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Top 10 Must See Black and White Films

By Riley Webster · February 12, 2013

I think we sadly live in the generation least likely to enjoy a black and white film that the world has yet seen.  Rarely is one watched, much rarer that one is made.  This isn't supposed to sound elitist or snobby; simply melancholy that such a great and beautiful medium as black and white photography is an almost extinct animal (the recent Best Picture win for The Artist doesn't really count as a resurgence).

Throughout history, there have been literally thousands of masterpieces that have no colour at all.  This list hopefully doesn't simply encapsulate the classics that have been around for decades, because there have indeed been several wonderful black and white films of recent years.  Of course, what list could go without mentioning the few that didn't quite make the list? 

I had to say goodbye to such masterpieces as Dr. Strangelove, Metropolis, Nosferatu, Battleship Potemkin, Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Killing, All Quiet on the Western Front, Persona, 400 Blows, and Diabolique, as well as the great Hitchcock flicks Notorious, Spellbound, Shadow of a Doubt, and Strangers on a Train.  But I guess the two that will make the most glaring omissions are Citizen Kane and Casablanca, both of which are generally considered among the finest films ever made.  For me, while they are indeed both excellent, they simply don't move or grip me as much as these others (Citizen Kane I honestly found dull as dishwater until last year, when I saw it in theatres and finally got why people love it so much). 

But anyways, here are my top 10 black and white films.  Take it or leave it.

10. Pi

The most recently made film on this list, Darren Aronofsky's debut film Pi uses black and white for budgetary reasons more than aesthetic — Aronofsky simply couldn't afford to print colour film, so they chose very grainy black and white stock.  But what was originally a necessity became a true gift, because it's hard to imagine the surreal, disturbing, and schizophrenic Pi working as well in full colour.  Aronofsky is already one of the most talented writer/director's of this generation, and Pi put him squarely on the map.

Starring Sean Gullette as a paranoid mathematician who slowly loses his grip on reality when confronted by rival mathematicians, violent gangs, and apparently the number of God himself, Pi is a visual marvel of low-budget audacity.  The camera and editing are constantly on the move, as frenetic and chaotic as Gullette's own sanity.  And the music (filled with techno songs and a score by longtime Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell) is the perfect accompaniment to the madness on screen.

Piisn't a film of long monologues or memorable dialogue — the script is tight and lean, without an ounce of fat (the film itself clocks in at only around 75 minutes).  But the movie isn't brilliant because of it's literary qualities; it's a great flick because of the true feeling of madness it instills, much like the best of David Lynch's works.  It's creepy, disturbing, and trippy as balls.

9. Passion of Joan of Arc

While all the other films on this list have been circulating my life for many years, often going so far as to having been watched 20 times over the past decade or so by myself, Passion of Joan of Arc is a brand spanking new one.  I've only seen it once, and this was just a couple months ago, but I was blown away by the incredibly overpowering achievement.  No longer can I label Metropolis and Battleship Potemkin as the best silent films — Passion of Joan of Arc is an absolute epic, heart-breaking and breath-taking.

The film by Carl Dreyer (which was long thought completely lost, until being randomly found in a janitor's closet in the 80's), was one of the very few made by the director; a crying shame, given the talent clearly on-screen.  It was also the only screen performance of Maria Falconetti, which is even more depressing, because she gives what could quite possibly be the most powerful female performance of all time (Pauline Kael, the famous critic, once said it was the best performance of all cinema).  She's stunning as Joan, the warrior barely able to focus on her devotion to God during the last hours of her life.  Her eyes, her face, her expressions reveal nothing short of continuous sadness and terror.

Passion is an unbelievable flick.  Dreyer films it all in real time, during Joan's final day, and almost completely in claustrophobic close-up's.  The now-added-in music "Voices of Light" gives the film a beauty that would otherwise be lost.  If you're only going to see one silent film in your life, this is the one.

8. The Seventh Seal

I've already spoken about the greatness of The Seventh Seal in one of these lists, called "Best Films Directed by a Writer", if you haven't already checked it out (and shame on you if you haven't).  But The Seventh Seal is worth talking about repeatedly.  Very repeatedly.   Possibly the strongest foreign film I've ever seen, The Seventh Seal is Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece, which is saying a great deal.  Easily one of the most important and influential writer/director's of all time, Bergman made dozens of films worthy of masterpiece status, such as Fanny & Alexander, Virgin Spring, and Cries and Whispers.  But he never got better than Seal.

Most people are aware of the legacy of Seal, if nothing else.  Mention "playing chess with Death", and the film's most famous scene will likely conjure up some kind of image.  But the film is so much more than the now-classic chess game sequences.  Bergman asks the toughest religious questions you could have possibly gotten away with in a Swedish film from the 50's — yes, he later learned how to ask those questions with more symbolism and subtlety, but personally I like the heart-on-his-sleeve approach here.

The Seventh Seal utilizes striking black and white photography (by the great Sven Nykvist) to create a palpable sense of dread.  The film looks absolutely terrific, even this many decades later, and it's story (while occasionally plodding) is ingenious in it's stark pessimism of God. 

7. On the Waterfront

Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront is a perfect example of the end justifying the means.  Essentially, Waterfront exists only to excuse the director and writer, Budd Schulberg, for naming names during the Mcarthy era at the House of Un-American Activities.  In that sense (especially if you're like many people in the movie industry and think that what they did, and the careers of their friends that were destroyed because of it, was despicable), On the Waterfront is on shaky ethical ground.

But it survives and endures to this day, because it moves past it's (often not-too-subtle) political aspirations and becomes a thrilling, exciting, romantic and spiritual movie, one of the best of Hollywood's Golden Age.  Marlon Brando gives one of his very best performances as Terry Malloy, a worker on the docks of New York who is told to testify against the mob boss in town, but refuses to for "social" reasons, then eventually concedes for "moral" reasons.

Kazan directs with surprising modern tenancies (some of the action-oriented scenes wouldn't seem out of place in a movie from the 90's), and Schulberg's script is filled with not only great story twists and turns, but also some memorable dialogue (such as the famous scene "I coulda been a contender!").  It's a great film, atmospheric and always interesting, and if you can ignore the back-stage reasons for it's existence, it's a helluva film.

6. Schindler's List

I've seen my favourite movies so many times, it's ridiculous.  Yesterday I re-watched Usual Suspects, which isn't even in my top 100, for probably the 5th time.  Hell, I've even seen movies I hate more than once.  So it surprises me a little that I've only sat through all of Schindler's List twice.  It's just too difficult.  Schindler is one of those movies that almost everyone has seen, almost everyone absolutely loves and respects….but almost no one sits down on a Wednesday night and thinks "Let's crack a beer and pop in Schindler's List!"  It's justly and rightly regarded as one of the most depressing films of all time — an uplifting ending has trouble compensating for the 2.5 hours of Holocaust nightmare before it.

Schindler's List is one of Steven Spielberg's greatest achievements, filmed in black and white for aesthetic and respectful purposes (I don't think Spielberg wanted to show that much historically accurate blood and gore in full colour — hell, even Saving Private Ryan is very monochromatic).  His direction is restrained and delicate, as is the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, the music by John Williams, and the lead performance by Liam Neeson.  Perhaps the least restrained aspect is Ralph Fiennes, who gives the best (and most horrific) portrayal in the film as a sadistic Nazi officer.

The screenplay by Steven Zaillan is epic in it's wide scope, but also deeply emotional and small on a human level.  It depicts the greatest tragedy we ever committed on ourselves, and does it in beautiful form.  But man….I just don't know when I'll ever be able to watch it again.

5. The Third Man

Along with perhaps Psycho, Star Wars, and Jaws, I don't think there's any other flick out there who's success depends more on it's musical score than The Third Man.  Although the movie (and it's music) is nowhere near as famous as those others I mentioned, Third Man's score by Anton Karas propels it to a totally different arena.  Almost completely played on one lonely zither, the music is both intrusive and noisy, in the best possible ways.  It's a stark contrast to the movie itself, which is a delightful murder mystery film noir starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.  But daring to be that contrasting is exactly why it works so well.

Of course, there's more to Third Man than a funny-sounding guitar.  Set in Vienna right after World War 2, Third Man is incredibly atmospheric, suspenseful, and engaging.  It mixes a doomed romance with black comedy and a convoluted mystery, all to the beautiful canted-angle camera work of director Oliver Reed.  Orson Welles himself doesn't appear until 3/4's of the way through, but every scene with him is absolutely perfect — his first introduction with that crooked Welles grin, the Ferris wheel scene with the iconic "Cuckoo Clock" speech, and the thrilling chase sequence in the sewers of Vienna.

Third Man is possibly my favourite film noir, because the script by Graham Greene has all the elements just right (femme fatale, chase scenes, edgy murders, classy villain, hero on the run) as well as so many elements that are unexpectedly against the genre grain (that zither music!!!).  For a purely enjoyable, endlessly fascinating, deeply moody flick, it's hard to do better than Third Man.

4. It's  a Wonderful Life

Rarely has there been a more heartwarming film than Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.  It's become an annual Christmas staple, although that's more because it's a delightful and tear-jerking family movie than it's relation to the holidays.  Despite being ignored by audiences upon it's release, Wonderful Life found new life (nyuck nyuck) on television and home video over the course of the century, and is now widely considered to be Capra and Jimmy Stewart's best. 

It's a Wonderful Life follows the life of George Bailey, played with real charm and whimsy by Stewart, as he tries to enjoy his existence while stuck in small-town Bedford Falls.  He falls in love with Mary (and as played by Donna Reed, who couldn't fall in love with her?), has children, fights with the town villain Mr. Potter, and one Christmas Eve is given a chance to see what the world would've been like if he had never been born.  And… that's the moment where the blubbering starts.

Wonderful Life is just a damn lovely flick.  It's warm, it's happy, it's funny, and yes, it's almost impossible not to cry during the uplifting ending.  It's one of those movies where you simply can't accept anyone's opinion of it until it's completely finished — without the final 30 minutes, It's a Wonderful Life is simply a good, solid story.  But stick the final act on there, and you have possibly the most life-affirming film ever made.

3. Psycho

Hitch's second best film (after Vertigo) remains his most frightening, and infamous.  Indeed, a couple months ago Anthony Hopkins portrayed Hitchcock in the self-titled movie about the making of Psycho (if the flick had stuck on set instead of straying to a ridiculous love triangle plot, it would've been excellent).  Psycho uses the murky, high-contrast black and white to a moodier effect than any other film on this list; Hitch often said he chose B&W to avoid seeing all the red blood in the shower scene, but I think it's mostly because this is his darkest and most pessimistic film, and the lack of colour is more effective than any other aesthetic would've been.

Psycho's story is well known – a woman steals some money, flees her city, holes up at the Bates Motel, is murdered in the shower by the innkeeper's mother, Mrs. Bates.  Almost everyone knows at least this far into the movie, whether they've seen it or not; if you haven't (and if not, what're you waiting for???) then I won't spoil the rest.  Suffice it to say that despite the shower scene remaining the pinnacle of shrieking cinema terror, Psycho's best moments and surprises are still to come.

The screenplay by Joseph Stefano gets little credit for the film's success, probably because Hitch's camera is so stellar, and Bernard Herrmann's music so iconic.  But Stefano gives the characters a disturbing spirit — especially Norman Bates, played beautifully by Anthony Perkins, who is eloquent in his twitchiness, and provides the film's best lines.  All in all, Psycho still stands today as the best thriller ever made. 

2. 12 Angry Men

Ohhh, what a perfect screenplay this is!  What exceptional characters, clearly defined and motivated.  What a simple plot, yet one that continues to be thrilling and dramatic, despite never leaving the one small jury room.  What terrific dialogue, never hitting a false note or pushing too far into melodrama, and all of them expertly delivered by the cast.  12 Angry Men is much like a perfect Thanksgiving dinner — it's never too complicated, obtuse, or difficult to understand.  But it satisfies in a way barely anything else can. 

12 Angry Men (written by Reginald Rose, based on his story) was directed in almost his first gig by Sidney Lumet, who later went on to other great films like Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.  But 12 Angry Men is his finest work; taut, tense, dramatic, funny, moving, emotional, and never once boring.  Setting it all in one room isn't even remotely a constraint, and in fact it actually frees up the imagination of the viewer; so much so, that every time I watch the flick, I forget that we actually never see the murder at all, and are only given vivid descriptions.

The film follows the progression of a murder trial, discussed between twelve distinctly different personalities.  In the beginning, only one man (Henry Fonda) thinks the defendant is guilty, and the rest of the movie shows how his instinct and lack of prejudice cuts through the case, and slowly convinces all the others.  But that description makes it sound drier than it is — 12 Angry Men is alive with enthusiasm, tension, and surprisingly heartfelt drama.

1. Raging Bull

I frequently say that the only truly perfect films I've ever seen (in that, I wouldn't change a single frame, dialogue, or note of music) are Shawshank Redemption, Vertigo, and Raging Bull.  It's a masterpiece in every sense of the word, except for the version of "I want to see a film for pure enjoyment, one that will make me happy and feel good about life".  Raging Bull doesn't do that, nor is it especially fun to watch.  But as an example of pure filmmaking — creative, incisive, exuberant, passionate — it's in a class of it's own.   Despite having made literally dozens of great, classic films, director Martin Scorsese never did better than here.

Raging Bull chronicles the turbulent life of boxer Jake LaMotta, who was dubbed the "raging bull" for his brute force within the ring.  After watching the film, though, you have to conclude that his true rage was dealt in the homes of his wife, kids, and brother.  Robert De Niro not only gives the performance of his lifetime as Jake, but also what I consider the finest performance of any film, ever.  He's absolutely terrifying in his jealousy, his narrow-minded-ness, his violence and aggression.  The fact that Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader never once ask you to sympathize or empathize with this man (or monster, if you'd perfer) is incredibly audacious.

The story isn't for everyone, true.  It spans decades, is occasionally slow, and has scenes of disturbing domestic violence.  The boxing scenes themselves are shocking works of visceral action — rapid cuts, slow-motion, an ever-changing set design, and gallons of blood all contribute to the aura.  The screenplay is devious in it's circular dialogue (watch the scene were Jake tries to decipher if his brother, played by Joe Pesci, is sleeping with his wife — it's similar to watching a lion circle a gazelle).  Raging Bull is profane, intensely violent, troubling and gritty.  It's also absolutely perfect — every shot is a masterstroke, every line of dialogue cunning and darkly funny, and the black and white cinematography nothing short of stunning.  It's almost the greatest film ever made.