In Praise of... Black and White Films

Any photography app worth its hashtags features a black and white mode. It’s as much a part of the tech shebang as filters. In this hypersaturated mega mega-pixeled era, it seems we just can’t get away from the eternal beauty that is black, white and the grayscale between. It is simultaneously austere and flattering. Totes arty as the millennials might say.

Many of us, of course, can remember when black and white wasn’t a choice. Like national service, short back and sides and the poetry of John Laws, it was pretty much mandatory. Especially if you wanted to catch the latest goings on at Number 96.

But where the format really shone was film. Every few years, some hip director who is inordinately fond of the word “zeitgeist” rediscovers the sheer monochromatic magnificence of the medium. And we get titles such as The Artist and Nebraska as a result.

But you know what? The rest of them can keep their CGI and digital cameras that can pick up every pore on Angelina Jolie’s nose.

Black and white gave generations of screen goddesses the ethereal allure necessary for the title. It flattered and cajoled like a teenage boy working up to ask the prettiest girl in school to the prom.

Twelve-feet tall and in a flickering beam, Ava, Marilyn, Joan and Bette didn’t look like people you saw on the streets of Adelaide or Melbourne. And that was precisely the point. Call me a misty-eyed nostalgic but I prefer my Katharine as a Hepburn not a Heigl and Bacall over Beyonce.

Cary _gant _katharine _hepburn _holiday _1938
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in the 1938 film 'Holiday'

Lest you write this reminiscence off as a priapic stroll down mammary lane, let’s get to the likes of Cary and Cagney. Black and white was ideal for portraying men who saw the world in precisely these terms. Enigmas in dinner jackets with flinty faces, and hearts that would never be broken again. Even if it meant a lifetime of last drinks and loneliness.

If this all sounds rather romantic, no apologies are made. That was the point. Because when you stepped out into the Technicolour sunshine of Australian daylight, you blinked to not only accustomise your eyes to the light but the fact that you were no longer beside Charles Foster Kane’s bed as he breathed his enigmatic last.

Of course, the technology exists to colourise pretty much any film you care to mention but this Pantone migration has not taken place. Want to know why? No one wants to see the hues of Rick’s Café Americain, let alone its proprietor. It’s better than fine as is.

From a craft perspective, the filmmakers simply did not have the luxury of a rainbow to create a sense of foreboding or fantasy. What they had at their disposal was light and shadow, perspective and dimension. Not to mention the European expressionist grounding that gave rise to an American artform as idiosyncratic as jazz: film noir.

Aesthetics aside, black and white films also throw down a visual challenge to the viewer; they make you recalibrate the image and subliminally add the colour yourself.

Or not. You have the option.

It is as much a cinema of inference as exposition. Take the shower scene in Psycho as an example. Do you think the infamous shot of Janet Leigh’s blood gurgling into the shower drain would be any more chilling if it was red instead of grey? We say no.

What director Alfred Hitchcock asks viewers to bring to party is the finishing touches, the custom viridian spoutings of their nightmares. The original plasma screen if you will.

So roll on black and white, roll on. Down in front and pass the Jaffas.

What are your memories of black and white films? Let us know in the comments below.

Images: (feature) Casablanca © Warner Bros. 1942; (in-text) Holiday © Colombia Pictures 1966

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