Hands up all those who thought people use to live in a black and white world. When I was a kid I actually believed that Earth was once a colourless place. Well, it wasn’t a thought so much as an assumption. All photos and footage I saw of the "olden days” were black and white or sepia. I therefore assumed that colour hadn’t been invented prior to 1960 and just like the metaphor colourless meant boring. In with that I lumped black and white cinema. Monochrome movies were from the pre-colour era and were therefore crap. They were from a time when explosions, guns, car chases and bare boobs had yet to be discovered and I surmised that there was no fun to be had from watching a dusty black and white film. Fortunately I realised that I was being a complete nincompoop and the rainbow hadn’t been discovered by a lab-coated hippie in the summer of 1961. But my belief that colourless movies were rubbish hung around and I avoided black and white films like a dreary old Aunt at a family gathering. It took something mind blowing to breakdown my preconceptions, a monolith of horror cinema so powerful it could not, nay, would not be denied; George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). For a film this momentous colour mattered not. Romero only filmed using black and white stock because it was the cheaper option at the time. The movie often appears older than it is, released two years prior to the seventies but looking like it sprung from the hey-days of drive-in theatres. Romero showed me that colourless movies could be enjoyed, thoroughly so. In fact, shades of grey can enhance mood in ways that full-on Technicolor can’t. Romero’s film had documentary qualities, a sort of news-reel, cinema verité feel that made the on screen action less schlock and more shock. With one successful black and white adventure under my belt I boldly strode into colourless cinema, scraping away the years of pessimism as I unearthed all kinds gems. For this FFF article there are too many to mention; Nosferatu (1922), Metropolis (1926), The Great Dictator (1940), Casablanca (1942), Sunset Boulevard (1950), On The Waterfront (1954), Psycho (1960), Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Ed Wood (1994), La Haine (1995), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). You’ll find some of these treasures in other articles but here are the ten best movies that gave colour the heave-ho.
- DUCK SOUP (1933)
To pick just one Marx Brothers film above the rest is a tough task. They are all so joyous those with only a passing interest in the comedy troupe would be forgiven for blending their on screen escapades into one long rowdy adventure. That and the fact that most people only remember Groucho’s famous quips, not the movies they come from. But the pick of the bunch is Duck Soup (1933), the last film to feature the quartet of siblings before Zeppo left to open a talent agency with lesser known brother Gummo. By the time Soup rolled around the boys had their act honed to a tee, years of onstage and on camera antics ironing out every crease. Lead sibling Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly a bounder and scoundrel elected the president of Freedonia via the wooing of the effluent Mrs Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). But when Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhorn) from neighbouring Sylvania pursues Teasdale, Firefly declares war. Perfecting their brand of tomfoolery meant that Soup had an ultra lean running time of sixty minutes, barely qualifying as a movie in today’s age of two week long Lord of the Ring epics. But consider this hour plus eight minutes as the Marx Brothers distilled to their most potently funny brew, the quartet steered marvellously by director Leo McCarey. There’s no filler here. Groucho’s cheeky one liners are some of his best "I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield”, whilst the baldy slapstick never fails to amuse even now. An underlying satirical stab at the madness of war, a whole thirty year before Kubrick tried the same comedic trick with Dr. Strangelove (1963) elevates the film above the rest of the Marx’s brother charming back catalogue.
Tasty Morsel – Groucho explained the film’s unusual title thus "Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup the rest of your life!”
- BICYCLE THIEVES (1948)
It doesn’t always take a mind bending plot and a budget of millions to create movie magic. Italian cinema has always had a taste for bucking expensive Hollywood trends for a more authentic story telling experience. The neorealist movement of the late forties and early fifties embodied this spirit of genuine movie art. Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (1948), translating to Bicycle Thieves, is one of the most revelatory of the movements offerings. Much like life, the story offers little of that Hollywood drive for neat story twists or jovial endings. De Sica’s picture is a bitter sweet watch, a poignant story, beautiful to behold and touching to see. Based on the novel of the same name by Luigi Bartolini, we follow Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), a man desperate for work in order to look after his family. He is thrilled to be given a job putting up posters around his home city of Rome but to carry out the work Antonio needs a bicycle. His wife agrees to sacrifice some bed linen in order for Antonio to get his bike back from the pawnbroker. But no sooner as he got his two-wheeler, it is stolen by a young thief. Antonio begins a desperate search for his bicycle with his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola). What could have been a corny relationship between father and son is tempered by the realities of an austere post-war Italy and the situational anger of the people Antonio encounters; De Sica wisely swapped sentimentality for affecting realism. The simplicity of Antonio’s plight, and his desperation to achieve that most basic of goals, to care for his family, rings truer than in any movie before or since. That it effortlessly draws such empathy from the audience without relying on hackneyed story telling conceits, whilst remaining beautifully shot, is just one of the reasons the film remains in high regard over half century since its original conception.
Tasty Morsel – De Sica insisted on using a cast made entirely of actors, turning down the opportunity to cast Cary Grant in the lead role of Antonio.
- SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)
Everyone loves a good team-up, a band of mismatched heroes coming together to defeat the odds. It’s a blueprint that Hollywood has been milking for years, from The Dirty Dozen (1967) to The Expendables (2010), but it wasn’t a formula Hollywood came up with. You can thank Japan’s most legendary director for inventing the ensemble action piece. Akira Kurosawa had already made a name for himself by 1954, even outside of his native Japan, thanks to the undoubted quality of the epic Rashomon (1950). Post war Japanese cinema was fairly light on home grown heroes though, and away from the Land of the Rising Sun cinematic heroes tended to be of the lone variety with only a hapless sidekick for company. Kurosawa would use his clout to change all that. The solitary protagonist mutated into a mixed bunch of characters, and Kurosawa took a full three hours to flesh out his new super team. We meet Kambei a veteran solider who is comes to the aid of a local village that is being hounded by bandits. To protect the village Kambei sets on recruiting a kick-ass team of allies, a line-up that would form the basis of nearly all fictional action squads for years to come. Gorobei, the intelligent second in command, Katsushiro the young inexperienced rich kid, Heihachi the comedic witty aside, Shichiroji the faithful old friend, Kikuchiyo the temperamental one, and Kyuzo the super skilled quiet one. Picking out which of the seven heroes will survive to see the final credits, and praying out favourite lives to fight another day, is all part of the fun. Amongst the archetypal story telling Kurosawa sprinkled his trademark directorial magic overseeing every aspect of production to create a tight picture with sensibilities way ahead of its time. True landmark cinema.
Tasty Morsel – Director John Sturges lifted Kurosawa’s story and dumped it into the wild west to create The Magnificent Seven (1960) six years later.
- THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)
Charles Laughton’s black and white classic The Night of the Hunter (1955) was not well received upon its release. This has to be attributed to the limited understanding of the reach of cinema at the time. The silent era had shuffled off only two decades prior. Sophisticated thriller films that fingered semi-taboo themes were a stretch too far for audiences and critics of the mid-fifties. Based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, we follow Harry Powell, a serial killer and self proclaimed Reverend who learns from his prison cellmate Ben that he has a hidden stash of money. Failing to convince Ben to tell him the whereabouts of the secret loot before Ben’s execution, the now free Harry tracks down Ben’s family believing his children know the location of the treasure. Weaning his way into the family, Harry woos Ben’s wife and begins his slow interrogation of little John and Pearl. By 1955 director Laughton was a veteran of the movie industry. Having begun his career on the stage he graduated to moving pictures in the nineteen twenties. By 1955 he was schooled in just about every aspect of the movie industry. He brought all this talent to The Night of the Hunter and the result was a film ahead of its time. The large number of audacious shots, such as the underwater car scene, helped the film stave off the premature Hollywood aging process. The film’s other leading light was Robert Mitchum as "Reverend” Harry. Mitchum wrote the rulebook on quiet menace and his brings the full power of his malevolence down on poor John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), tattooed knuckles and sinister hymn singing included. It was a talent Mitchum called upon to great affect again in Cape Fear (1962). In 2002 a note worthy documentary by Robert Gitt entitled Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter was produced using restored achieve footage and outtakes; a wonderful companion piece to a wonderful original movie.
Tasty Morsel – Grubb’s story was inspired by the true story of Harry Powers who was executed in 1932 for the murder of three children and two women in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
- THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)
If Ingmar Bergman’s Det Sjunde Inseglet (1957) was remade today Block the Knight and Death would have clashed wits over a game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare rather than good old fashioned chess. It wouldn’t have looked the same though; there is something symmetrically and cinematically appealing about a game of chess, especially when filming in black and white. Director and writer Ernst Ingmar Bergman is Sweden’s greatest export. His movie making techniques have influenced writers and directors for years and his films have garnered enough awards to sink the hardiest of mantelpieces. But his most celebrated picture arrived just thirteen years into a sixty one year movie career. Inspired by a passage from the Book of Revelations, Bergman wrote and directed a tale that weaved its way down numerous alleyways of faith and death. We follow the medieval knight Antonius Block (MaxVon Sydow) who returns to his home country of Sweden after years spent battling in the Crusades. His country is in the grip of the plague though and when setting foot on the beach Block encounters Death (Bengt Ekerot) himself, replete in his now trademark black hooded robe. Hoping to delay his passing into the afterlife, Block challenges Death to a game of chess; Death accepts. It was terrific story conceit of Bergman’s to intertwine Block‘s fate, and the fate of his loved ones, with this most well known of pastimes. Instantly familiar and replete with connotations, "You are black” states Block, "It becomes me well” replies Death, the game allows Block to revel in one final contest as he draws what little life and comfort he can from this last battle of wits. Equal to Bergman’s clever story telling is the much lauded cinematography of Bergman cohort Gunnar Fischer. The film’s visuals are more than equal to story’s many layers and themes. Of course, all great pieces of art are ripe for the mimicking and The Seventh Seal has been lovingly roasted numerous times, most notably in the films unlikely comic parallel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991).
Tasty Morsel – The usually sceptical Bergman listed the film as one of the few he has made that is a favourite.
- DR. STRANGELOVE; OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1963)
Stanley Kubrick may just be the most prolific film director of all time. Rather than plough a furrow in a favourite genre or two he took a stab at every major category of cinema. In so doing he produced a nigh-on perfect movie in each of them, horror The Shining (1980), sci-fi 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), war Full Metal Jacket (1987). But comedy is not the easiest of film genres to get right, especially for a man who preferred the darker side of fiction. But Kubrick was wise enough to obtain the services of one of very best comedic actors, the inimitable Peter Sellers when plotting his one and only chuckle movie. Comedy genius that he is Sellars was allowed to take on no less than three major roles in the movie, Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and the titular Dr. Strangelove. Though the former Nazi Strangelove usually steals all the retrospective plaudits, all three are works of comedic brilliance, the dialogue of Mandrake and Muffley reaping untold chuckles, "Strange thing is they make such bloody good cameras” after the pantomime of Strangelove wears off during repeat viewings. Sellars had solid support from an on form George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and Slim Pickens, with all of them handling their dialogue with just as much zip, "Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff”. The movie’s anti-nuclear sentiments are fairly obvious, but the giddy madness of the situation tempers the laughs with a nice nervous twinge; if George "Dubya” had accidental pressed the big red button you could well imagine similar lunacy taking hold beneath the White House. To cap off the film’s mutual assured destruction thrust Kurbick wanted to conclude with a massive food fight, hence the lavish buffet seen in the war room. But Kubrick ended up cutting the scene, stating that it did not fit in with the film’s satirical tone. Slapstick pie fight or no, the movie is still a comedy masterpiece.
Tasty Morsel – Keep an eye out for a young James Earl Jones aboard the B-52 bomber.
- NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
There isn’t much left to say about the Godfather of Zombie. The key to a film of more mature years is to see if it still plays well in modern times, and few black and white movies sit as comfortably in the twenty first century as Romero’s ode to the undead. The combination of slightly cheap visual and colourless presentation makes Night seem even older than its forty odd years. So when the "ghouls” start to nosh on human body parts the astonishment is even more profound. "Damn, take a look at this old film from the forties” you’ll say, "Its actually showing people getting eaten”. But the first episode in the Dead series arrived just two years shy of the nineteen seventies. Romero’s breaking of new ground didn’t stop at horrifying violence though. At a time when America was still persecuting its African American populous the director placed a black actor in a lead role. And a fine job Duane Jones does as Ben, one of a small group trapped in a farmhouse by a homicidal zombie mob. As the film exclaims via newsreel snippets the recently deceased have been coming back to life, using their limited motor functions to attack and eat people. Taking cues from Rio Bravo (1959), the film builds on the growing tension inside the house as the increasingly desperate survivors conspire to survive the night. Refreshingly, Romero went for a downbeat conclusion providing no happy ending and no neat solution to the undead predicament. Indeed, the cannibalistic chaos continued for another five sequels (Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009)). The original picture received an excellent remake in 1990 and a less impressive 3-D remake in 2006. Disappointingly the original movie has also been "treated” to two colourisations, replacing the black and white with garish colour. The 1999 30th Anniversary re-jig also added some unnecessary new scenes.
Tasty Morsel – Being a black and white movie Romero was able to utilise chocolate syrup for fake blood during filming.
- MANHATTEN (1979)
The Big Apple has a knack for attracting black and white photographers. There’s something about the cavernous avenues and geometric streets that lends itself to colourless presentation. Think about every arty canvas you’ve seen in furniture stores up and down the land; chances are a good number of them show the Brooklyn Bridge or the Empire State Building in various shades of grey. It’s an odd concept for such a colourful place but the combination works. Colourless New York photography had been around long before Woody Allen’s ode to the city that never sleeps. But Manhattan (1979) captured the Big Apple so brilliantly it cemented the trend. Coupled with Allen’s sharp wit and human observation, the film stands as the pinnacle of the director and actors cinematic work. The movie follows writer Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) who is attempting to write a book detailing his love of New York City. In a mirror to the director’s own curious love life, Davis is dating the seventeen year old Tracy, but when he also starts dating his best friends ex-lover the story takes a captivating stroll down complication lane. The interplay between the friends and lovers of the story, Diane Keaton (rejoining Allen after the success of Annie Hall (1977)) and Meryl Streep among them, is absorbing, and all backed by some of the best cinematic photography of all time. Long time jazz fan Allen concocted the idea for the film whilst listening to the music of George Gershwin. Musing that it would be a wonderful idea to shoot a black and white romance to a Gershwin soundtrack, Allen chose his home town for the backdrop. It is Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue that can be heard over the opening Manhattan montage. Many more Big Apple moments follow, most notably the early morning shot of Queensboro 59th Street Bridge, leaving you to wonder why all films aren’t captured in the contrasting beauty of colourless film.
Tasty Morsel – Allen disliked his finished film that much he offered to shoot another movie for United Artists for free if they promised not to release it.
- RAGING BULL (1980)
Nothing adds gravitas to an historical recounting like black and white footage. Because we all know they never had colour before the nineteen fifties, right? To shoot the biopic of boxing legend Jake La Motta director Martin Scorsese dispensed with colour. Not that the legendary filmmaker needed to add weight to his film; he had Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in front of the camera for the first of their stirring duets for that. An adaptation of La Motta’s own 1970 memoir Raging Bull: My Story the movie charts La Motta’s rise and fall thanks to his extraordinary talent in the ring and his uncontrollable rage and paranoia outside of it. La Motta does capture the Middleweight world title but has to tangle with the mob and take a dive in the ring on the way to the belt. But the gold around his waist does little to temper Jake’s demons and his extreme jealousy over his young wife Vickie leads to a vicious beating for his brother and manager Joey (Pesci). With Joey gone Jake’s career nose dives, the boxer losing his title and eventually landing in jail. De Niro quite rightly scooped the Best Actor Oscar for his work, most notoriously his four stone weight gain to play the older, more bloated Jake. But often overlooked are Joe Pesci as Joey and Cathy Moriarty as Vickie. Pesci was in only his third film role, but adjusted to the significant step up in screen time like a seasoned veteran. Even more startling Moriarty was making her movie debut. That the actress had never appeared on screen before is astonishing. She is the equal of De Niro at his scene chewing best during their moments of domestic hostility.
Tasty Morsel – A sequel, detailing La Motta’s early life and titled Raging Bull II: The Continuing Story of Jake La Motta is tentatively in the works.
- SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)
Steven Spielberg was such a good director by the early nineties the man was probably starting to wonder what he had to do to get that ultimate seal of approval from the Academy. His mammoth struggle to deliver the masterpiece Jaws (1975) should have already sealed the deal fifteen years prior. But despite spreading his talent across all genres of cinema, including such Oscar friendly fare as the historical epic (Empire of the Sun (1987)) and the human drama (The Colour Purple (1985)), the Best Director statuette still eluded him. Whether Spielberg was aiming for Oscar glory or not his follow up to monster blockbuster Jurassic Park (1993) would surely nab him the award; the director was tackling the Holocaust. As a Jewish director it seemed fitting that Spielberg tackle this most delicate of subjects. But rather than a crass recounting of the horrors of what happened the director needed an inspiring tale of hope to contrast what many already knew was one of the darkest periods in human history. Spielberg found the perfect material in Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark and set about bringing Oskar Schindler’s story to cinemas. Schindler was a German businessman caught up in the Nazis drive to eliminate as many Jews as possible during World War II. To save them from the Nazis concentration camps Schindler employed them in his factory, insisting that they had the skills he needed to keep the factory going. The films major roles required some broad acting shoulders, and Liam Neeson as Schindler and Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth, the main Nazi antagonist, gave the performances of their careers. Though the film was criticised by some for not portraying the full horrors of the Holocaust, Spielberg handled this most difficult period of human history with the care and delicacy it deserved. His use of small instances of colour, most infamously the girl in the red coat, were sparks of filmmaking expertise masterfully designed to highlight the reality of the situation during a traditional World War II / black and white presentation. Quite rightly the Academy bestowed the film with the Best Picture Oscar and Spielberg with his long overdue directing statuette.
Tasty Morsel – The movie stands as the most expensive black and white movie made to date.