It’s not about what’s taken away, it’s about what’s added.
There’s just something about a black & white film that’s so, well, cinematic, especially any time after the 1950s when color stock costs came down to the point it wasn’t financially advantageous that a film be shot in black & white. In the 60s and early 70s you still saw the occasional mainstream studio film in black & white, and usually they were from prestige directors like Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove) or Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) who were consciously choosing to shoot in monochrome for a heightened parodic or dramatic effect. Then as the 70s moved into the 80s the black & white feature largely went away, where it stayed until the 90s when on the heels of Steven Spielberg winning Best Picture for Schindler’s List directors like Christopher Nolan (Following), Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man), and Woody Allen (Celebrity) brought it back into regular use. Flash forward roughly a decade or so later and The Artist is the first black & white film to win Best Picture since Schindler’s; before that you have to go back to 1960 and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.
The point is, though it isn’t used often, when it is, a monochrome color scheme lends heightened drama to a film, it distills the essence, visually and narratively, to its most pure, most potent version, where the flashy distractions are gone and it’s just you and the story, not to mention the stark beauty of light and shadows tangling themselves into frames.
Recently we’ve seen two major films release black & white versions: the multi-Oscar-nominated Mad Max: Fury Road, which got a home release entitled Chrome that removed all color, and James Mangold’s Logan, whose similar Noir cut was given a limited theatrical run. In the latest video essay from Leigh Singer for Fandor, the marginalization and resurgence of black & white is examined in expert detail, as well as the economic and industrial aspects that make shooting a blockbuster in monochrome more complicated than you might expect. This is fascinating stuff here, dig in.
Related Topics: Logan, Mad Max Fury Road