Black-and-White Movies: Meditating on Monochrome

black-and-white moviesIn the days before DVDs, when my sister and I were kids, our parents would often stage movie nights, a post-homework foray during which we’d all watch a film of their choice on VHS in their bedroom. On one such occasion – and much to our dismay – they picked North by Northwest (1959), leading sis and me to protest vociferously.

“It’s in black-and-white,” we complained, unaware of the flick’s full-colour truth. “It’ll be boring.”

“Just watch five minutes of it,” said our parents. “If you don’t like it after that, you can leave.”

We didn’t leave. We were hypnotised. And I’d never been happier to be so wrong.

These days, I don’t have the aversion to black-and-white movies that I once had. In fact, I think there should be more. There’s a certain starkness that contemporary films have when lensed in this manner, and directors and cinematographers don’t take advantage of it as much as they should.

The problem is, many people want to see movies in colour, rejecting black-and-white films as arty, unrealistic or hard to watch. And pictures such as Frances Ha (2012) don’t help by providing no good reason as to why they’re shot in monochrome.

That’s why we need more flicks like Nebraska (2013) that back the relevance of the medium.

I didn’t think Nebraska was a perfect picture. But it was generally involving, and that partly had to do with the bleakness of the cinematography, which complemented the movie well. In this context, black-and-white film worked perfectly, as it accentuated the sad life of the protagonist, a failing, alcoholic senior (played magnificently by Bruce Dern) who insists on collecting a prize suggested by a dubious mailing. Colour wouldn’t have made sense. This story was made for monochrome.

Frances Ha wasn’t. It backs the notion that black-and-white films made today can be pretentious. There wasn’t anything about the script, story or characters that made me feel colour wouldn’t have fit it better, despite any potential, concomitant financial considerations. It didn’t work, and the fact that it looked washed-out called attention to this issue.

black-and-white moviesSo that’s a problem. When a black-and-white film falls flat, it falls really flat. It doesn’t get up. It’s bad and self-conscious at the same time. Colour-free flicks can’t afford to take this risk. They need to be of high quality to jump this hurdle.

They don’t need to be relegated to one genre, however … and I think that’s a strength of this kind of filmmaking.

We’ve had black-and-white adventure movies in the past. Why not have some more? We’ve had thrillers, westerns … let’s see more of the likes of Pi (1998) and Dead Man (1995). Maybe mainstream comedies can get into the act, too – they need not be Mumblecore or indie to make a colourless impact. They do have to have a good reason for their cinematographic statement, like The Artist (2011) did, though I don’t think they all need to reflect the films of the Silent Era or nod to any movies in particular. As long as they prove they make more sense in black-and-white than in colour, they’ll succeed.

I don’t think it’s trendy nowadays to go this route, nor should it be. The decision should be based either on quality or necessity. It can affect a viewer’s entire perception of a movie, and that’s not small potatoes. Directors and cinematographers need to be careful how they use it.

When they use it right, however, it can be glorious. It can make a movie. And it can help change the idea that films shot this way can be inaccessible. Black-and-white movies made right are always accessible. They just need the path cleared for them.

My parents a long time ago cleared that path for my sister and me by showing us many kinds of movies, both in colour and in black-and-white. I hope everyone who hasn’t followed similar routes can do so, because there are joys to be found at the end. I hope Hollywood will recognise this, too. After all, the potential benefits are myriad.

And who doesn’t benefit by watching a good black-and-white movie?

 

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

10 thoughts on “Black-and-White Movies: Meditating on Monochrome

  1. I have a good collection of B&W films on DVD, from old films like Queen Christina (1933), starring Great Garbo, to Angel-A (2005), a film by Luc Besson. I also have a couple of films that contain color elements, like Hell’s Angels (1930), a film by Howard Hughes that introduced Jean Harlow, Dead Again (1991), and Sin City (2005), a stylized crime thriller whose sequel will be released this year. I frequently watch films like The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Gilda (1946), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Young Frankenstein (1974). No fan of Marilyn Monroe (The Misfits), Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday), or Brigitte Bardot (La bride sur le cou) can overlook the B&W entries in their filmography. I think it goes without saying that great classics like Bringing Up Baby, Citizen Kane, and Casablanca are in my collection. To deny oneself the pleasure of watching black and white films is a crime. I will concede, however, that some films would suffer if filmed in B&W (e.g., Singin’ in the Rain).

    • That’s a pretty impressive film collection! I agree that black-and-white films of old (and new) often provide distinct pleasures that can’t be achieved in color movies … though Singin’ in the Rain and other masterpieces would definitely be different (and probably not as good) had they been shot in black-and-white. That said, I do think color film can be used brilliantly when risks are taken–say, in Kwaidan, for example, which had the most incredible, vibrant look. I like to compare that film to Ugetsu and see the perfection of the use of color and black-and-white film, respectively.

  2. Good piece, Simon. I think the key to a successful modern B&W film is does the story ask for it.
    “Nebraska’s” luminous monochrome reminds me of Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon”, two fine films about economic hard times in the American Midwest that I couldn’t imagine in color.

    • Thanks, Rick–I definitely agree with you on whether the context warrants the use of color or black-and-white. And I certainly see your comparison of Nebraska to Paper Moon … I think that’s a good comparison.

  3. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that I still perceive b&w as somehow more realistic and authentic than color. I think there are lots of reasons for this, but it has always struck me as odd. Sadly, I think the boat has sailed on this. There will probably always be a handful of monochrome movies in any given year, but market forces seem too great for any real renaissance. I am encouraged by some other types of experiments, like the mixing of color and monochrome in some movies, or the inclusion of a b&w version of The Mist on the DVD. I sometimes will watch the 1946 and 1964 versions of The Killers back to back, mostly because I like both, but also because it reminds me how different choices, like the use of color or monochrome, can create such different effects.

    • Agreed, Jon–unfortunately, I think more people want to see color films, and so we’ll be getting more of the likes of the recent Godzilla (yikes!) … driven by the market. I like your idea of watching different versions of a movie back to back … maybe I should do that for The Man Who Knew Too Much. And I do think it’s interesting that you say black-and-white movies have always struck you as more realistic–to a certain extent, I think they do give off that effect, except in cases such as the surreal If…, though that’s definitely the exception.

  4. I love anything in Black and White Simon. If the film is good enough, I don’t notice it at all. In fact, I often prefer it. Perhaps because I am old enough to recall when colour was a novelty, I don’t really know. I am not generally concerned if a modern film-maker produces films in B+W for effect. It doesn’t bother me in the least. If any film is good enough, it will hold up, whatever the medium.
    Good idea for discussion though.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. Yes, I definitely like the look of black-and-white in certain contexts, but I also notice it no matter if the film is good or bad … though you’re right: The film’s quality is what matters most of all. I wonder, though, if black-and-white lensing can augment certain movies made in color–that’s pure speculation, but I can think of some films that could’ve been improved in this way.

  5. Good article and I agree with what you are saying, but I’m pretty sure North by Northwest was in color. I sometimes remember films being black and white because I first saw them on my parents’ B&W TV then I’m amazed to find out later they are in color.

    • Thanks, Bill. Yes, my sister and I discovered North by Northwest’s “full-colour truth” soon enough–looking back, it seems laughable that we even supposed it wasn’t in color. (What gave us that idea?) It remains one of my favorite films to this day.

Leave a Reply