October 2, 2023

Watching Black & White Films

Sometimes I have a need for black and white films and it’s not a precious whim or retrogression—it’s a recognition, a hunger. It has nothing to do with pining for unreality or an escape from our human world. If anything it’s an escape into the human world, a place the seventh franchise of a cartoon action hero can’t take me or computer enhancement digitally fix—it’s a way of facing life.

Of course it’s impossible for anyone whose earliest movie memories include those Technicolor spectacles of the ‘50s not to have an appreciation of color in film. When Gordon MacRae lopes into the frame on horseback singing that the corn around him is as high as an elephant’s eye our disbelief doesn’t have to be willingly suspended—we pop it with wanton insouciance like a gum bubble, and when Grace Kelley and Cary Grant tear along The Corniche in that convertible we feel her pink scarf streaming back from that swan neck and far below The Mediterranean is a coruscation of teal.

Still, when we’ve watched Atticus Finch at work in that courtroom we have no need of remembering the various tints of small-town suits or shirtwaists, complexion or hair—we’ve felt the tension and the seething creep of sweat, and we never forget sticking to those wooden benches, waiting for justice to break. And once we’re introduced to Edward G. Robinson as Rocco in Key Largo, smoking that cigar in the bathtub, we do not have to know the colors of his henchman’s tie as he stands at the door to know that it is garish—and we will always know the uneasy cruelty of thugs when we see it and remember that soap suds can be the slime of pure evil. When in The Best Years of Our Lives our breath catches along with hers as Myrna Loy knows for a split second before she knows and turns from that kitchen to see Fredric March at the end of that hall, it’s because an entire universe comprised of them and us and complete in itself is catching its breath. And in the last scenes of Brief Encounter there is no distraction whatever from the pure fire of emotion that bonds us with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard and, together, draws us ineluctably toward a fated conclusion.

Film can be many things, not solely “the latest thing” showing at the multiplex or one’s neighborhood theatre. It has the potential to be a fascinating and utterly absorbing continuity of cultures, of life. Out of the entirety of human history we have been privileged to live in the very first century in which human beings could witness themselves “alive” on the screen—a previously unimaginable and tremendously significant new way of experiencing social history.

There are several good reasons why some of our contemporary directors occasionally make black and white films (to name just a few—Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Kenneth Branagh, David Lynch, Tim Burton, the Coen brothers, Pawel Pawlikowski who won the 2015 Best Foreign Film Oscar for Ida) and why others express the desire to.

Color is seductive and color is life and who would want a world devoid of daffodils and undistracted by the fathomless blue of October skies? But at times we need recalibrating, and black and white takes us somewhere outside our kaleidoscopic slice of life, this crowded hour on the rushing cusp of which we live. Black and white film takes us outside time, to those places in which our life is largely made—light and shadow—the architecture of images stripped bare, a truer artifice, the most eidetic reality, the stuff of memory and of dreams. It takes the quickened eye, unfettered by pigment and hue, deeper, its tonalities speak directly to our heart, and once seen, these films cannot be unseen.

So, in those final moments of Now, Voyager, when Charlotte tells Jerry not to ask for the moon when they have the stars, we’re not wondering about the shade of Davis’s lipstick or what color Henreid’s jacket or the drapes may be—there is nothing but the final swell of Steiner’s score, the two glowing cigarettes lit from one, that one small strip of territory they must protect, the window opened to the night, and their eyes fixed on one another forever.

– Hadley Hury




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