Black and white films hold an important place in film history: before three-strip Technicolor was introduced in 1932, all films were shot in black-and-white. Even after the advent of color film, many filmmakers chose to shoot in monochrome as both an aesthetic choice and because the film stock was cheaper, which afforded filmmakers to experiment with the medium.
However, one of the drawbacks of black-and-white film (and of course, an issue that couldn’t have been anticipated by filmmakers at the time) is that it often looks dated to modern film fans, and there’s even a certain contingent of viewers who absolutely refuse to watch them.
While black-and-white films are often shorthand for “old movie” in a lot of film fan’s minds, there are also many that–due to the technical brilliance of the cinematographer, art designer, and director–look crisp and clean like they were shot yesterday, and whose subject matter, style, and themes were either ahead of their time or are altogether timeless.
Perhaps not coincidentally, many of these films are from masters of the craft: Godard, Kubrick, Welles, and Kazan all make appearances on this list, proving that even when constricted by the technical limitations of their time, a filmmaker could produce a work that even over half a century (or more) later look as modern as the latest art-house release.
Jean-Luc Godard was associated with France’s “New Wave” film-making movement, whose practitioners often eschewed traditional film setups, promoted discontinuity in editing, and experimented with the narrative form. Many films produced from this loosely affiliated group have since become classics that are studied in college classrooms and have inspired generations of aspiring filmmakers.
As a director, Godard has produced some enduring classics of his own, including Breathless, a touchstone in French cinema. And as timeless as that film is, there is another movie in his body of work that was even more forward-looking–and set in the future.
Alphaville is a dystopian sci-fi film that also heavily leans on film noir in its aesthetic. While there are no futuristic sets, part of its effectiveness is in how Godard selected locations that would still give the illusion that the story was taking place in some future time frame.
Looking back at this strategy in 2019, it’s startling how prescient Godard was in 1965, since much of the world looks similar to how it did back then: since (mostly) only our personal technologies have radically developed since the mid-60’s, many cityscapes still looks remarkably similar to how they did over half a century ago.
The sci-fi elements in the film are also surprisingly modern: our protagonist, a secret agent named Lemmy Caution, carries an Instamatic camera around with him, which he uses to take pictures of clues, much like one would a cell phone; the ruler of Alphaville is a decentralized computer system known as Alpha 60, which is omnipresent throughout the city, much like the internet would one day work similarly; and behaviors are strictly monitored and regulated, with concepts like “love” and “emotion” having been eliminated as a dystopian nod to the novel 1984.
Caution’s mission–to find the professor that built Alpha 60 and destroy the totalitarian machine that runs Alphaville–becomes intertwined with falling in love with a citizen of Alphaville who has no understanding of the forbidden concept of love. As an art-house sci-fi flick, this film still holds a lot of appeal for both fans of the genre and of classic movie fans usually put off by black and white films.
Ingmar Bergman’s work was always a challenging prospect, and getting into his oeuvre takes some time no matter how savvy you are in film. While heavily influential in the history of movie-making, his work is better known as a reference to many film-goers than actually watching his films. This is understandable for a body of work that was solely produced in Sweden, with its dialogue in Swedish, and whose default mood for its characters and plot was angst and existential despair.
While The Seventh Seal is a major work, it’s best-known to modern Western audiences through the parodies it inspired rather than the film itself; even his widely celebrated Scenes from a Marriage is over four hours long and is a heavily dramatic work to digest.
However, there is at least one film of his that is not only approachable to modern audiences, but since its release in 1966 has gained considerable esteem among its unexpected tertiary audiences: Persona.
The story is simple enough: an actress suffers from a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized, falling mute in the process. From there, she is taken under the care of a young nurse, who takes her to a seaside cottage to recover. In this isolated setting, the two women engage in a battle of wills, as the nurse seems to lose her identity–and sanity–as time goes on.
However, what gives Persona its impact is in its shocking and confrontational style: as an intense psychological study of two unstable women, the film’s editing and pacing reflects the shaky, fraught emotions the characters are experiencing. A kaleidoscopic montage that begins the film sets its location as somewhere other than objective reality. The blocking in some shots overlap the two characters’ faces, and in one shot, both faces are interposed, suggesting that the two characters we’ve been watching are actually dual sides of the same woman.
It’s a complex and mysterious film that plays more like a psychological horror film than a drama. While appreciated in its time, its influence has only grown since: both Robert Altman and David Lynch would make films inspired by Persona, and the body of criticism surrounding this film’s impact on cinema continues to grow to this day. A radical film even to modern audiences, Persona is still perhaps far ahead of its time.
3. The Night of the Hunter
With the iconic LOVE and HATE tattoos across his knuckles, Robert Mitchum’s reverend-turned-serial killer Harry Powell is well-known in popular culture, even if it’s just for the similar, abbreviated version of these tattoos that Sideshow Bob is shown to have on The Simpsons. But actor (and one-time director) Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter has had a lasting power in cinema history long after its initial release.
Adopting the style of German expressionists, Laughton created a unique-looking suspense story that follows the diabolical Powell as he closes in on two children whose father had stolen and stashed a large sum of stolen money, only confiding in his children where he hid it before being killed (in jail, by Powell, to whom he had just told this information).
Reverend Powell gives chase, marrying and then murdering their mother to get close to the money, and the children keep one step ahead of him…for a while. The child actors’ performances, and (especially) Mitchum’s powerful and unnerving turn as the loathsome and unrelenting Reverend Powell, are sophisticated and nuanced; meanwhile, the dark plot and ineffective adults that populate this vaguely noir-ish story contribute to the film’s menacing tone.
Unsuccessful upon its release in 1955, leading Laughton to abandon a promising directorial career, the film’s influence has risen over time, with later audiences recognizing the striking cinematography, murderous and amoral antagonist, haunting score, and singular story as prescient elements for an American film produced in the 1950’s to exhibit.
Since its release, it has been included in numerous “Best of…” film lists, and Roger Ebert had declared that “It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains, and on both of those scores it holds up … well after four decades.” Now six decades after its release, it’s still a captivating and truly suspenseful film to watch, and one that an unsuspecting modern viewer will be surprised to find how long ago it was made.
4. Paths of Glory
World War I–-an event that has now occurred a century ago-–inspired a wave of anti-war books and films after its conclusion. The brutal trench warfare and use of chemical weapons in that war forever changed the rules of engagement for future wars to come and changed the minds of many about the nature and purpose of war in modern times.
Although All Quiet On the Western Front is perhaps the most well-known anti-war film set during this global conflict, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory–released in 1957–is perhaps the most harrowing and intimate depiction of the desperation that the trench warfare of WWI inspired in its participants.
Based on a true story, it follows the court-martial of three soldiers (who are chosen to represent a hundred soldiers who refused to attack in what would essentially be a suicide mission), and a colonel (played by Kirk Douglas) who attempts to save them from execution. Featuring Kubrick’s crystal-clear deep focus and unique cinematography, Paths of Glory is an affecting anti-war film that looks at the dehumanization that occurs within the military towards its own soldiers during wartime.
Due to this, it was a controversial film among the West’s military at the time of its release; it was not released in several countries–including Switzerland, France, and Spain–for decades and was banned from being shown on American bases. As with most Kubrick films, the technical aspects of the film–cinematography, lighting, blocking–are impeccable, and the tension of extreme warfare is palpable in the actors’ performances.
Depicting the savage brutality of a war fought a century ago in a film made 60 years ago, Paths of Glory is a period piece that looks as sharp and whose subject matter is as relevant as it was the day the print was first struck.
5. Touch of Evil
Orson Welles has been (rightly) hailed as one of the greatest filmmakers all time. Although it seems unnecessary to mention, his debut film Citizen Kane is still recognized as one of the most innovative and influential films ever made.
However, a great film doesn’t make it timeless; although it is a fantastic film, much of Citizen Kane comes across as dated as the newsreels that it satirized; even its influence doesn’t shield it from criticisms that much of its innovation is lost on modern audiences, particularly since said innovations been adapted, parodied, and recycled ad infinitum in the intervening years.
Although Welles directed a number of notable films after his debut, many of them were low-budget affairs that shined despite their limitations. However, in 1958–-a full 17 years after Citizen Kane’s release–-Welles was afforded both the budget and artistic freedom to innovate once again. The result is an enduring masterpiece that is still impressive to the jaded and more experienced audiences of today.
Touch of Evil is to noir film what Citizen Kane was to film-making in general: an innovative entry into a (by then) established stylistic niche that somehow went further and accomplished more than all of the films in its genre had previously accomplished.
Like many great films, the plot is simple: a DEA agent (Charlton Heston) in Mexico and his American wife (Janet Leigh) cross the border, only to find themselves embroiled in intrigue when a time bomb–having originated from Mexico–goes off just inside of the US border. A corrupt local police captain (played by Orson Welles at his heaviest) interferes with the investigation, and escalating tensions lead to a dramatic conclusion.
The plot thickens, as usual, and the drama ratchets up as only it can in the hands of a master like Welles, who could have arguably become America’s Hitchcock, as this film demonstrates. Some scenes are well-known, such as the uninterrupted 12-minute long-shot that opens the film as we follow the ticking bomb from Mexico into America, while others depict the rising tension through masterful dramatic staging, such as a scene where Leigh’s character is being menaced by a gang in a bar, or else in low-angle shots that reflect similar setups in Citizen Kane, only the character being put on this virtual pedestal is an obese and corrupt police captain.
What makes the film modern is its earnest approach to the subject: although Welles is remembered as a well-regarded director today, Touch of Evil was a last-ditch attempt to secure mainstream success in Hollywood for him.
As such, Welles threw himself into the production, closely orchestrating the filming and selecting the right crew (including legendary cinematographer Russell Metty, who worked on over a hundred films, including his Academy-award winning work on Spartacus) to make this memorable entry into the film noir genre, creating one of his most lasting contributions to film history–and possibly his most accessible film to modern audiences. With its innovative long shots, an almost meta take on the film noir genre, and a crisp, detailed aesthetic, to contemporary film-goers Touch of Evil comes across less as an old movie than a modern classic.
6. Sunset Boulevard
A demented, long-forgotten actress hides away in her mansion on Sunset Boulevard while an out-of-luck screenwriter makes a wrong turn down her ominous driveway. What follows is a savage look at the ageist Hollywood system, a sly satire on show business, and a darkly humorous film for anyone who’s clued into the internal mechanisms of Tinsel Town.
Set in 1950 Hollywood, now nearly 70 years later it’s a still-relevant look at how The Business treats its once-lucrative stars, the twisted egos that are produced and nurtured by it, and the awful reality of the Hollywood system that creates the entertainment that we watch from a distance in movie theaters and at home.
The story is just a place-setting for the rest of the film, which luxuriates on immaculate scene setups that accentuate the rotting decay of splendor that actress Gloria Swanson’s faded movie star character lives in. The overgrown shrubs, cracking pavement, and dilapidated majestic shrines to herself that detail her overblown Hollywood mansion contextually serves to make Norma Desmond–Swanson’s faded silent movie star character–more pathetic and alternately sympathetic despite her egomaniacal tunnel vision.
Meanwhile, the amorality of show business rears its head continually throughout the film, including aged studio executives that forget their contemporaries once they’ve stopped making them money and a sleazy screenwriter protagonist that half-heartedly resents his status as a kept man despite gleefully reaping the benefits that come with it. Maybe nobody’s the hero here; maybe this is a movie without heroes. As such, the film is a black-and-white affair that occupies a gray moral zone.
Sunset Boulevard was highly regarded upon its release and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (and winning three: best original screenplay, set design, and score) and is rightly recognized as a classic American film. But there are a lot of classic films that haven’t aged well; this is one that still holds up as brand-new, even to modern audiences that are now separated nearly 70 years from its initial release.
7. All About Eve
Speaking of show business intrigue and insane aging stars, All About Eve is another classic film about the business of show that doesn’t shy away from the ugly, ego-driven competition that the members of the theater subject themselves to–-or are objectively subjected to–in general.
It’s one of those fast-talking bits of Hollywood claptrap where show business–in this case, Broadway–is depicted as a relentless gauntlet of petty backstabbing and ruthless ladder-climbing, and as such this one’s a real corker. With a similar dramatic framing device as found in Sunset Boulevard, a showbiz professional provides narration that details the rise of the star of the hour, who is currently receiving an award on-stage.
Presented in a series of flashbacks, we get to know our main characters–including an aging and egocentric Broadway star Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis), theater critic and narrator Addison DeWitt (George Saunders), and the titular Eve (Anne Baxter), as the former and their coterie are deceived and overthrown by Eve through her two-faced manipulations to attain her own success in show business.
The dialogue is whip-smart and saucy while the amoral central character is just barely below the rest of the cast of characters to whom she ingratiates herself. Even though it is firmly of its time and place, this is a surprisingly subversive and adult film, complete with affairs, suggestions of sleeping one’s way to the top, and other nasty business. It’s clever and endlessly quotable (this is the film where the famous line, “Fasten your seat belts–it’s going to be a bumpy night!” comes from). Even though it follows the standard melodrama structure of its time, its commentary on the nature of show business holds true today.
Released the same year as Sunset Boulevard, it seems like a lot of older writers and directors in the film industry had a few axes to grind about how things are run in that town, and much like its cinematic doppelganger, it garnered numerous Academy Award nominations that year–-14, in fact, in a record that stood until 1997’s Titanic-–winning 6, including Best Picture. A well-directed, quick-paced flick with snappy dialogue and a diabolical antagonist, it would be due for a remake–if only there were a way to improve on an this already stellar film.
8. The Manchurian Candidate
A conspiracy to assassinate a presidential nominee is underway, and only one man can stop…The Manchurian Candidate! Although (unsucessfully) remade in the 1990’s, the original The Manchurian Candidate is such a fascinating film that it works as both a historical piece and as a surprisingly modern film from 1962.
This movie–based on a book that was published in 1959–is a reflection of the paranoia of early-1960’s Cold War fears. Taking place during the Korean War, a platoon of American soldiers are abducted by the Soviets to Manchuria in China, with all but two returned days later to the US front. One soldier, Raymond Shaw, is credited with saving their lives and the platoon’s commander, Bennett Marco (played by Frank Sinatra), who recommends him for the medal of honor.
And although the entire platoon dislikes Shaw for his various flaws, when asked about his character they all suspiciously give the same glowing answer about what a wonderful person he is. Once back in America, Marco continues to have the same nightmare where Shaw shoots and kills the two missing soldiers under the watchful eye of Soviet commanders. He begins investigating and finds that a fellow soldier from his platoon has the same recurring nightmare. From this, he eventually uncovers is a political conspiracy seeking to overthrow the US government.
Its conspiracy angle still appeals to modern film fans, and this film is an interesting relic from the height of the Cold War. However, what makes the film still hold modern audiences’ interest is in its artful approach to what at the time was considered far-fetched political conspiracy; that would change just a year later with the assassination of JFK and a newfound popular interest in conspiracy theories.
The strange, dream-like scenes of the brainwashing were similarly avant garde at the time of its release, and the psychological tension of the plot and disorientation of a brainwashed soldier is masterfully related by director John Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel Lindon. Although considered too weird of a film at the time of its release (it failed at the box office), history has been kind to this film and it is considered a classic–even an innovator–of political conspiracy films.
9. Jules and Jim
In the prudish year of 1962, three-way love affairs were not only uncommon in cinema but were a verboten subject. This changed with François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Set in pre- and post-WWI Europe, the film follows the lives of the titular two men, close friends who live a bohemian lifestyle before the war. While living an easy life and sharing women between them without envy or hesitation, they meet Catherine, whom both are interested in but Jules ends up marrying just before the war begins.
After the war, Jules and Jim reunite and, over mounting fears that Catherine will leave him, allows his wife and Jim to begin an affair and marry, and the three live together as man and man and wife. For a while, everyone is seemingly happy with this unusual arrangement, but this is soon followed by tragedy for all involved.
With such an outre premise, it’s a film that could have only been made in Europe at the time; upon its release, it was a major success, and has been often referred to as one of the finest films ever made.
It’s a remarkably fresh take on the nature of freedom and love that still comes across as new even today, and the audience is provided with characters who seem truly alive. Their liveliness is infectious, as is the French New Wave approach to cinematography, where scenes were shot with handheld cameras, giving the film a documentary-like feel. And with this approach, the freedom of youth and the encroaching sobriety of age are captured in this singular, remarkable film.
10. A Face in the Crowd
The rise of television and the world of 24-hour news in the past 60 years has inspired its share of demagogues and is a medium that both serves and creates egomaniacs. In Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, this type of egomaniac is found in Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith, in his film debut), who is found in a jail cell by a roving reporter who puts him on the radio. His natural charm and folksy manner gains him an enthusiastic following, eventually earning him a national television show.
However, Rhodes’ success starts to go to his head, making him cruel and egotistical, ruining both his personal and professional relationships in the process. While Rhodes gains his comeuppance publicly, the ending suggests that his career is far from over; meanwhile, he has lost the only people that actually cared about him.
Released in 1957, A Face in the Crowd was not particularly well-received. Perhaps it was the anti-hero protagonist or that it suggested TV personalities were different people than they portrayed on-screen. It found an enthusiastic champion in François Truffaut, who thought it was brilliant, calling it “passionate, exalted [and] fierce.”
As with many great films, opinion of A Face in the Crowd has been revised since its release, where it is now seen as a startlingly prescient film in modern times. As a film released 60 years ago, its insights into the power of mass media shaping popular opinion and–even more prescient–what it would do for swaying political opinion make it a salient film for the contemporary media-driven landscape that shapes popular opinion and perceptions.
Besides its plot’s content, Kazan’s directing and cinematographers Gayne Rescher and Harry Stradling, Jr, develop the film with long shots, crisp focus, and striking framing, providing the film with a cinematic flair that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a P.T. Anderson movie. A timeless film goes far beyond the constraints of its initial audience to become relevant to film connoisseurs generations long after its initial release, and this is a perfect example of the lasting impact of cinema, no matter its lack of color. If what and how on-screen is as provocative, engaging, and artful as the artistic medium of film can create, than even monochrome can bring to thrilling life its subject.
Leave a Reply