It’s enjoyed a comeback in recent years but is still widely ignored by directors – here we look at movies that could have been made in monochrome
Manhattan, Casablanca, Ida, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, even your drunk Instagram selfies – they all look better in black and white. Cinema’s love affair with monochrome – once enforced by technology – was reignited recently, with Frances Ha, Computer Chess and A Field in England hitting theatres in the same autumn of 2013. The aesthetic choice was inspired, but restricted to indie filmmakers with enough cachet to stomach fewer punters buying tickets.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska was an elderly man’s nostalgic tour of a greyscale landscape. It could only be in black and white. Except it was shot in colour at the request of Paramount, who hoped Payne would back down during production. He didn’t, and the threat of a colour version lurks on a studio executive’s hard drive somewhere, an upload away from breaking a director’s heart.
Other filmmakers are not so lucky. Oscar hopeful Mad Max: Fury Road is, according to George Miller, superior in black and white. You paid to see it on a big screen, possibly in 3D IMAX, and then again the following week, but the director’s vision is locked away in an editing suite, decaying in its purest form. Here’s a look at which films could be improved with a black and white makeover. Don’t think of it as throwing shade – just applying it in a tasteful way.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from filmmaking spurred a peculiar hobby. Rather than twiddle his thumbs, the director recalibrated Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones adventure – the first one with the melting faces – into black and white, and posted it on his blog as a lesson in staging. By removing the colours, he challenges viewers to study the movement and length of each shot. “At some point,” he writes, “you will say to yourself or someone THIS LOOKS AMAZING IN BLACK AND WHITE.” And this is me saying to you it truly does, especially when Harrison Ford peers under lightning. Take note, YouTube weirdos who upload full-length movies that get taken down for copyright infringement – if anyone asks just remove the colour, call it educational, and blame it on Soderbergh.
THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994)
The Coen brothers’ misunderstood masterpiece is a tribute to 1940s screwball comedy, although not everyone agrees on its the authenticity. To many critics, the stylised dialogue is cold and old-fashioned, belying the film’s technical wizardry and flights of fancy. A black-and-white design would convey the warmth of its protagonists – humble heroes of the Old Hollywood tradition – while completing the visual homage to Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Howard Hawks. The same applies to The Big Lebowski, a loose remake of The Big Sleep, and Intolerable Cruelty, otherwise easily mistaken for just another product from the rom-com assembly line.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)
Michael Haneke explained that his WWI nightmare The White Ribbon was shot in black and white to create distance from the time period. This philosophy could apply to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a WWII movie set in an alternate history where Hitler dies in a theatre and words are spelled incorrectly. Tarantino considered it. His original screenplay planned for a whole chapter – the subtitled chunk when Mélanie Laurent hatches the scheme in Paris – to be filmed in “French New Wave black and white”, paying tribute to the cinematic quality of Godard and Truffaut.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (2015)
The movie version of your tube carriage’s favourite S&M novel was a box office success, delivering to competitors the kind of spanking not considered pleasurable. That said, excuses were still bandied around by customers, ranging from a pretence of irony to “oh, you know, I’m curious to see how bad it is”. Yeah, right. Still, no shame should be attached, and a monochrome sheen would have alleviated the awkwardness of a solo ticket. It’s just catching a classy arthouse movie, except it’s in a multiplex, and you can pretend the sex is artful because it’s shot in 50 shades of a character’s surname.
KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005)
Shane Black’s LA noir detective story creeps along the shadows of a city swarming with crime and corruption. Mostly set at night, it lives and breathes black-and-white cinema, even name-checking Lady in the Lake in a chapter title. According to Black, bright colours were desaturated in post-production, as he didn’t want it to look like a typical comedy. He should have gone all the way. In black and white, Robert Downey Jr really would wake up in a Raymond Chandler story, where pulpy dialogue is made tense by creeping about in darkness.
When Park Chan-wook’s revenge thriller Sympathy for Lady Vengeance was released, cinemagoers had the option of an alternate “fade to black and white” cut, whereby the colours gradually desaturate as the film progresses. It’s a playful concept more appropriate for Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, a punishing tale of a distressed father whose search for his missing daughter turns him into a bloodthirsty monster. At nearly three hours, Prisoners is energy-draining, presumably to replicate the ongoing anguish of its protagonist, and a slow greyscale crescendo to a monochrome finish would befit the narrative arc: an ordinary man’s decaying faith in God.
THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY (1999)
Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train became a black-and-white Hitchcock classic, and history should have repeated with The Talented Mr Ripley – another Highsmith adaptation about betrayal, homicide and also a train. The crime noir’s costume designers even confirmed the clothes were coloured according to levels of innocence, which clarifies why so many of the dangerous figures wear black – check out Matt Damon taking off his white jacket seconds before committing murder. It’s designed for black and white and sets up the Mediterranean scenes to echo Michelangelo Antonioni’s similarly themed L’Avventura.
QUIET CITY (2007)
Aaron Katz’s Quiet City is black and white on its poster, but not in the actual film. As it is, the mumblecore “drama” (not much happens in it) is one of the genre’s most visually pleasing entries, despite a non-existent budget. However, a cursory glance at In Search of a Midnight Kiss – another mumblecore movie mostly just two people milling about – suggests a missed opportunity. When restricted to such ordinary surroundings, it’s a headscratcher why all lo-fi films don’t just join the black-and-white club.
JACK AND JILL (2011)
Jack and Jill is the agreed low point for Adam Sandler (let that sink in), in part because he plays both title characters. True, it’s distracting, but a monochrome makeover would solve the conundrum. After all, Some Like It Hot was filmed in colour but converted afterwards when Billy Wilder realised it’d make the disguises look less phony. And surely there’d be comedy to be found in a dumb premise presented in tasteful black and white. Think of it as being bored in a 3D movie and removing the glasses out of curiosity – it really can’t get any worse.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)
“The best version of this movie is black and white,” George Miller claims, “but people reserve that for art movies now.” This elusive cut, finalised by Miller and his colourist, still hasn’t seen the light of day, despite promises it’d appear on the Blu-Ray. “It can get really tiring watching this dull, desaturated colour unless you go all the way out and make it black and white.” Well, now he’s just being cruel. Sadly, for all its subversion and nonsensical tangents, Fury Road is evidence of black-and-white cinema’s obstacles. Until Miller drunkenly or petulantly uploads the edit himself, we can only dream of one day seeing the Doof Warrior guitarist in all his black-and-white glory.