The civics teacher had an inspired idea: bring American jurisprudence to life by showing the class an award-winning 1957 film. Twelve Angry Men had all the requisites of instructive high drama: suspense, as one juror tries to change the minds of 11 others hell-bent on sending the accused to death row; crackling dialogue, written by Reginald Rose, a luminary of television’s Golden Age; a scintillating cast, led by Henry Fonda and directed by Sidney Lumet. The title flashed on-screen—immediately followed by a chorus of groans. One 15-year-old wailed for all his disappointed colleagues: “You didn’t tell us it was going to be in black-and-white!”
The place was New Rochelle High School in Westchester, New York, but the same scene could have played across the United States. The owner of my local video-rental place puts it succinctly: “Most of our customers are under 30. The way they see it, life is in color, so why not movies? Which is why we stopped offering black-and-whites, except for the classics. You know, Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Schindler’s List, maybe a couple of Woody Allens.”
If that’s the current standard, libraries will soon begin removing volumes of poetry from their shelves. After all, life is in prose, so why not books? Alas, what the customers don’t realize is that B&W cinema remains vital, and often beautiful, because it’s not a reflection of everyday existence.
Still, youthful viewers’ resistance is forgivable: they’re merely recapitulating biology. Our retinas have two main components, rods and cones. Rods (about 3 million per orb) can perceive only black, white, and shades of gray, but that’s enough to keep us from tripping over the furniture in a darkened room. As soon as the lights snap on, 120 million cones take over. Their job: to register red, yellow, blue, and every hue in between—and we forget how important the rods were just moments before.
This is the story of American cinema, encapsulated. Black-and-white film was Hollywood’s principal offering from the silent era to the late 1930s. Then, curious ticket buyers began flocking to rainbows like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz—the Technicolor era had opened. Confined to lower budgets, B&W producers and directors battled back. Emphasizing narrative, they came up with fresh pictorial techniques: stark, angular shots; tight close-ups of the stars; backgrounds that evoked a vital sense of place. En route, they insisted on lean, incisive scenarios and musical scores that enhanced every emotion from pathos to hilarity. The good fight continued until the early 1960s, when filmmakers finally ran up the white (and black) flag. From that point on, color reigned supreme.
Screenwriter Daniel Fuchs wrote of the B&W era: “An excitement filled the theater, a thralldom. People forgot they were sitting on the seats; they forgot themselves, their bodies. They lived only for the film.” Gregg Toland, the greatest cinematographer of his generation, never shot in color. He and his A-picture directors, including John Ford, Orson Welles, and William Wyler, preferred to give audiences the sense that they were watching a suite of etchings. Who needed color when the haunting landscapes of Wuthering Heights materialized on screen, as if photographed in Emily Brontë’s nineteenth century? Or when Citizen Kane’s deep-focus montages breathed life into the story of a fatally ambitious press lord? Or when The Best Years of Our Lives made an American epic out of the interrupted lives of three World War II vets?
Toland came to prominence when Technicolor was a rarity. But the greatest cinematographer of his generation, Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), worked in both media. He came to dislike color because it tended “to be very unreal, to detract from the story. Whereas with black-and-white, there’s no way to detract, once you accept it, which is right at the beginning.”
The Western bears him out. Oaters would seem to need wide blue skies and panoramic Technicolor shots of Monument Valley. Yet it was two B&W Westerns that set the genre’s style: High Noon, with Gary Cooper as a stoic sheriff forced to face evil alone; and Red River, starring John Wayne as the domineering boss of a cattle drive. That film prefigured Wayne the intractable conservative—deeply suspicious of youth (in this case, Montgomery Clift)—who would go on to codirect the pro–Vietnam War movie The Green Berets. Not long after Red River wrapped, someone encouraged Wayne to take a more nuanced look at politics. The superstar exploded: “They tell me everything isn’t black-and-white. I say, why the hell not?”
Comedy is another genre with deep B&W roots. A huge number of the last century’s most important comedians established themselves in black-and-white: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Jimmy Durante, Jean Harlow, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Abbott and Costello, Rosalind Russell, Jerry Lewis—the list of pantheon figures goes on for pages. As soon as color arrived, though, clowns wound up on the sidelines. Jimmy Durante now played second banana to Esther Williams’s water spectaculars; Danny Kaye, MGM’s brightest comic star, found himself interrupted by chorus lines of Goldwyn Girls; Bob Hope, so funny with Bing Crosby in the Road pictures, became a leering embarrassment in such tinted, tasteless features as Call Me Bwana and I’ll Take Sweden.
Many dreary farces came in black-and-white, of course, but the great comedies have never been equaled. In 2000, the American Film Institute published a movie list entitled “100 Years, 100 Laughs.” Nearly half were in B&W—and they remain the funniest, ranging from It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, to the immortal Bank Dick, with W. C. Fields, to Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, an audacious anti-Nazi comedy starring Benny and Lombard. A gross Technicolor remake, directed by Mel Brooks and starring Brooks and Anne Bancroft, bombed 40 years later.
As for musicals, sure, you can name glorious Technicolor examples—adaptations of Broadway fare like The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and Oliver!, along with such originals as Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. Yet even these take second place to nine black-and-white Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers movies. Almost every great songwriter journeyed west to work with Astaire in the pre-color period, among them Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, and Cole Porter. Berlin, usually parsimonious with praise, said, “You give Fred Astaire a song, and you could forget about it. If he did change anything, he made it better.”
So did Rogers. Astaire danced with other women in other movies, but the magic was no longer there. No matter how farcical or chaotic the plot, Astaire and Rogers established an island of elegance and passion. Their dancing “was a vehicle of serious emotion between a man and a woman,” dance critic Arlene Croce observed. “It never happened in the movies again.”
Other musical events never happened in the movies again, among them Busby Berkeley’s lavish ballets. In the early 1930s, cameras whirred so loudly that they had to be encased in cumbersome, soundproof boxes, which limited choreographers. Berkeley had his musical numbers prerecorded in a studio, leaving him free to place the cameras wherever his imagination wandered: in the air, on the wall, in a swimming pool. Dancers arranged in geometric patterns became Berkeley’s signature and transfigured Warner Brothers movie musicals from 42nd Street until the advent of color, after which Berkeley’s career rapidly deteriorated. One can still detect his influence in the stage work of director Susan Strohman, notably in the Broadway productions of The Producers and Young Frankenstein.
But comedies and musicals are only a part of the B&W period—and not the most influential part. Screen biographies (“biopics” in trade jargon) burgeoned in the modern color era, and sometimes the filmmakers got them in focus (Patton, for example); far more often, though, the Hollywood assembly line has churned out Technicolor mistakes like Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, which never captured its subject’s genius. An earlier Hollywood, by contrast, knew how to do the biopic right, especially the patriotic kind (these days, major studios would rather set fire to their back lots than produce a pro-American film). During World War II, for instance, Warner Brothers released Yankee Doodle Dandy, centered on the life of composer/performer George M. Cohan and featuring James Cagney in a magnetic, strutting performance. “It seems it always happens,” observes Cagney as Cohan. “Whenever we get too high-hat and too sophisticated for flag-waving, some thug nation decides we’re a pushover all ready to be blackjacked. And it isn’t long before we’re looking up, mighty anxiously, to be sure the flag’s still waving over us.”
Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper as a World War I hero, was another black-and-white example of triumphant biographica Americana. So were two stirring films on the country’s most prodigious inventor—Young Tom Edison, with Mickey Rooney in the title role, and Edison the Man, starring Spencer Tracy as the grownup genius—and three movies about our most beloved president: Abraham Lincoln, with Walter Huston; Young Mr. Lincoln, with Henry Fonda; and finally, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a Raymond Massey vehicle. Massey spent the rest of his life doing variations on the Lincoln theme; jealous rivals said he wouldn’t be happy until someone assassinated him.
Paul Muni, who never appeared in a Technicolor film, was the master of the biopic, vanishing into whatever personality he chose to impersonate. The multilingual actor, who came to the U.S. as a child, had been a master mimic since his days in the Yiddish theater. In his thirties, he went through a naturalization ceremony, speaking in a heavy Mitteleuropa accent, squinting as if he didn’t quite understand each question. During the interrogation, his accent slowly diminished. He delivered the final answer in impeccable English. Muni smiled at the dumbfounded official. “Your honor, it’s remarkable. Now that you’ve made me a citizen, I can speak perfectly!” He showcased his versatility as a Mexican president in Juarez, a French novelist in The Life of Emile Zola, and a French scientist in The Story of Louis Pasteur, for which he won an Academy Award.
Muni proved so good that he spawned many imitators—frequently miscast. Films like A Song to Remember, starring a vigorous Cornel Wilde as the consumptive Pole Frédéric Chopin, and Night and Day, with Cary Grant as a heterosexual Cole Porter, may have prompted Jack Warner’s remark, “Every time Paul Muni parts his beard and looks through a microscope, we lose a million dollars.” If Muni was the classic underplayer, Charles Laughton went over the top with B&W impressions in Rembrandt and The Private Life of Henry VIII. Hollywood both admired and feared Laughton, who could lurch from low-key to manic in a nanosecond. After Jamaica Inn wrapped, Alfred Hitchcock sighed, “You can’t direct a Laughton picture. The best you can hope for is to referee.”
The actor became his own referee when MGM let him direct one film, 1955’s The Night of the Hunter, which has become a B&W cult classic. Critic Roger Ebert considers the story of a tattooed religious maniac (Robert Mitchum) and the widow he terrorizes (Shelley Winters) “one of the greatest of American films . . . an expressionist oddity, telling its chilling story through visual fantasy.”
Hunter crept close to one of the most vital B&W genres: horror. Back in the day, blood ran black, faces were pale even before they registered fright, and studio art directors had to create Transylvanian castles out of whole cloth and two-by-fours. In The Bad and the Beautiful, the second-best black-and-white film about Hollywood, producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) lets Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) in on a secret:
Shields: Put five men dressed like cats on the screen—what do they look like?
Amiel: Like five men dressed like cats.
Shields: When an audience pays to see a picture like this, what do they pay for?
Amiel: To get the pants scared off ’em.
Shields: And what scares the human race more than any other single thing?
Amiel: The dark.
Shields: Of course, and why? Because the dark has a life of its own. In the dark, all sorts of things come alive.
Amiel: Yeah. Suppose we never do show the cat men. Is that what you’re thinking?
Shields: Exactly. . . . Now, what’ll we put on the screen that’ll make the backs of their necks crawl?
Amiel: Two eyes shining in the dark.
Shields: A dog frightened, growling, showing its fangs.
Amiel: A bird, its neck broken, feathers torn from its throat.
Shields: A little girl screaming, claw marks down her cheeks.
The scene shifts to a child actress caterwauling in the setting that they’ve just described. The horror film turns out to be a smash.
The outstanding B&W horror films always suggested more than they showed, and those ominous hints allowed them to reach deep into the viewer’s psyche. Parodists have gotten a lot of mileage out of Béla Lugosi’s lines in Dracula: “My blood now flows through her veins. She will live through the centuries to come, as I have lived.” And: “To die . . . to be really dead . . . that must be glooorious.” But no actor has come close to Béla’s unique amalgam of nobility and evil, his narrow eyes lit by tiny spotlights, his Hungarian intonations suggesting bottomless pits of depravity.
Similarly, dozens of actors have played Frankenstein’s monster. None, however, could convey the pathos of William Henry Pratt, a Canadian who wisely changed his name to the more exotic Boris Karloff. The creature was mute in the original film, but in the compelling sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, he uttered a few words. “We belong dead!” continues to be quoted as the expression of a contemporary terror—the fear that scientists are on the verge of creating a genetic nightmare in their laboratories.
The horror field is rich with B&W curios. Few viewers under 50 are aware that Spencer Tracy played Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde opposite Ingrid Bergman; that the handsome leading man Tyrone Power did his best work as a geek (someone who bites off the heads of living chickens to horrify audiences) in Nightmare Alley; and that Freaks, the story of deformed circus performers, was so graphic that Britain banned it for 30 years.
Other than specialists like James Whale (Frankenstein) and Todd Browning (Dracula), only a handful of talented directors ventured onto this exotic turf. Hitchcock was one. He characterized his job as “simply to scare the hell out of people,” and after creating frissons with such stylish color films as North by Northwest, he set to work on a B&W piece about the strange goings-on at the Bates Motel. Psycho turned Hollywood tradition on its ear. The director knocked off the star, Janet Leigh, in the first third of the movie, leaving viewers nonplussed. Then, with a combination of weird camera perspectives, menacing shadows, and Bernard Herrmann’s eerie score, he did indeed scare the hell out of people. The original Psycho, produced for $800,000, grossed $10 million. Unfortunately, it also encouraged a slew of lesser talents to make Technicolor trash like Halloween and other hackneyed screamers.
Film noir got its name from French cineastes. The term refers to hard-edged, downbeat movies, with iconic heroes and antiheroes, “bad girl” temptresses, and a brooding, dangerous atmosphere. More than 60 years after it was made, the quintessential noir movie remains Double Indemnity, director Billy Wilder’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s thriller of betrayal. The story concerns an insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), bedazzled by a steamy adulterous wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Together they conspire to get rid of her husband. The lethal romance begins with crackling, double-entendre intensity:
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30? He’ll be in then.
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren’t you?
Neff: Yeah, I was. But I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour.
Neff: How fast was I going, Officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around 90.
Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Neff: That tears it. Tomorrow evening, then.
Phyllis: That’s what I suggested.
Neff: You’ll be here, too?
Phyllis: I guess so. I usually am.
Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Neff: I wonder if you wonder.
Dietrichson’s killing is made to look like an accident. Neff’s buddy, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), is an insurance investigator in the same office. He believes that the mishap was actually murder and spends the rest of the film vainly attempting to identify the killer. Double Indemnity ends with Neff shot by Phyllis, bleeding to death on the office floor as he makes his confession.
Neff: You know why you didn’t figure this one, Keyes? Let me tell you. The guy you were looking for was too close. He was right across the desk from you.
Keyes: Closer than that, Walter. (The eyes of the two men meet in a moment of silence.)
Neff: I love you, too.
As the name implies, film noirs have usually come in shades of black. True, there have been Technicolor imitations—Body Heat, L.A. Confidential, Chinatown, dramas in which the protagonist, in classic style, winds up lured by a conniving woman into a maelstrom of greed and corruption. But these films would have been impossible to make without their B&W predecessors: Lady from Shanghai, with Rita Hayworth as the femme fatale and Orson Welles as her prey; The Blue Dahlia, with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake as victim and victimizer; Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer; and any one of a dozen Humphrey Bogart movies. No one can truly understand American cinema without seeing The Maltese Falcon, with Bogie as Sam Spade and Mary Astor as the villainess; The Big Sleep—the first meeting of Bogart and the future Mrs. B., Lauren Bacall; and their second pairing, To Have and Have Not. (“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”)
B&W films relied heavily on trenchant lines like that, one reason why so many have entered the conversational mainstream. Marlon Brando uttered his most famous words in his fourth movie, On the Waterfront: “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” (Twenty-six years later—in Raging Bull, a black-and-white biopic about Jake LaMotta—Robert De Niro paid homage by repeating those lines, word for word, in the boxer’s dressing room.) Gregory Peck’s advice in To Kill a Mockingbird summed up race relations better than any editorial: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Bogart was at his most romantic when he said good-bye to Ingrid Bergman at the Casablanca airport: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Bette Davis’s warning in All About Eve has echoed down the decades: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” As has Groucho Marx’s recollection in Animal Crackers: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” And Joe E. Brown’s forgiving comment in Some Like It Hot, when he learns that the woman he loves is a female impersonator: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Another genre fills the end-of-the-year TV schedule: the Christmas movie. Most films in that category rerun without leaving a trace, but there are some notable exceptions. It’s a Wonderful Life, made in 1946, has become as endearing and perennial as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. For three generations, families have eagerly repeated the words of Henry Travers in the role of Clarence the Angel. Attempting to save the suicidal George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), Clarence shows what would have occurred in George’s absence: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Another B&W perennial also unreels every December. Cornball it may be, but Miracle on 34th Street, also a film from the 1940s, still beguiles little boys and girls, thanks to Edmund Gwenn’s persuasive portrait of a white-bearded gent hired as a Macy’s Santa and Maureen O’Hara’s turn as a skeptical mother whose child believes that he is the genuine article.
No doubt the permanence of these movies has to do with their era. They’re suffused with the postwar euphoria of the late 1940s, when rationing had disappeared from the American scene and the only items in short supply were cynicism and self-doubt. More recent Christmas films attempt to be colorful rather than fantastic and to use irony rather than faith and goodwill. Even the titles bear mocking subtexts—Scrooged, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Santa Clause—as if any display of sentiment would mark the filmmakers as squares in an edgy world. Black-and-white has no place here. It speaks directly to the heart, and that’s not often the organ that modern movies hope to stimulate.
Some two decades ago, Ted Turner came up with one of his most dubious schemes. To entice the young back into the tent, he ordered minions to banish B&W films by colorizing them. “Those fools!” Billy Wilder exploded. “Do they really think that colorization will make The Informer any better? Or Citizen Kane or Casablanca? Or do they hope to palm off some of the old stinkers by dipping them in 31 flavors?” Other directors added their own catcalls. “To change someone’s work without any regard to his wishes shows a total contempt for film, for the director, and for the public,” said Woody Allen. (Allen had deliberately rejected color when he made Stardust Memories and Manhattan “because the city photographs so well in black-and-white. And New York is so familiar to me in black-and-white, probably because of growing up with the tabloids.”) Elliot Silverstein, an officer of the Directors Guild of America, wasted no time with niceties: Turner’s people were “lifting their legs on people’s work.” And when Orson Welles heard that Kane might be colorized, he growled: “Keep Ted Turner and his damned Crayolas off of my picture.”
Those damned Crayolas were put away in the mid-1990s when Turner and his techies met two unexpected hurdles. First, the price of colorization became prohibitive. Second, viewers joined directors and critics to complain about the process’s ludicrous comic-book tones. From that point on, we’ve been able to see features the way their creators intended.
Ironically, some of the greatest American B&W movies now regularly show on the Turner Classic Movie channel. They’re also available online from Netflix, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other sites. The curious searcher can find the atmospheric Sherlock Holmes mysteries, every Astaire-Rogers musical, the archetypal horrors, a five-DVD set called The Ultimate Film Noir Collection, such early sci-fi adventures as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and much, much more—including the best Hollywood movie about Hollywood: Sunset Boulevard. In that film, a down-at-the-heels screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden), meets an aging B&W star (Gloria Swanson). “You used to be big!” he exclaims. Haughtily, she replies: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Skeptics can test the truth of her remark easily enough. Hit a few computer keys and order some B&W classics. Once seen, these major American films cannot be unseen—as those New Rochelle teenagers can testify. Ten minutes into the screening of Twelve Angry Men, they stopped complaining. The next day, they asked to see it again.