There’s a timeless quality to black and white films that movies in color can’t quite achieve. They possess an ethereal, almost other-worldly dimension; one that only seems to exist in black and white films. Although there were several films released in color prior to 1932, that was the year that Technicolor introduced a new color process called “Process 4.”
This process quickly became the new standard for Hollywood studios. Even in the thirties and forties then, making a film in black and white was clearly also a stylistic choice. Because of the way that black and white films play with shadow and light, for instance, it would have been inconceivable to make a film noir in color. Black and white films have artistry and beauty that color films can’t touch.
Still, some people just don’t appreciate black and white films. “It’s only for old, boring movies,” they may say, or “why watch a movie in dusty black and white when you can watch it in color?” This list is designed as a gateway for those hesitant viewers into a brave new world. For this list, a wide variety of films from around the world were chosen to concentrate on different aspects of why black and white films are so important.
This isn’t a list of the best black and white films (such an endeavor may be foolish), but rather a list of twenty-five films that exemplify the strengths of B & W movies. There were a couple of ground rules as this list was being designed. First, black and white movies that probably everyone has already seen, such as Casablanca and Citizen Kane, were not considered. Those are phenomenal, landmark black and white films, but chances are even the black and white film haters have seen them already.
Second, mostly black and white films that contain color sequences were disqualified, which is why Schindler’s List and Raging Bull are nowhere to be found on this list.
Hopefully these twenty five extraordinary works, listed here in chronological order, will help convey the magic of black and white films.
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari) (1920)
An early example of German Expressionist cinema, Director Robert Wiene’s classic horror film is a breath-taking nightmare. The chilling, fairy-tale atmosphere is thanks, in large part, to the haunting black and white cinematography by Willy Hameister.
The sets were constructed out of paper, and the shadows were painted on the walls. This effect works wonderfully in black and white, but probably would have lost all of its power if this movie was in color. From a practical stand-point, black and white films can help add to an atmosphere that color films can’t capture.
2. Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin) (1925)
Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary silent film is a staple in film classes, so it might shock you to learn how fresh and alive the movie is still, ninety years later. Eisenstein, who was also a film theorist, was one of the first directors to understand the importance of editing in order to create a certain mood or tone (his writing on the theory of montage is essential reading for any film lover).
The cinematography, by Eduard Tisse and an uncredited Vladimir Popov, is both lush and gorgeous, such as in the scene where a fleet of sailboats comes floating by, but also horrific, like during the famous sequence on the Odessa steps. Battleship Potemkin remains one of the most influential films of the 1920s.
3. The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) (1928)
One of the most intense and unrelenting films of the silent era, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc remains in a league all its own. In addition to containing a performance by Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc that is rightly considered one of the greatest film portrayals of all time, the film was also groundbreaking for its use of close-ups.
Dreyer spent lots of time and money on the meticulous sets, which is kind of funny because very little of the actual set can be seen during the film. Because of Dreyer’s use of tight, close-up shots of the actor’s faces, he creates a subtle claustrophobic sense of dread, and the viewer feels like they can’t get out.
4. M (1931)
The films of Fritz Lang have a raw power that sets them apart from the films of any other director. So many of Lang’s great black and white films could have been used here, including Metropolis, Fury or While the City Sleeps, but M was chosen because Lang is able to create a frenetic, exhaustive masterpiece that was both a German Expressionist landmark, and a precursor to the American film noirs of the forties and fifties.
Lang and his cinematographer, Fritz Arno Wagner, created a dark, shadowy underworld that could only ever be imagined in black and white.
5. Stagecoach (1939)
Like Lang, it would have been impossible to have not included a film by John Ford on this list. Though some of Ford’s best films are in color (The Searchers, for example), Ford’s understanding of the framing and composition of each shot, and the way he lit his films, was perfect for black and white.
The Grapes of Wrath and The Informer are both terrific examples of Ford’s fantastic black and white repertoire, but Stagecoach, one of his best westerns, stands out. The cinematography by Bert Glennon feels as fresh and lively as it must have to audiences in 1939; black and white films don’t age or lose their luster as color films of the period sometimes do. The chase scene, for instance, is a spell-binding example of Ford’s prowess in directing action sequences.
6. Brief Encounter (1945)
One of the many great things a black and white movie can do is use the lighting of the scene to suggest the inner struggles of a film’s characters.
David Lean, in his remarkable film version of Noel Coward’s play Still Life, does exactly that. He uses shadow and light while filming his heroine, housewife Celia Johnson, who is contemplating having an affair with Trevor Howard. Lean and his cinematographer, Robert Krasker, use subtle lighting effects to suggest what isn’t said.
7. Notorious (1946)
One of the worst things about the colorization of black and white films is that what works in black and white may not necessarily work in color. This is why colorized films are, at their essence, inherently wrong. Filmmakers working in black and white have a very specific design behind both the composition and lighting of their films, and colorization makes all that meticulous planning meaningless.
Take a film like Notorious, for example. Alfred Hitchcock made several beautiful films in color, but Notorious could only work in black and white. The film, which involves spies and Nazis in South America, itself, is a game of shadows, so it must exist in a medium that highlights the literal shadows found in the film.
8. Out of the Past (1947)
It’s appalling the number of classic films that have been colorized over the years, all seemingly to “modernize” or “better” a picture, but there are few genres that seem sillier to colorize than the film noir. Film noir is a world of darkness and little light, a world of shadows.
By colorizing film noir, they are not adding but taking away much of the impact. Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, one of the finest film noirs ever made, remains a shimmering example of why film noir works best in black and white.