Updated: Oct 24, 2022
It’s no epiphany to point out the richness of certain films shot in black and white. From the enduring metaphor of duality inherent in the form (including all of the “greys” in between) to the timeless purity of the visual expression of light and shadow—movies in black and white are rightly a genre unto themselves. In the beginning it was a necessary restraint, but over time its continued use has shown its unique value. Here are three of our favourite black and white films, chosen for their particular adeptness at using the deceptively complex, nonbinary medium.
1. The Sadness of Veronika Voss (1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
What struck me when I first watched the film in the early 10s was the absolutely gorgeous photography. Sure, it was in black and white, and so often the connotation with b&w is that it is “old” or made to look “old on purpose”; yet here was a film that looked downright futuristic to me, in the best way that 80s futurism could look (which is to say, more futuristic than today’s world or movies look). The images, quite often more white than black, and frequently blasted with crystalline brightness—itself wonderfully at odds with conventional ideas of the medium—were so warm, so clear and modern, that almost immediately it was clear that this was better than watching some 4k UHD production from circa 2017 on Netflix in the brightest colours possible. If there’s one thing that black and white has symbolized both in the 1920s and 2020s, it’s the noir attitude, which is a state of mind more than any kind of subject matter signifier. The noir attitude of Voss encapsulates East German frustration, the inherently hardboiled setting of now-antiquated newspaper offices, Berlin train stations, the shadow of Nazism and the current specter of Communism, and not least, the eternal pitfalls of fame won and lost. The theme of Time manifests on its own, of memories (“made of this”), of a future always promised but never, as we have seen in real life, at which we actually arrive. Thus as we watch we are kept rapt in the continuous present.
2. Touch of Evil (1958, Orson Welles)
From the first tracking shot on we know that we are in another world, a Brechtian, false world of a master magician that somehow seems completely real. We know it’s a giant set but somehow live in the border town along with the characters. We laugh at Charlton Heston in brownface and geri-curl (an absurd casting choice that thankfully today would never happen), at the bloated Welles with his fake nose who is both avuncular and diabolical, yet completely buy them as legit characters. We delight in Janet Leigh as voyeurs, as villains——keeping her as Welles does trapped in the male gaze while she continually shows her strength of character to never flee or back down from her oppressors. I was continually reminded of Psycho, obviously because of Leigh, and I kept thinking Welles must have seen her in Hitchcock’s classic and chosen her for the role (until I realized this film was released four years before Psycho and it must have been the other way around!) Leigh plays much the same kind of character—the victim of male lust—as she does in Hitch’s film, and she is perfectly cast; all of which is endlessly intriguing. Concerning the form, the sense of perspective in this film is truly amazing. There are times where it felt like I was watching a midnight matinee version of Slacker, with that Texas charm everpresent, the lonely yokel’s good humour abounding, of real life footage shot in the streets of Austin with non-actors, while elsewhere it was like the best of Hitchcock, Guadagnino, Coen Brothers—masters of control—all wrapped into one. As is common with Welles, the visual debt that future generations of filmmakers owe this man is so strikingly apparent that sometimes a scene is overwhelmed by the references future films would make. Also at times one forgets the form altogether, which shows that there is still the heart of a rascally magician at the helm. That the same person who made this also made F for Fake is enough to cement Welles as one of the best directors of all time. He is certainly one of the most influential.
3. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
As beguiling and scary as it was when it shocked audiences in 1960, Psycho might be Hitch’s best (although two other b/w’s come close—Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Strangers on a Train (1951), with screenplay originally written by noir author extraordinaire Raymond Chandler); but it may also be the best black and white movie of all time. But before we continue to speak on the godfather of all slashers, let’s get one thing clear—Best doesn’t always mean good, and it certainly doesn’t always mean Good. The craftmanship of Psycho is undeniable; if you watch the superb documentary 78/52, which devotes its entire runtime to a single scene of Hitch’s horror masterpiece, you’ll get plenty of experts who are still gobsmacked by the pure technical brilliance on display. It’s very clear that all of Hitchcock’s previous oeuvre was all building up to this; that this was a definitive statement that he was not only a studio director, but an auteur. Craftmanship aside, it is one of the most misogynistic films ever made. The reason why it is so captivating is because it embraces—maybe better than any other film ever made—what can only be a supremely unfortunate genetic trait in some males, namely, the sexual arousal caused by hurting women, “beautiful” women especially. While I agree with Edgar Allen Poe’s quote that the death of a beautiful women is the most poetic thing in the world, I don’t think I share his, or Hitchcock’s, willingness to indulge in such “material.” Anyone aroused by the sight of a nude Janet Leigh (which must obviously include a significant percentage of the entire world’s population, of any gender or sexual preference) is at the mercy of someone’s—Bates, yes, but really Alfred—intentions from the beginning of the film to murder her. It doesn’t sit well with me, but this movie is “great” in the same way that The Shining is great. I just hope to keep the line drawn for myself about where quality of aesthetic achievement ends and moral responsibility begins. Hitchcock, as important to future filmmakers as Orson Welles, lives perpetually in that place where Art reminds us that life is not so easily explained and many dark truths are there to be found for would be movie detectives. Keep your code, moviegoers. Beware!
This acidic trio is just the tip of the proverbial monochromatic iceberg. What are your favorite b & dubs? What kind of vibes and atmospheres spring from the form for you? Leave your comments—on the movies above or your own—below, and don’t forget to brew an extra dark pot of Colombian Supremo tonight at midnight, and pop your fav in the ol bluray player!