9. The Third Man (1949)
If there was just one film that could be shown to explain the power and beauty of black and white images, that movie would probably be Carol Reed’s masterpiece, The Third Man. The dark, rain-soaked streets of post-World War II Vienna come to life thanks to Reed and his cinematographer, Robert Krasker.
There are sequences in this film that would have been impossible to portray well in color, such as Harry Lime’s appearance in that doorway, or the climactic pursuit in the sewers. This remains one of the great film experiences at least in part due to the magic of its black and white imagery.
10. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
“Children…” Actor Charles Laughton’s only film as director, The Night of the Hunter is one of the great American films. The film’s black and white cinematography, by the legendary Stanley Cortez, helps create the creepy, sinister Grimm’s fairy tale-like atmosphere of the film.
Just like in a fairy tale, the villain is a wicked step-parent, in this case the evil Reverend Harry Powell, played by Robert Mitchum in one of his very best roles. Like Todd Browning’s Dracula or James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, its power to terrify has not diminished; one reason must be because of the black and white.
11. Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
One of the great cinematographers of the 20th century, James Wong Howe was able to push the art of black and white to its limits. Nicknamed “Low-Key Howe,” he was known for his low-cast lighting of his shots. Howe’s compositions invited darkness, and his body of work shows a mastery of playing with the shadows within the frame.
Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success may stand as Howe’s most outstanding achievement. The film explores the seamier side of the New York show biz scene, as represented by Burt Lancaster’s domineering columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis’ pathetic, unethical press agent Sidney Falco. Howe’s work here helps add to Lancaster and Curtis’ brilliant performances.
12. Cairo Station (1958)
Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station is a highpoint of Egyptian cinema, and is a film that deserves to be seen by a wider audience. If Cairo Station cannot be categorized as a film noir, it nonetheless shares several key noir ingredients: including a femme fatale, unrequited love, characters that live in the shadows and a protagonist pushed to the breaking point by lust and desire.
Like Pier Paolo Pasolini or Vittorio De Sica, Chahine casts his film not with typical looking stars, but with people who look like they’ve really lived. There’s harshness to these faces; a reality that many films ignore. Alevise Orfanelli’s harrowing black and white cinematography captures the grit and grimness of film noir, without the Hollywood feel.
13. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Otto Preminger’s terrific courtroom drama is a gripping, engrossing movie that features a superb ensemble cast, starring James Stewart in one of his best roles.
This is a film that just feels right in black and white. Sam Leavitt, the film’s director of photography, has created a film whose stark, lush black and white stands in sharp contrast to the twisty, labyrinthine nature of the plot. All of these elements help create a classic of its genre.
14. L’Avventura (1960)
Much like how Seinfeld was incorrectly referred to as “the show about nothing,” when in fact it was intricately complicated; so is Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura similarly unjustly remembered. Many viewers recall not much happening in its 143 minute running time, when in truth, this film is about a great many things. Remember, the film’s central mystery was never Antonioni’s point anyway.
The film seems to be more about loneliness and neediness, and about the way we create a specific identity for certain people (the film is in many ways reminiscent of Vertigo). Aldo Scavarda’s lush, evocative cinematography reveals the rocky, cragged, barren landscape of the island where the disappearance occurs, and the black and white photography seemingly conceals hidden truths.
15. Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Few classic works of cinema polarize serious film-going audiences as much as Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad does. On the one hand, it is routinely touted by critics as a mainstay of world cinema; the late Roger Ebert, for instance, wrote a compelling and convincing entry for it in his Great Movies series. On the other hand, many critics find it pretentious and boring; Michael and Harry Medved included it in their book on the fifty worst films of all time.
If Last Year at Marienbad is to be considered a masterpiece, and it is, it is in large part due to the sinister and ominous tone created by the black and white cinematography by Sacha Vierny. The film has an unsettling undercurrent which helps make it utterly unforgettable.
16. Yojimbo (1961)
Yes, Sergio Leone owes a debt to Akira Kurosawa, since A Fistful of Dollars is basically a retelling of Yojimbo, with Clint Eastwood in the Toshiro Mifune roll. Then again, Kurosawa and co-writer Ryûzô Kikushima based their screenplay on Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest (which has been the inspiration for several other films).
Really, all of Kurosawa’s black and white films are incredible, but Yojimbo has a dark humor and playfulness that needs to be seen to be believed. Master cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa shoots the film with his usual eye for detail; one wonders if he knew he was laying down the groundwork for a new kind of Western.
17. The Exterminating Angel (1962)
There really is nothing like a Luis Buñuel film; they have a style and texture all their own. He had a perverse, unique sense of humor unlike any other important filmmaker. Like in many of his films, The Exterminating Angel takes a scathingly satirical aim at the upper class. In the movie, the guests at a haughty dinner party are unable to leave. The exact reason is never explained, thankfully.
Buñuel has created a darkly comic, barbaric, apocalyptic vision of excess. The crisp cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa plays in sharp contrast with the increasingly desperate and depraved behaviors of the dinner patrons.