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TNR Film Classics: Whatever Happened to Black-and-White?

Universal Studios

How many major black-and-white movies can you think of that have been made in the last five years? I can think of five: The Wild Child (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971), Paper Moon (1973), Lenny (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974). In all five, the decision to use monochrome was both calculated and special. There was a time in the not-so-distant when using color was the choice that was calculated and special. What happened and why?

For one thing, television. The simple commercial fact is that films are worth more money to television if they are color films, and film producers care about television sales. Because television escaped from its monochrome prison some 30 years later than movies, it views black-and-white not as a stylish evocation of the texture of the past but a simple reminder of the old-fashioned junk that nobody wants to see anymore.

The five black-and-white films I recall above reveal how special, how conscious (indeed self-conscious) the decision to use monochrome has become. The Truffaut film (his only monochrome film since 1965) deliberately evokes the silvery orthochromatic film-stock of the Griffith era (just as the film’s irises do), toning the movie’s gentle, costumed study of a bygone era with a kind of celluloid that is also saturated with “historicity.” The two Bogdanovich films (his only two in monochrome) also evoke cinematic eras of the past—the dusty monochrome of socially conscious 1930s-40s “dust bowl” films like The Grapes of Wrath and The River and 1940s-50s Western films like Red River (that was also the last picture at the picture show, and that also took place in Texas). Young Frankenstein uses monochrome to echo the Universal Studio’s Frankenstein genre, emphasizing its pestilential mists, gothic shadows and sparkling electric apparatus. For Mel Brooks, monochrome is merely one element of his film’s satirical pastiche (like his use of irises and wipes) as he pulls every (predictable) trick in the (very dull) book.

Lenny’s use of monochrome is more interesting. Underlying Bob Fosse’s choice seems to be his decision to frame the study of the comedian in a documentary-style context. But not a contemporary documentary-style context (since today’s documentaries, both on television and on film, use color), but in the documentary style of the 1960s—the period in which Lenny Bruce came, saw, conquered, fell and died. But while watching Lenny I was reminded once again about how beautiful black and white can be—the way that the contrast of light and dark, of gleamingly refracted light off surfaces, of shining shape and shadowy textures could only exist in monochrome and have been lost to us, perhaps forever. I noticed the smoky chiaroscuro of the night-club sequences; the side-lighting of the interview sequences that cast soft shadows on the speakers’ faces, as if the light “just happened” to fall through a window and hit them that way; the garish top-and-bottom lighting of the strip-tease sequences that converted Valerie Perrine’s body into shining layers of marble, her abdomen and back gleaming brightly, a gray shadow of darkness sandwiched between, running from her armpits to her ankles. Since the monochrome feature film seems to be as dead as the silent film (except, like the silent film, for special, self-conscious effects), I’d like to offer a brief elegy to what has been so very recently and so very quietly lost.

Rudolf Arnheim deplored the use of color in films because it was too real, too much like nature, removing yet another of the ways that the art of film could exploit its differences from nature. Stanley Cavell, conversely, found black-and-white a more “realistic” medium, and a more dramatic one. For years (particularly in the transitional 1950s and ‘60s) it was assumed that no intimate film could be made in color. Monochrome was the medium of the “art film,” of neorealism, of the New Wave, of Bergman, Kurosawa and Bunuel, of the American Realists (Kazan, Huston, Dassin, Rossen), of Dr. Strangelove, The Hustler and The Pawnbroker. But then along came Red Desert, Blow Up, Belle de jour, Bonnie and Clyde, Day for Night, Amarcord, Cries and Whispers, Thieves Like Us, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and dozens of other intimate color films that proved that color could be just as intimate as monochrome. So the question can now be raised whether color and monochrome have any inherent effects, strengths and liabilities.

I remember once seeing a black-and-white work-print of a film that a student was shooting in color. There was one very distant, long-lens shot of a group of figures making their way slowly and laboriously across a field toward the camera. In the black-and-white print I was struck by the variety of vertical forms—of reeds in the foreground, swaying gently in the wind; in the vertical forms of the figures, growing steadily but gradually larger as they approached the camera; of the immense verticals of distant trees in the rearground, looking like dark shadows cut out of a pale sky. This sense of verticality disappeared completely in the color print that I saw immediately afterward; my eye caught the variations of yellow-orange-brown in the reeds themselves, and the variations in the colors and patterns of the clothing of the figures, and the varying shades of green in the trees, that simply contrasted with the blue sky rather than seeming like dark patches cut out of it.

In that same film, an interior scene was lit entirely by harsh, bright daylight, streaming in through windows, doors and cracks in the ceiling (the house was a dilapidated ruin). The dominant effect of the black-and-white work-print was the intensity of the shadows, the patterns of light and darkness, and the varying rough textures of the walls, floors and objects on which the light cast its glance or its shadow. The dominant effect of the color print was softer and mellower. The color of the walls and floors predominated, rather than their rough textures. Further, those colors softened the contrasting patterns of light and shadow by creating their own unity, which bridged the gulf between light and dark that was created by the lighting alone, making the wails appear a single entity with lighter and darker areas (which of course, they were) rather than a contrasting and conflicting pattern of light and dark forms. Although both views of these same scenes were pleasing, the pleasure was not the same, indeed the views themselves seemed not the same.

Black-and-white is a medium of unities and contrasts, color of individuation and proliferation. Black-and-white emphasizes shape, line, pattern and texture; color calls attention to the minute diversities of objects and within objects themselves. Black-and-white reveals the operations of light upon its opposite, darkness; color reveals the operations of light in giving birth to all the colors of the spectrum. The word “shade” has two primary meanings in reference to light. Monochrome uses one of them: shade (shadow) as opposed to brightness. Color uses the other: ail the shades of the spectrum. Black-and-white translates the shades of natural color into shades of gray, in effect translating color shades into different intensities of shadows.

On the one hand black and white are more truly opposites than any two possible shades of the spectrum. Von Sternberg’s beautiful effects with key lights (a streak of brilliant light on Dietrich’s veiled face surrounded by darkness) are only possible in monochrome. What color would that light and that darkness be in a color film? Would the light be amber (the usual color of dimness—as in candlelight, oil lanterns or low-wattage electric bulbs)? Would the darkness be blueish—the usual color of movie darkness? But then, would her hat, veil and dress be black but the darkness blue? (As opposed to the effect in Shanghai Express that her hat, veil and dress are the same shade as the surrounding darkness and even seem to be a part of that darkness.)

Of course one could shoot the scene in a color film using only white and black (like the scene in the rich man’s house in Terence Malick’s Badlandswith pure white light, black clothing and white-sheeted furniture as a background). Many of the Fred Astaire color films at MGM try to recapture the effects of his black-and-white films at RKO by shooting at least one sequence using only black-and-white costumes, lighting and decor. (After all, in top-hat and tails, Astaire literally was black and white.) Such choices in color films are simply admissions that color cannot translate the sharp antithesis of black and white into colors. They can only copy that antithesis, as if color were monochrome film.

On the other hand the varying shades of gray are all closer to one another than the varying shades of the spectrum. Whereas in his black-and-white films, the awesome rock formations of John Ford’s Monument Valley look like single entities that thrust themselves majestically upward against the light sky, in his color films one notes the ribbons of different-colored rock and marbled layers of sediment within those stone pillars themselves. When a color film wishes to produce the gentle and delicate shading of similarities that monochrome does so well, it is forced to fashion its decor from different shades of the same color (for example a scene in varying pastels of rose, pink and mauve—like “Think Pink” in Funny Face). Although such effects can be quite pleasant, they are only appropriate to intentionally artificial settings (perhaps one of the on-stage numbers in a Technicolor musical), since reality is not composed of pastel variations on a single color. Black-and-white, however, imitates reality by producing precisely these kinds of visual simplifications—a simplifying both of natural similarities and of contrasting differences.

Because the cinema is a highly visual art, the “Rule of Five” applies no less to film than to painting. (The “Rule of Five” is an approximate formula for the number of visual elements that the eye can perceive and integrate simultaneously and instantaneously. Although the precise number may be debated, the important implication is that in a spatial art the number of sensual stimuli that can be absorbed and assimilated at any one time is finite.) In the cinema the finiteness of what can be absorbed and assimilated simultaneously is even more complicated and critical than in painting. Firstly, the visual-sensual stimuli themselves are not static; they move. Secondly, there are two kinds of sensual stimuli (sight and sound) operating at once. Thirdly, there are mimetic elements (of plot, dialogue, characterization) to comprehend either through or in addition to the sensual stimuli.

Black-and-white simplifies visual stimuli into harmonious unities and bold contrasts. (One might be tempted to claim that it only exhausts two of the possible five in the rule, but I find such precise quantification shaky.) This simplification frees our concentration for such stimuli as the evocations of the faces of stars, the richness of verbal dialogue, and the complexity of narrative structure. That these were three complementary and corollary characteristics of black-and-white cinema can, I think, be demonstrated by the fact that all three are now in the same state of decline as monochrome.

Of course there are still great movie stars (Robert Redford, Gene Wilder, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman), but their total number now seems fewer than that at any of the major studios in the Hollywood era. Without the studios. stars make fewer pictures. But directors make powerful films now with unknowns or nonentities in the principal roles (2001, If. . ., Thieves Like Us, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Day of the Locusts). One reason for the decline of stars is that the human beings have more competition in the frame with them in color films, sensual stimuli that divert our attention from the humans. Stanley Cavell noted that human beings in the cinema were not ontologically favored over anything else in nature. The theory has not really been demonstrated, however, until the last decade. In the black-and-white cinema, human beings (in practice, if not necessarily in theory) were very much ontologically favored over nature. Nothing in the frame could compete for our attention with Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Clark Gable and the rest of them. One of the subtlest visual achievements of the studio era (subtle because it was not perceived as a visual effect) was that of sculpting the light around the star’s face so that nothing could be favored over him or her. That principle of lighting has gone with the studios, for the natural locations that films now prefer not only negate the idea of star lighting but make it impossible to achieve.

This same concentration of attention on the star gave more power and control to the scenarist, for he wrote what issued from those sculpted heads. If the stars are fewer and dimmer now than they were, the professional scriptwriter is virtually extinct. The most important and capable filmwriters today are the directors themselves—Coppola, Bergman, Truffaut and so on. In the black-and-white era, the two potential values of a screenplay—richness of dialogue and complexity of structure—were developed by talented men who formed a group that seems today as numerous and as important as that of the very best directors of the era—Jacques Prevert, Charles Spaak, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Ben Hecht, Dudley Nichols, Robert Riskin, Samson Raphaelson, Garson Kanin. The result could be verbal sparkle (Bringing Up Baby, Woman of the Year, All About Eve, Pat and Mike, Trouble in Paradise), evocative verbal imagery (Port of Shadows, The Children of Paradise),or a complexly literate narrative structure (The Children of Paradise; Bizarre, Bizarre; Citizen Kane; The Rules of the Game; The Big Steep; Boudu sauvé des eaux).

Not that black-and-white was not visually beautiful. It is easy to forget how beautiful black-and-white can be, for we rarely get the chance to see it properly. Prints of older films are frequently poor or poorly projected in classrooms, film societies and run-down revival houses. To see a black-and-white film on television is a guarantee not to see it, for the ultra-low-fidelity reproduction washes out the deepest blacks and purest whites, not to mention blurring all the subtle gradations between. On a color television set, black-and-white looks more like purple-gray-and-pale-pink, since the color dots still produce faint hues without any stimulus. The beauty of black-and-white is a cool, quiet, detached beauty, a beauty that perfectly suited the elegance and grace of the now classical films that used it. Coolness, quiet, detachment, elegance and grace are among those cinematic values that the new, violently assaultive, kinetically sensual films have abandoned. And color is one of their primary means of assault, violence and sensuality.

Why did Hitchcock make Psycho in black-and-white, sandwiched between almost a decade of color films before it and over a decade after it? Not simply to evoke memories of gothic and horrific film genres. The film’s delicate mixture of violent brutality, bizarre sexuality and ironic psychology required the coolness and detachment of black-and-white. Can you imagine the famous slaughter in the shower, with its black blood spotting the tub and swirling down the drain, in color? For one thing, red blood dissipates and turns pink in water. It is the darkness of the new liquid in the water that evokes our response. For another, the sight of “real” (red) blood spattered against the tub and swirling down the drain might well have been too loathesome and noxious to watch. (Think of the deliberately nauseating visceral attack of the “broken glass” sequence of Cries and Whispers.) The conversion of red blood into black swirls, lines and spots tends to abstract it, troubling our imaginations, not our stomachs. In this cinematic bloodbath, the two opposite opinions of Arnheim and Cavell are both valid. The black-and-white film removes the shower scene from the strictly natural world, increasing its appeal to our imagination and heightening our emotional participation in what seems a “real” and dramatic event. Despite all the critical concern about the violent brutality of the film when it was first released, the remarkable quality of Psycho is its cool restraint—and its use of monochrome is both a symptom and a cause of that restraint. As usual Hitchcock is the master chef at mixing nature and artifice so that the result is a genuinely horrific, or suspenseful or sexual fantasy (and usually some combination of all three).

Color can obviously be very beautiful, but if it is to be visually beautiful and dramatically effective at the same time (rather than simply colorful) it must be carefully tuned. Color can be tuned to parallel monochrome (say, Antonioni’s Red Desert with its pale gray-brown-green factory sequences, punctuated by the striking oranges and blues of the pipes); it can produce kinetic metaphors to enrich our experience of the film’s events (as in 2001, Rosemary’s Baby, Lola Montès, Cries and Whispers); it can produce thematic and symbolic contrasts (as in Mon Oncle, The Golden Coach, Juliet of the Spirits and The Wild Bunch)that underlie the film’s narrative structure. But in so many films, because directors lack the time, the budget or the eye, color is simply there.

In films in which color is simply there and black-and-white is simply there, the black-and-white seems much more beautiful. Black-and-white permits our observation of so many of those lovely accidents (“leaves rippling in the wind”) that Lumière first noticed, since its concentrated harmony and diversity calls our eye’s attention to such accidents more easily. Given the existence of filmmakers who cannot select visual beauty for the camera (and Brooks and Bogdanovich are, I fear, among those), monochrome film selects accidental beauties of necessity, since it “sees” shapes, shadows, forms and textures that the human eye cannot. Perhaps this is one valid application of Rudolf Arnheim’s theory of the gap between nature and art: if the filmmaker cannot exercise artistic choices, black-and-white film can. Perhaps for this same reason, black-and-white continues to be the primary medium of serious still photography, whereas color photography is the medium of advertising, travel folders and picture postcards. Often the “prettiest” color movies (say The Sound of Music, Death in Venice or Ryan’s Daughter)are close cousins to the picture postcard.

There is no point in bewailing the death of black-and-white, for there are too many good color films to compensate for it. Like the death of the silent film, the death of black-and-white marked the end of a style that made artistic virtues of its limitations, and the end of the kind of artists who excelled in that particular style. The theorists who moaned that the birth of synchronized sound was the death of the art of film some 40 years ago have been proved ridiculously wrong by over four decades of wonderful films. But some virtues died with silence—the genius of physical comedy, for one—and though there are compensations—for example comic talkers like the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Tracy and Hepburn—something has been undeniably lost. As with Brooks’s, Bogdanovich’s, Truffaut’s, and Fosse’s reversion to monochrome, the only way to capture the spirit of physical comedy of that earlier era is to revert to it by making a kind of pastiche (as Jacques Tati does), in the history of the arts these stylistic changes are neither losses nor gains but changes. Le style est mort, vive le style.