1967 marked the death of the black and white era when the TV networks delivered this mandate: they would only buy new films from the studios if they were in color. Back then, network TV was the largest ancillary market for a motion picture, so the studios immediately acquiesced and the black and white film died almost overnight. Even the Oscar for b&w cinematography - from 1939 onward, there had been separate awards for b&w and color - was retired. In Cold Blood, released in 1967 and nominated for several Oscars including best cinematography, could be called the last great black and white film of the old studio era. There have been shockingly few black and white features produced since then. It's a shame, as I agree with Orson Welles that black and white makes an actor's performance better. And of course it's beautiful. I hope to see a revival. Meanwhile, here are nine features that have kept the glory of black and white alive:
- The Last Picture Show (1971). Film scholar turned filmmaker Peter Bodganovich, a champion of classic cinema, shot this lovely nostalgic drama in monochrome, and followed it up with another b&w retro film two years later: Paper Moon.
- Young Frankenstein (1974). Mel Brooks chose black and white for his comedy classic because he sought to achieve the look of the 1930s Frankenstein. He even used the same old aspect ratio. This idea was copied by Brooks's friend Carl Reiner for his similarly spoofy Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid in 1982.
- Eraserhead (1977). In the 1970s, black and white film was still used by film students - and the odd independent filmmaker - because the stock and the processing were cheaper than color. (Not today!) Five years in the making, Eraserhead was an auspicious debut for young David Lynch, who would become one of the greatest American filmmakers of his generation. He used b&w for his next film, 1980's The Elephant Man - produced by Mel Brooks.
- Manhattan (1979). Of all contemporary filmmakers, none has embraced the black and white medium as much as Woody Allen has. This was his first film in monochrome; he employed it again for five of his subsequent features. (Six if you count the b&w/color Purple Rose of Cairo.)
- Raging Bull (1980). It was Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning biopic that kicked off the trend of American auteurs adding a requisite b&w movie (or two) to their filmographies, from Francis Coppola (Rumble Fish) to Steven Soderbergh (Kafka, The Good German) to Tim Burton (Ed Wood) to the Coen Brothers (The Man Who Wasn't There).
- Stranger Than Paradise (1984). In the 1980s, Jim Jarmusch spearheaded a new wave of indie filmmakers (including Spike Lee, Darren Aronofsky, and Kevin Smith) who used black and white to give their low-budget debuts a gritty, distinctly East Coast vibe. But only Jarmusch kept the faith, releasing three more b&w features over the next twenty years (Down By Law, Dead Man, Coffee & Cigarettes).
- Schindler's List (1993). More than just Steven Spielberg's attempt at the black and white thing, this instant classic was the first b&w film to win the Best Picture Oscar since 1960's The Apartment.
- Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). George Clooney remains an outspoken fan of monochrome cinema, and his moody drama about Edward R. Murrow was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and was one of many b&w movies from 2005, including the aforementioned Good German, The Notorious Bettie Page, and Sin City.
- Persepolis (2007). I end this list with - correct me if I'm wrong - the first black and white animated feature ever. (Even Disney and the Fleischers used Technicolor for their early '30s features.) Further proof that, even in the 21st century, one can still do new and exciting things with this endangered medium.