IN GLORIOUS BLACK AND WHITE

Thoughts on colorful movies shot in B&W by Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog

If I asked you to list your favorite movies, what would they be?  Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Transformers?  Maybe Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, Iron Man or Captain America?  Is it a 3D Surround Sound, computer enhanced spectacular? Or just fast and furious?  Do special effects and color make a movie great? Or might it be a brilliant script and amazing performances?

If you’re under 30, does your list include anything in black-and-white?  If you’re under 20, have you seen a black-and-white movie?

That’s right, black-and-white movies, like black-and-white photographs, have no colors, just shades of gray covering the gray-scale. It may seem to some that black-and-white movies were only made because color was not perfected until later, but that’s not true. Long after color was standard for all kinds of film, some directors chose black-and-white.

Some shot in black-and-white to evoke a feeling of another time and place. Raging Bull, the break-out performance for Robert DeNiro in 1980 was shot in black-and-white to evoke the era of Jake La Motta, the boxer and film’s subject.

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Academy Award winning Schindler’s List was done in black and white not only to make it feel like a World War II movie, but also to emphasize the darkness of the subject matter. American History X, Broadway Danny Rose, Stardust Memories, The Elephant Man, all were made in black-and-white for effect, for mood, for a certain cinematographic grittiness. If you never heard of any of the aforementioned, in 2012, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to The Artist, filmed in black and white to recall another age.

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Here are my top 5 black and white movies. These are required viewing before you report back next week: Casablanca is definitely number one. I know some will tell you that Citizen Kane is the best movie of all time. I watched it. I liked it. I have no need of seeing it again. I could watch Casablanca over and over.

Set during World War II, it’s the story of an American (Humphrey Bogart) who fell in love with a beauty (Ingrid Bergman) in Paris.  Forced to flee when the Nazis invaded, he is stood up at the train station by the woman he loves as the rain pours down. He winds up running a casino in Casablanca amidst a cast of shady characters … when guess who shows up? The movie includes one of the great movies songs of all time, As Time Goes By. And before you ask, Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam.”

As a child, Psycho scared the heck out of me in the theater. It was one of many Alfred Hitchcock classics filmed in black-and-white. Anthony Perkins gave a deliciously creepy performance as the proprietor of the Bates Motel. If you have seen any other version of this classic, you wasted your time. See the original! Perkins reprises the role a number of times in sequels after he was typecast as a weirdo psychopath. Too bad; he was a solid actor.

When the Music Box Theater in Chicago was restored and started showing vintage movies, I took my mother to see Sunset Boulevard. We had both seen it on our wonderful 19-inch, black-and-white television. This was a chance to see a restored print in a restored theater. Writer William Holden is found dead, floating in a swimming pool. The story plays out mostly in flashback.

Silent film star Gloria Swanson, appropriately plays a former silent film star and manages to chew up the scenery in a fabulous performance. A list of Hollywood notables make cameos, including H.B. Warner in the Paramount film, song writers Ray Evans and Jay Livingston (who wrote music for the movie), and Cecil B. DeMille. As Norma Desmond would famously say, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

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High Noon is everything a western should be. The town marshal is going to resign — on his wedding day — when bad news arrives. A dangerous outlaw is coming to town, and the new marshal has not yet arrived. The old marshal appears to be no match for the younger guy he had earlier put in jail. Gary Cooper distinguished himself as the sheriff willing to face down the bad guy even if it costs him his life. An A-List of Hollywood stars passed up the chance to make this movie for which Cooper won the Academy Award.

The movie genre that used black-and-white, light and shadows for maximum effect was (is) the detective story. The shine of a street light through a window that throws a shadow on the floor which contains the lines of the window frame and perhaps the detective’s name help to create the scene. Black-and-white emphasizes composition, shadow and light, contrast and mood in ways color can’t.

Top movie of this type is The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart chasing his partner’s killer and the elusive Maltese Falcon. It costars Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, both of whom will turn up a year later with Bogart in Casablanca. The ending has one of the dumbest movie speeches, but paradoxically, one of the great closing lines. Altogether, it’s a great movie.

16 thoughts on “IN GLORIOUS BLACK AND WHITE

  1. I was going to say Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve!

    Any movies with suspense, like Psycho or The Haunting, but also Night of the Hunter and Rebecca.

    I am over 30 though, so that may make a difference 🙂

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  2. When I was a kid and went to the movies, which wasn’t as often as I’d have liked, I was fascinated by black and white films.., so much so that later in my life, when I began dabbling in serious photography, B&W was my medium of choice.

    To digress a bit, some how in my mind, back then, I had convinced myself that everything in the real world was B&W before 1950. But then sometime in the early 50s I fell in love with a color film, “The Red Shoes”(1948), a story about a ballet dancer and love. I was as much in love with Moira Shearer as the male lead was supposed to be. Not only that, but the talented dancers, beautiful music and magical scenery upset my whole concept of what a good movie was all about and I was reborn into a world of color. Still today, I am mesmerized by the dark moodiness a B&W film can portray and it still is, as it was then, my all time favorite medium.

    Of course it is purely incidental that some of the best movies ever, were shot in black and white.

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    • Rich, It was nice to read that old comment, I’d forgotten about, I made back in 2014.., brought it all back to me, and now I may just have to watch the “Red Shoes” yet again?

      Just to carry things to another possible extreme, I tend to prefer to watch old B&W movies on an old B&W TV set I’ve managed to keep running. Don’t get me wrong I appreciate modern technology and have a couple of “flat screen” monsters around, but watching a B&W movie that doesn’t take up the whole screen is just wrong.., so old TV it is for me.

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  3. Great post for movie mavens like me, Rich. There are so many B&W classics. I’ll just throw out a few. “The Third Man”, “The Naked City”, “Casablanca”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, “Dead End”, “Touch of Evil”, “Grapes of Wrath”, “How Green Was My Valley”, “The Best Years of Our Lives”, “Three Comrades”, “the Mortal Storm”, “All Quiet On The Western Front”, “Holiday”, “My Man Godfrey”, “City Lights”. These are films that used B&W in all its beauty. Joy and despair, happiness and anguish. So many, many more including those listed by others including “Night of the Hunter”.

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