Today Zack Snyder spoke about his plans to release his upcoming version of Justice League in a “rich and beautiful monochrome”, and the re-released trailer for his epic movie is in black and white, just to whet our appetite.
Yet many people still struggle with movies that aren’t in colour. If you aren’t used to watching these “old” films, then which black and white classics should you try first?
When movies were born, they were silent, and not in colour. Movies were uniformly in black and white at the start of the 1900s as film technology was still in its infancy. There are exceptions, for example, the masked ball scene in Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925) which has a vivid colour sequence which was possible only through the meticulous dyeing of sections of the frames.
Fans of The Wizard of Oz will also remember that the opening and closing scenes are in black and white, but when Dorothy lands in Oz the monochrome interior door opens to reveal vivid Technicolor.
Once colour film was possible and affordable, more movies obviously used the technology, as the producers needed to encourage audiences to attend the theatres.
Filmmakers like Hitchcock however in Psycho, retained the black and white film stock for specific reasons. In the case of his 1960 chiller, the blood – or chocolate sauce – draining through the bath after the infamous shower scene looks much less… chocolatey in monochrome.
As a young child, I remember telling my father that black and white films were obviously cheaper and a bit rubbish as they weren’t in colour. He gently put me right. Sure, many films couldn’t afford to film in colour so there is a basis in truth there, but that doesn’t mean that black and white means cheap.
If you struggle with the concept of these movies, maybe you just need to see some rock-solid classics to help you come over to the dark, and light side.
GET INTO MONOCHROME: SOME CLASSICS
Michael Curtiz’s wartime classic looks like an old relic that’s not worth your time. Yet this film is one of the all-time greats – a wonderful cast, great story, quotable script, and fantastic direction. Rick, the owner of a nightclub in occupied Casablanca must juggle Nazis, spies, and a love triangle. When you get a chance read up about the moment Curtiz got star Humphrey Bogart to enter the scene and nod, with no context. That nod starts one of the greatest and most emotional scenes in the whole film.
The background of this shot is a smaller scale to make them seem farther away – a technique Snyder discussed using in the trailer shot of Aquaman.
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
Billy Wilder’s witty film has one of the best narrators (already dead in a swimming pool in one of the first shots) and is a wicked takedown of silent movie stars, the brutal Hollywood system, and the monstrous egos of fame.
A down-on-his-luck writer agrees to edit a script by ageing, faded movie star – then her manipulative feelings complicate matters.
12 ANGRY MEN (1957)
Reginald Rose’s classic play about the injustices of the American justice system is brought to life by Sidney Lumet in this wonderful piece of claustrophobic drama. Set entirely in a jury room in New York as the twelve jurors argue over the guilt, or innocence of a poor teen charged with murder, the film, starring Henry Fonda looks fantastic.
Watch how Lumet changed the use of lens and camera angles to make the room look smaller and more claustrophobic as the stakes and the tension rise.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)
Scottish filmmaker Alexander McKendrick moved from light-hearted Ealing Comedies in the UK to helm his gritty and stylish drama set in the clubs of New York. The brilliant Burt Lancaster stars as the famed gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker, with Tony Curtis as his downtrodden flunky Falco.
The story is great, the characters brutal, and the light hitting their faces in the nightclub is beautiful.
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
Billy Wilder had HUGE success with this hilarious comedy. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are unbeatable as two musicians from Prohibition Chicago who go on the run from the mob disguised as women in Sweet Sue’s All-Girl Band. And then they meet Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Cane.
Sure, the black and white helps disguise how odd the make-up may have looked on the actors, but the film looks great nevertheless.
Hitchcock terrified audiences across the globe with this film about a young woman who steals some cash from her employer then goes on the run. As the rain gets persistent, she decides to stay overnight in Bates Motel. It doesn’t end well.
Shots of Norman Bates’ stuffed animals, or the figure at the window, or the house on the hill look so damned good in the film.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
John Frankenheimer directed this political thriller with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury. Returning GIs from the Korean War have been brainwashed and one of them, now a prominent figure, may have been programmed to become an assassin. The cold monochrome aids the paranoia, and the widescreen helps with some of the mind-bending transitions that represent the soldier’s broken minds.
There are of course modern films which make the choice to use black and white: Manhattan, Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Frankenwheenie, Sin City, The Artist, and Roma. James Mangold’s fantastic Logan was also released on disc in a “noir” version.
Try the classics first though – and maybe you’ll be ready for more.
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