Why modern films are increasingly being revisited in black and white
Film director Steven Soderbergh kept a list of every book he read, play he attended and film or TV series he watched for an entire year. The list was published a few months ago and was a fascinating look into the pop culture habits of a great director. Soderbergh spent Christmas day watching a financial double bill of Inside Job and Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. He spent New Year’s Eve reading the Bret Easton Ellis book Imperial Bedrooms, and he watched The Social Network four times before it was even released — including twice in one day. But perhaps the most interesting thing was that he watched Raiders of the Lost Ark in black and white three times in six days. It was assumed he watched it in that format to emphasise the film’s structure and cinematography. If so, he was totally right.
Raiders of the Lost Ark looks better without the colour. Off the back of Soderbergh’s preference, there’s been something of a movement to revisit relatively-modern films and re-watch them in monochrome. Fans are uploading desaturated clips to the internet to back up their case as they find more films that work better without colour. As cinemas push forward with 3D, many films fans are delighting in a return to basics.
That Raiders works so well isn’t overly surprising. The character Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created was based on the old Saturday morning matinee serials from the 1930s and the film itself was set in 1936. But it’s the cinematography of Douglas Slocombe that makes this film flourish without colour. Slocombe was already a veteran cinematographer when he began work on the film in 1980 (he’s now 98 years old) and had spent most of his career working in black and white, having credits that include Ealing Studios classics like Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob. He was the perfect choice to recreate visuals from a bygone era, with use of shadows, silhouettes and facial lighting — all essential for that medium. And indeed his work on Raiders saw Slocombe receive an Oscar nomination for best cinematography.
Not all films, however, look better when converted. Obviously the likes of Pixar films require colour, but others you’d think might work just don’t. For example, despite its film noir feel, Blade Runner needs the colour in there. The brightly-coloured neon juxtaposed with a decaying futuristic Los Angeles is vital to the look of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, even if some scenes look like they are straight from a Bogart crime thriller. This contrast is just as integral to the film as it was in The Wizard of Oz back in 1939, where Dorothy lives in monochrome but dreams in colour.
To understand why some films work better when desaturated, it’s worth looking at what film critic Roger Ebert said in his ’89 essay, Why I Love Black and White: “There are basic aesthetic issues here… Black and white movies present the deliberate absence of colour. This makes them less realistic than colour films (for the real world is in colour). They are more dreamlike, more pure, composed of shapes and forms and movements and light and shadow. With black and white, everything would tend toward a shapeless blur if it were not for meticulous attention to light and shadow, which can actually create a world…”
Directors have filmed in black and white in recent years, including Soderbergh himself with The Good German, while others have wanted to but have been stopped for commercial reasons. Frank Darabont intended to shoot The Mist that way, but investors wouldn’t let him, so a converted version appears alongside the original in the DVD release and is regarded as superior.
Colour films are always going to be a bigger draw for mass audiences in commercial terms, but if the subject, cinematography and feel are right, then re-watching those pictures in monochrome is a rewarding option. Go back to your DVD collection, make the necessary adjustments to your television set and you’ll see the modern classics in a new light, and in many cases, a more flattering one.
Ten Films that work well in black and white
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Departed (2006)
A Christmas Story (1983)
The Godfather (1972)
The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)
LA Confidential (1997)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
For Esquire magazine, September 2011
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