Before the 1950s, film wasn’t always black and white. The early Thomas Edison shorts of the late 1890s were occasionally in color, produced by having artists hand-paint individual film frames (and you thought your job was dull). In the early teens, monochromatic film tinting became used to differentiate day scenes from night (often tinted blue). The problem that early filmmakers had with color film was the technology; color film had to be produced bypassing multiple, color filtered, negatives through a camera and then compositing them. It was an expensive process, driving shooting costs up nearly three times of black and white photography. With the exception of a handful of films throughout the 1930s-1940s (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Becky Sharp, some Walt Disney shorts), actual color film was a rare treat for filmgoers.
This began to change in the 1950s when television, film’s adversary for the domination of the leisure time of the American public, really took hold. Film had to compete with the new medium and it did so by giving audiences what they couldn’t find in their homes: color cinematography, widescreen images, and even 3-D and other sensory oddities. In 1947, only 12 percent of American films were made in color. By 1954, that number rose to 50 percent. In 2011, I would surmise that 99 percent of filmmaking (8mm, 16mm, 35mm, HD, etc.) is color. Black and white, a beautiful form in itself, has become equated with antiquity and, for the most part, we no longer appreciate it for what it is truly worth. That said, here’s my list of five must-see black and white films shot during the color era.
We tend to take the greatness of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for granted today. It essentially spawned the slasher genre and its iconic shower scene, to my surprise, is still capable of scaring the shit out of a room of undergraduates raised on far grislier offerings. Yet, at the time of production, Paramount Pictures did not care for the subject matter of Robert Bloch’s novel. They refused to give Hitchcock the budget he had received for his previous films and the director, with his large backside up against the wall, decided to finance the film himself, mobilizing his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television crew and black and white film stock to keep costs down. Yet, can you imagine the shower scene without the black and white cinematography of John L. Russell? That would be like cutting out (pun intended) Bernard Herrmann’s score! The blood, being chocolate syrup poured down a drain, is captured perfectly, before fading into our protagonist’s dead eyes.
Killer of Sheep (1977)
Another example of black and white film being used to lower production costs, Charles Burnett’s thesis film as an M.F.A. student at the University of California, Los Angeles, Killer of Sheep, is a quiet urban drama about the largely African-American Watts district in Los Angeles. There isn’t much of a plot to speak of, just a bunch of vignettes focusing on the lower class life style of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a worker in a slaughter house. Yet, the cinematography, by Burnett himself, perfectly captures the bleak wasteland that Los Angeles can be for some unfortunate citizens.
Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese’s choice to shoot his iconic Raging Bull in black and white was more of an artistic decision that a financial one. Screening color footage for his mentor, Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom), Powell noted that boxing gloves at the time were not red, but maroon or black. Allegedly, this comment, and a concern about fading color film stock (depending on the color process used, color prints tend to become less and less vibrant unless cared for properly), Scorsese shot his boxing epic turned domestic drama in black and white. The finished product becomes an artifact of the period of time it covers (1941-1964), adding a gritty reality to what may have become overly gory fight scenes, if filmed in color. Instead, Scorsese, via Michael Chapman’s cinematography, embraces the poetics of violence and forces us to think about their ramifications.
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002)
Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, for those of you unfamiliar with his work, is a cinematic oddity. A contemporary filmmaker, he embraces the aesthetic of the silent films, using black and white film stocks, title cards, tinted colors, and odd iris effects. The results are often the stuff of a cinephile’s dreams. Take his film, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, for example. An adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, Maddin took the film one step away from its subject matter by filming Mark Godden and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s interpretation of the material. Paul Suderman’s black and white cinematography, accented with the occasional red tint for blood, flowing in a snowy landscape created by falling confetti, is stunning and, at 75 minutes, this silent film interpretation of a ballet, is easily accessible to the average viewer.
Sin City (2005)
Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino’s Sin City is a stylistic oddity. It’s a film noir adaptation of a comic book that remediated film noir stylistically. In terms of culinary treats, it’s a lot like a turducken or a deep fried stick of butter; it is excessive. I have no doubt that the absolute chiaroscuro that defines the look of the piece, produced on a digital backlot by Rodriguez and his special effects team from a digital source, has grown tired on some people’s rods and cones (look at how Miller’s The Spirit blew up at the box office) but, for a moment there, the black and white neo-noir of Sin City (shot by Rodriguez) rocked many worlds, including my own. It was a new way of embracing the old, black and white cinema in the age of the digital.
Now, as you no doubt have noticed, I’ve left off some pretty major neo-black and white films off this list (Schindler’s List, Ed Wood, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Good Night and Good Luck amongst many others). Now it’s your turn. What neo-black and white films do you appreciate and why?
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.