Where Did All The Black & White Films Go?

Media, The Arts

Remember those things? Stopped around 1960, always had Sid James in them, filled up the TV schedules all day, now gone. It was only when I searched for a black and white film on the EPG that I realised they had vanished completely, but the French film ‘The Artist’ reminded me of what we had lost by dismissing them.

My partner refuses to watch black and white; don’t get me started. But it’s clear that an entire generation has grown up who will simply shut down if a monochrome film appears, in the same way that audiences for talkies stopped watched silents. Again, ‘The Artist’ showed why a silent film can sometimes work as well.

But I’ve found that some B&W films leave haunting images in your dreams, far more than their colour equivalents. And Hollywood noirs existed for their wonderfully dramatic shadows. Top Twenty Best Black and White Film lists often include Psycho, Top Hat, Sunset Boulevard, Touch Of Evil, The Seventh Seal, Metropolis, Portrait of Jennie, The Third Man and Some Like It Hot, but not my own favourite.

As a consequence I’ve rejoined the NFT to see some of these again on a big screen with the shared experience of being in a (usually) full auditorium. Here’s my personal best monochrome movie, Jack Clayton’s astonishingly disturbing ‘The Innocents’, with photography by Dougie Slocombe (I still have trouble watching the scene with the goodnight kiss).

‘The Innocents’ remains the polar opposite of a Hollywood Thud & Blunder film like ‘Transformers’, because real emotions are ignited by silence and space, thoughtful calm and distance, the way you would actually experience the appearance of a ghost.

10 comments on “Where Did All The Black & White Films Go?”

  1. Mal Dando says:

    The Night Of The Hunter would have had less visual impact if it was shot in colour.

  2. Sparro says:

    I feel it comes down to the artistic creator (director or designer in most cases) being in control of the medium. When there was no choice and all films were monochrome, the top artists in their fields learned how to get the best from what they had but doubtless there were disastrous failures in manipulating the medium; it’s just that we remember the all-time greats, and ocassionally have to re-discover the subtle gems, as you have done here, Chris.
    People who can only accept b&w movies as ‘films without colour’ would presumably have trouble listening to ‘telly without pictures’…or radio as it is termed.

  3. FabienneT says:

    I adore, adore, adore Black and White films! Just last Sunday, we went to see Jacques Tourneur’s awesome Night of the Demon. We have a very good local film production company called The White Bus and they organise cinema evenings and film festivals in Southend (there will be a new horror film festival in January 2013 and I am hoping for loads of old classics!)
    Sorry, but I think that people who refuse to see B&W movies are really missing out on a lot of stuff.

    “‘The Innocents’ remains the polar opposite of a Hollywood Thud & Blunder film like ‘Transformers’, because real emotions are ignited by silence and space, thoughtful calm and distance, the way you would actually experience the appearance of a ghost.” This is a wonderful quote!

  4. Gretta says:

    Remember that horrible phase when people were taking these great old films and ‘colourising’ them? ACK I’m sure a special circle of Hell awaits those people. And so it should.

    Some Like It Hot(my all-time fave) just could not be in colour. Ditto Third Man, To Have And Have Not, Key Largo, etc. As Sparro says, there was a special art involved in filming in B+W, and different ways needed to be employed to get the message across. Of the modern B+W movies, Good Night And Good Luck would have been far weaker if it were in colour.

  5. Susan says:

    B&W films encourage me to focus more on the story and the characters as they develop. There are no splashy colors or other visual distractions. The B&W masters pared it down to present a flow of strong visual and emotional images. B&W films always leave me feeling more intimate with the story, because my mind has to actively engage in order for the story live. One isn’t spoon fed the distraction of splashy colors. As you noted, the “silence and space” paired with “thoughtful calm and distance” pull the viewer in and make it a much more realistic and personal experience. After a minute or so I don’t even notice that it’s B&W – I’m in the story.

    Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, I live in an area of the American Northwest that provides access to B&W films, both silent and talkies. And I’ll keep going to see them as long as they are out there to be seen.

    I’ve never seen Transformers or any of the other “kill-as-many-as-you-can-and-die-in-a-blaze-of-glory” Hollywood trash and have absolutely no desire to do so. Partly because I have a strong desire to preserve my hearing, but mostly because the 14-yr-old male demographic has no appeal for me. There is a reason that most of the contemporary movies I watch are foreign films.

    By the way: Love the term “Hollywood Thud & Blunder” – I’d not heard it before and it is absolutely spot on.

  6. Kevin says:

    This refusal to watch something because it is in black and white mystifies me. It would mean that I would be turning down the chance to watch Casablanca, I Know Where I’m Going, A Canterbury Tale, A Hard Days Night, School for Scoundrels, The Happiest Days of Your Life, and almost anything else with Alistair Sim/Margeret Rutherford/Terry Thomas in.

    What sort of life is that?

  7. Gretta says:

    Ahh yes. The Green Man. Alistair Sim and George ‘it beats as it sweeps as it cleans’ Cole. Must dig that out of the dvd collection. Brilliant stuff.

  8. Roger says:

    Until the 1970s black-and-white film was cheaper and the cameras lighter, which meant there were often economic reasons for using b&w. When John Boorman wanted to make The General in b&w in the 1990s, it cost more to get the film required.

    “But I’ve found that some B&W films leave haunting images in your dreams, far more than their colour equivalents.”
    Most of our dreams are in b&w. We colour them in our memory.

  9. keith page says:

    The best black and white tv series are still worth watching , although I grant you there are probably not many in this category.The original BBC ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ remains one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen.

  10. Ken M says:

    They didn’t all have Sid James. They may all have had Sam Kydd.

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