For most of the movies’ existence, we’ve had the ability to show color. Nothing personifies the transition from black and white to color more than that immortal transition in The Wizard of the Oz, when the movies took the audience from the bleak colorlessness of everyday life into the beautiful colors of Victor Fleming’s adaptation.
It’s weird, then, that many modern directors’ greatest film making achievements are in black and white. One benefit of it, besides the beauty you can capture without color, is that it may be hard to tell which decade a movie came from. It can make a movie timeless, which is good when you’re talking about subjects like WWII and the Holocaust. To celebrate 100 posts, here is a look back at movie history at directors’ ventures into a world without any vivid color, and how it paid off for them.
Film: Raging Bull
Scorsese’s scathing examination of boxer Jake LaMotta speaks to the violent heart of humanity, and is widely considered the best film of the 1980’s and of all time. The black and white helps accent the fog and smoke that surrounds the boxing ring, simultaneously enveloping and illuminating the troubled Italian boxer. It is one of the director’s best films, and Robert DeNiro gives one the greatest film performances all time as LaMotta. It feels like a classic as you watch it, a vibe any movie would kill for.
Film: Schindler’s List
Widely considered the definitive movie about the Holocaust, Schindler’s List is Steven Spielberg’s best movie for many reasons. One, the epic scope mingling with intimate humanity was something that is rarely done so well in movies. Another is that Liam Neeson and the script don’t put the subject up on a pedestal, and as a result we are more captivated and intrigued by him. Also considered one of the best films of all time, Spielberg achieved both a crowd-pleasing tear-jerker and an insightful look at both one of the biggest atrocities committed by the human race, and one of the kindest acts in the midst of it.
Lars von Trier
Also focusing on the WWII time period, experimental Danish provoc-auteur Lars von Trier chronicles an American train operator who discovers a Nazi resistance conspiracy in the aftermath of the war. Von Trier’s stylistic cinematography is some of the most beautifully rendered I’ve ever seen, and the espionage and intrigue bypasses film noir and is instead something entirely different, but no less entertaining. The haunting narration by Max von Sydow draws you in, and the rest of the movie keeps you there from start to grisly finish.
The Coen Brothers
Film: The Man Who Wasn’t There
In almost all of their movies, the Coens exploit noir, but here they do a dead-on imitation of it. The film’s cinematography is some of the most beautiful in any Coen movie. They may be taking the visuals seriously, but the plot still takes a spin on traditional noir thrills. Focusing on an unfulfilled barber (Billy Bob Thorton), The Man Who Wasn’t There may not sound like the most intriguing movie. It’s darkly hilarious, and even thrilling, and the depth added by the BW makes it one of the Coen’s most underrated films.
Shot in black and white because color was too expensive, this cult comedy launched a new wave of vulgar laughs that also had heart. A jumping-off point for anyone curious how Judd Apatow rose to fame, the career of Kevin Smith is filled to the brim with nerdy dudes learning from each other and lambasting the system. Two friends who work in the same strip mall interact with customers and contemplate life in the most hilarious of ways. Though not the most polished movie you’ll ever watch, you can learn a lot about comedy and life from Clerks.