of a director like Bass, and it showed. Bass and the studio constantly battled over the film, and Murphy said he was frustrated with several poor decisions, such as an intrusive introductory voiceover and terrible looped dialogue.
“It would have been a really interesting film if there was a little bit of attention paid to performances,” Murphy said. “Saul was a great artist, a good guy.”
Sean Savage of the Academy Film Archive, who found and restored the long-lost original ending, says he has a treasure trove of Bass material about “Phase IV” and other projects, and there have been some informal discussions about trying to release a restored Blu-ray edition at some point.
Murphy will be at the Union South Marquee Theater at 1:15 p.m. Sunday to introduce a film he’s much prouder of, Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”