Top 5 Black & White Films of All Time

Dame Hyndman  @duncanpoundcake

When asked why Schindler’s List was not shot in colour, Spielberg answered by saying he did not want to beautify the horror of the Holocaust with colour. It did not deserve to be shot in colour. Colour represents life and hope. Think of colour films and you would be forgiven for going with super vibrant Technicolour films from the late 1930’s through to 1950’s. Technicolour film was not about real life, it was world of heightened colour and in a film world of previously black and white, who can blame them. But there is much to be said about the art of black and white films and how their greatest weakness, lack of colour, became their greatest strength, relying on lighting artistry to create contrast, mood and drama.

The Third Man (1949 – Carol Reed)

Inspiration for Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ video and given a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, The Third Man is a master class in how to make a stylish, spy film-noir. Set in British Occupied Vienna post the German surrender, it could easily be titled ‘Who killed Harry Lime’ though that does conjure up visions of Michael Caine. Holly Martins is a pulp fiction writer who arrives in Vienna having been offered a job by his pal Harry Lime. Upon his arrival, he discovers Harry has been hit by a car and killed. Here is where it all descends into a filmic game of Cluedo, which leaves your head spinning as you attempt to fathom the conflicting clues; Harry was killed instantly. Harry was not killed instantly, Harry issued dying instructions, Harry did not issue instructions. Two men carried him to the road side, three men carried him to the road side. Witnesses being bumped off and Harry not being quite as dead as we were led to believe, does make for a rip roaring plot. With stellar performance by all, notably Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Trevor Howard, the real star of the show is the film itself. Drowning in atmosphere, emerging and retreating out of the shadows, inspired use of harsh lighting and jaunty camera angles, Zither theme music and seedy locations it perfectly documents the transition from an exhausted post-war to the early days of the cold war. If you want to know how to make a really great black and white movie, watch The Third Man and make copious notes.


Eraser Head (1977 – David Lynch)

I first stumbled upon Eraser Head in 1984, late at night on Channel 4. To say it made a big impression is an understatement. Frankly trying to make sense of the plot is a futile gesture however, amongst the jaw dropping backdrop and miserable industrial visuals and noises, there is a general theme that runs through it; a fear of parenthood, specifically men (though the mother does bugger off fairly on) and the responsibility it brings. This film is a visual and auditory assault where most of the action takes place in the ever startled and bizarrely coiffured Henry’s flat. Here a puff cheeked singing woman who lives in his radiator, whilst he looks after his swaddling baby that upon reveal, resembles a large under developed, limbless foetus that wails inconsolably day and night. We do see Henry at the in-laws where he is served a fitting (as in Grand Mal) roast chicken on a plate amidst the industrial clanging and excruciating small talk, which is both literal as well as metaphorical. There is precious little dialogue in this film. For reasons not really clear, at one point Henry’s head falls off and is taken to a pencil factory by a boy, where it is turned into rubbers to be followed by that dancing roast chicken…on a stage…of course.

eraser head

 Schindler’s List (1993 – Steven Spielberg)

What to say that has not been said about this film? Technically, not 100% totally black and white thanks to the little girl and her red coat but there is good reason for that. It is an emotional roller coaster that rarely lets up in its portrayal of the insanity and evil that the Nazis deliver upon European Jews with their Final Solution. The redeeming feature amongst all the horror is the journey Oskar Schindler takes from politically disinterested entrepreneur, who uses the war as an opportunity to enrich himself from the state by making munitions whilst using Jewish slave labour, to actively risking his own life, entire wealth and going to extraordinary measures to save Polish Jews working in his factory. With epic performances from Ralph Fiennes as Nazi camp Boss Amon Goeth, a man so devoid of any redeeming features, you will find yourself wanting to put a gun to his head and pulling the trigger without remorse, and Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler portraying a man whose growing unease at the realisation at what he sees going on around him to complete obsession with saving as many lives as possible. It does not make for easy watching but like so many of the films on this list, it is about the human condition and our ability to endure and survive in the face of adversity and the contradictory kindness and great cruelty humans have the capacity for. Now and again, one man can make a difference. Spielberg was correct. Though it could well have been shot in colour, anything but black and white would have been offensive.

spielberg and neeson

Ice Cold in Alex (1956 – J Lee Thompson)

As classic as British war films go, though there is not too much in the way of war, there is no testosterone fuelled heroics here and this is what makes this film shine out from so many of the self-congratulatory post-war yarns churned out by British & American studios in the decades after 1945. The plot focuses on a rag tag of Brits, post-war acting stalwarts, Sylvia Syms and Harry Andrews, stuck behind enemy lines in Tobruk, always a good plot device. They decide to take their chances in an Austin K2 ambulance, named Katy, and dash across the North African desert in an attempt to get to British lines in Alexandria.

As they depart, they meet Antony Qualye, a supposed South African solider who joins them. On the way, like a proto ‘Adventure Game’ TV show from the 1980’s, they encounter Rommel’s Afrika Corps, quicksand – where it becomes apparent Quayle is no South African, a minefield, broken suspension, super human feats of strength and the quintessential scene of the film where they have to hand crank Katy up a sand dune, in reverse only for Sylvia Syms to inadvertently send it all the way to the bottom again. Women drivers. On both occasions Anthony Quayle’s character comes to the rescue.

With very little in the way of incidental music, this is genuine nail biting stuff. Having made it to Alexandra they all sit in a bar and watch as Mills sips a cold beer he has been dreaming of since Tobruk. They even manage to save Quayle’s skin when the MPs turn up but if you want to know how, watch the film. Makes you proud to be British…and German.


It’s a Wonderful Life (1946 – Frank Capra)

The archetypal American son, James Stewart, plays the archetypal American Son, George Bailey who lives in small town America doing his apple pie thing. On the face of this Christmas feel good movie, lays a much darker heart for those who can see past surface saccharine.

Presenting itself like an inverse Christmas Carol, George Bailey is a decent fellow who puts aside his own dreams and desires to help his fellow citizens of Bedford Falls. He saves his younger brother’s life at 12, losing hearing in one ear in the process. Steps in to run the family business -Bailey Brothers Building & Loan – and gives up any hope of escaping small town America by going to college and travelling. So selfless is George that he gives his college fund to younger brother Harry. Lurking and plotting in the background is a Mr Burns-esque, Henry Potter; banker, landlord and richest man in Bedford Falls. George uses his own money to save the family business following the Wall Street Crash and subsequently sets up an affordable housing project, much to the chagrin to Henry Potter who can see all his tenants and rent potentially evaporating before his eyes. Are you starting to see some strange reflections of recent years here?

He offers George all manner of riches and foreign travel, which, of course he rejects. Harry becomes a war hero (George’s potential is dashed again as he is refused the draft due to that dodgy ear) Care of the Machiavellian Henry Potter, George looses $8k of Building & Loan deposits is made aware his life insurance makes him worth more dead than alive and ends up on a bridge in the snow on Christmas Eve contemplating suicide. Enter stage right the deliberately crap angel, Clarence, who acting as a cut price Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future all rolled into one, pops up to show him what would have happened if he had not been born and takes him on a trip round Bedford Falls. Here he is confronted with the dysfunctional lives of friends and family who have not benefited from his all round goodness and philanthropy.

Ultimately this film is about redemption and selflessness but is commendably Dickens in narrative by bringing in suicide, financial ruin and despair into the Christmas cheer. Not everyone enjoys Christmas you know. It also offers a salutary warning; that being selfless has it limits, as does the greed of bankers, landlords and unfettered capitalism.


5 Responses

  1. Hugh Terry

    Five isn’t very many, is it?
    Here’s my Top 10…. (no particular order!)

    Duck Soup
    A Hard Day’s Night
    A Touch of Evil
    I’m All Right Jack
    Some Like It Hot
    Great Expectations
    The Train

    …and that’s without Psycho or How Green Was My Valley.
    Love to see ’em on the Big Screen, though. Ta!

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