There’s been a recent debate as to the validity of black-and-white films. Many of the youngsters say, “I just don’t get it.” Well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger young children. Ted Turner has similar thoughts on the supposed curse of black and white.
Whether one would like to admit it or not, the greatest films in history, to include horror, science fiction, suspense and drama, have been made in the breathtaking anti-color of black and white. According to film director John Carpenter in his inventive opus They Live, the reason films are now in color is because of an invasion of aliens during the 1950s. Nice going John, for you are not far from the truth.
I have compiled an unquestionable list made up of the 20 greatest black and white films in the history of mankind. And mind you, I have added a bonus of five Honorable Mentions. For those of you unacquainted, this list is as good a place to start as any. Enjoy some of the greatest films ever made, and they are all in glorious black and white.
1. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Billy Wilder’s film noir classic about the decay of Hollywood is alternately hilarious, shocking and extraordinary. William Holden plays a broke screenwriter who literally stumbles into the driveway of a seedy mansion owned by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a forgotten silent movie star. The old movie diva is trapped in the past. Poor Norma dreams of making a comeback and Holden becomes her screenwriting gigolo. One of the greatest films ever made and certainly the greatest black-and-white film in history.
2. Touch of Evil (1958)
Orson Welles’s film noir masterpiece elevates in classic status year by year. Its brilliantly choreographed opening shot (lasting well over three minutes) will be studied as long as there are lovers of cinema. This seedy tale of murder and corruption is highlighted by Welles as a love-struck cop matching wits with narcotics officer Charlton Heston. The entertaining plot twists and turns like a ride at the carnival. A great example of Welles’ matchless directorial style.
3. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Ingmar Bergman’s breathtaking Swedish film is one of the universal classics of cinema history. Max Von Sydow plays a knight returning from the Crusades to eventually play a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot). En route, we see witches, flagellants and victims of the Plague. Allegorical Medieval tale questions the meaning of life like no other film in history. A dreamlike, brilliant work.
4. Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese’s fierce biography of self-destructive boxer Jake LaMotta is tour-de-force filmmaking. Robert De Niro plays LaMotta, a man tormented by demons both in and out of the ring. Jake is a frightening, unforgettable character unable to control his basic instincts. The fight scenes are brutal black-and-white ballets.
5. My Darling Clementine (1946)
Called one of the most perfect Westerns ever made, John Ford’s poetic version of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a beautiful masterpiece. Ford’s direction of a Sunday church social framed against the open sky is one of the great scenes in cinema history.
6. Schindler’s List (1993)
Filmed in Poland, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece ranks among the greatest films ever made about the Holocaust. It’s a haunting motion picture about heroism and despair. Spielberg doesn’t flinch from the horror of this subject matter, and the result is a stark examination of the eventual strength of the human spirit.
7. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Writer-director Preston Sturges’s classic film remains his most unforgettable screen effort. Sturges combines romance, Hollywood satire and a social message into a screwball package. John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), is a successful director of Hollywood fluff, but he’s now determined to create cinematic art. Sullivan hits the road disguised as a tramp. His journey eventually leads to a darker, depressed world having little use for the socially realistic movies our hero wishes to make. Sturges’ profound conclusion reveals a surprising emotional truth about filmmaking art.
8. Night of the Hunter (1955)
This grim masterpiece – the only movie directed by actor Charles Laughton – mixes German expressionism, religion and fantasy in an intensely furious brew. Robert Mitchum plays a demented preacher who stalks a boy and his sister because he suspects the kids know where a stash of stolen money is hidden. Unforgettable imagery includes the preacher’s ominous shadow, a magical boat ride down a teeming river and the sinister tattoos of LOVE and HATE. A haunting, influential work of art.
9. Metropolis (1926)
Fritz Lang’s legendary silent sci-fi is a classic example German expressionism. Brilliant, vibrant images of a futuristic society and an oppressed workers’ revolt are amazing for their time. Symbolic and disturbing, this film is a cautionary tale about a future where machines dominate man.
10. Psycho (1960)
No film has ever really matched the impact of Alfred Hitchcock’s horrifying masterwork. More than just a demented shocker, Psycho is also a creepy character study where Hitchcock skillfully fools you into identifying with Norman Bates, and then pounds us with the shower scene – the most famous moment in cinema history. Anthony Perkins is brilliant as Bates, the awkward manager of the Bates Motel. The blood runs black in this film, and it has never been more terrifying.
11. Pandora’s Box (1928)
This German silent classic was so erotic it was banned for many years. The beautiful Louise Brooks stars in director G.W. Pabst’s expressionistic tale of an openly sexual woman headed down a path of eventual destruction, and a date with Jack the Ripper.
12. Top Hat (1935)
Grace, elegance and talent highlight one of the greatest musicals ever made. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to the music of Irving Berlin provided art deco escapist entertainment for a Depression-era audience. Director Mark Sandrich gave us the perfect screen couple dancing “Cheek to Cheek.”
13. On the Waterfront (1954)
Marlon Brando’s greatest performance in Elia Kazan’s electric account of life on the New York waterfront. Incredible performances by some of the greatest actors in history highlight this extraordinary example of old fashioned filmmaking. Boris Kaufman’s photography and Leonard Bernstein’s music set the standard.
14. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Gregory Peck gives one of the ultimate performances in film history in Robert Mulligan’s moving drama about racial unrest in the Deep South. Spectacular sets and crisp dialog highlight this classic version of Harper Lee’s novel.
15. The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise’s moody film is based on Shirley Jackson’s brilliant novel. A repressed women must deal with the ghosts of Hill House, and like her, we are terrified by dark whispering shadows in the dark. Intense terror, aided by the eerie black-and-white photography. One of the great horror films ever made.
16. The Big Sleep (1946)
Film noir at its finest, guided by the great director Howard Hawks. Based on Raymond Chandler’s novel, Humphrey Bogart gives one of his most memorable performances as detective Philip Marlowe. Moody and fascinating tale, with the legendary chemistry of Bacall and Bogart. Trust me, this foggy mystery could have only been made in black and white.
17. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Stanley Kubrick’s scathing black comedy examines a Cold War between the U.S. and Russia gone deadly wrong. Stunning performances by Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden. One of Kubrick’s finest films (which says a lot) is also one of the most perceptive satires in history.
18. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
One of the great science fiction films of all time, director Don Siegel gives us a near-perfect examination of a paranoid Cold War America circa the 1950s. Brilliant performances highlight the story of small town residents being duplicated by pods. A terrifying film.
19. Manhattan (1979)
Arguably one of Woody Allen’s greatest films shows New York as you have never seen it before. Brilliant Gordon Willis cinematography simply adds to the terrific story of friends finding and losing love in the Big Apple.
20. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George Romero’s zombie classic set the standard for hundreds of horror films to come. Unlucky folks are trapped in a Pennsylvania farm house, trying to fight off flesh-eating zombies and eventually each other. Incredible tension with an authentic feel. A nightmare come to life.
21. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
William Wyler’s heartbreaking and moving ode to WWII veterans returning home from combat. A near perfect film, with a nostalgic portrayal of suburban America leading in to the 1950s. Hugo Friedhofer’s musical score is one of the greatest in film history.
22. Young Frankenstein (1974)
Mel Brooks hit the jackpot with this puppy, one of the great box office hits of all time. But Brooks respected his subject matter, making a near-perfect parody of old-time Universal horror films – including Bride of Frankenstein – which could only be created in glorious black and white.
23. The Defiant Ones (1958)
Stanley Kramer’s insightful story of two escaped convicts (Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis) chained together while on the run in the Deep South. Symbolic tale is highlighted by fantastic supporting performances and an unforgettable ending.
24. The Bicycle Thief (1949)
Italian director Vittorio De Sica’s moving masterpiece tells the seemingly simply story of a man who loses his bike, and the difficult week he spends with his son. One of the most beautiful films ever made.
25. Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Director William Dieterle’s haunting tale of lost love told from the viewpoint of tortured artist Joseph Cotten. He meets a ghost in Central Park (in the form of the lovely Jennifer Jones) and eventually paints her mysterious portrait, the final shot in Technicolor. One of the most underrated films of all time.
My apologies to Citizen Kane, Casablanca and The Seven Samurai, films which frankly would have been better in color.