The Cinefamily unveiled the never-before-seen ending to Phase IV on Sunday night after a screening of the theatrical cut of Saul Bass’ 1974 feature film debut. Celebrating the work of the iconic artist and title sequence designer, the repertory house screened a reel of the footage, which was long thought lost – or to never have existed -- as a part of its "Saul Bass on Film" series.Programmers at Los Angeles’
Phase IV is a science fiction film about two scientists who turn up at the site of an abandoned housing development and uncover a colony of ants that has become a homicidal hive mind. While one of the scientists attempts to make contact with the ants, the other views their behavior as an act of war, and both soon discover that their diminutive enemies are not just resilient but resourceful. After creating credit sequences for films like The Man With the Golden Arm and directing segments of films such as Grand Prix and Psycho -- the latter of which he designed the entire shower scene -- Bass made his directorial debut with Phase IV.
In addition to creating a series of dreamlike montages and singular images, Bass enlisted Ken Middleham to shoot footage of real ants, creating a sort of animal acting verisimilitude that has gone unmatched on film before or since. Still, Paramount Pictures forced Bass to remove the final sequence – the "Phase IV" of the title – despite the fact that it is consistent with the dreamlike visual style the filmmaker applied to the rest of the film. According to Cinefamily executive director Hadrian Belove, archivists at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences uncovered the reel while assembling materials culled from the organization's Saul Bass collection.
Not unlike, say, the murder-mystery story that eventually was cut out of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall or the entirety of Stanley Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire (which has been screened a handful of times in recent years), the sequence is something of a Holy Grail for cinephiles, and its existence has been the subject of rumor and speculation for decades. 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 that it brings together the ideas that are explored but never fully paid off in the theatrical cut.
[SPOILER ALERT:] Starting with the same shots as in the theatrical version, Michael Murphy’s character James descends into the ants’ hive expecting to blow it up, ending the war with humankind’s insect adversaries. Instead, he enters a room where Kendra (Lynne Fredrick), the girl he and his partner rescued from insecticide poisoning earlier in the film, is lying in a pool of sand. She rises and approaches him, as he realizes that the ants want to join – or merge – with humanity, prompting a new evolutionary development in both species. James and Kendra find themselves running through a gauntlet of geometric structures, eventually ending up in a maze where they are tested and observed in the same way that mankind tested the insects.
In a dizzying and often disturbing montage of imagery, James and Kendra become an embodiment of all mankind as a new species is created. Emerging from their transformation, the pair gazes out onto a sunset-stained landscape, realizing that humanity has reached a new level in its evolution: "Phase IV." [END SPOILERS]
Admittedly, this is only a thumbnail interpretation of the events in that final sequence, but the significance of its appearance is that it proves that the sequence was not only shot, but material remains that can be shared with fans and cinephiles. But 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), the question remains why Paramount found this material to be too strange or inappropriate to release.
At the same time, the footage looked beautiful when screened on 35mm – in fact, better than the quality of the print used to show the theatrical cut – and could easily be digitized and remastered for a DVD or even Blu-ray release. Like with so many cult titles, however, in addition to maintaining the rights to the material, distributors must feel that there is an audience for it before they will undertake the time, effort and money required to remaster the footage and release it officially.
Watch a clip of the original ending of Phase IV: