The late, great Roger Ebert, in his 1989 essay, Why I Love Black and White, wrote that “black and white is a legitimate and beautiful artistic choice in motion pictures, creating feelings and effects that cannot be obtained any other way.”
Which is why some filmmakers still use this method for certain projects, even though color photography has been the cinematic norm for well over half a century, and even though many cinema goers are reluctant (or flat-out refuse) to see black and white films.
Nebraska, a 2013 road trip movie starring Bruce Dern, was shot in black and white, despite some hesitance from the film’s distributor, Paramount Vantage. According to director Alexander Payne (via thefilmstage.com), he filmed it that way to produce an “iconic, archetypal look," a sentiment shared by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who referenced the “poetic power of the black and white” in combination with the Nebraska landscapes.
Like other artsy films, black and white movies are a financial risk.
The Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), which paid homage to film noir of the 1930s and ’40s, failed to recoup its $20 million budget at the box office. Ditto Woody Allen’s Celebrity (1994), which earned barely half of its $12 million budget.
Thankfully, others have done surprisingly well.
The Oscar-winning The Artist (2011) had box office receipts of more than $130 million (worldwide), eclipsing its $15 million budget by a wide margin. Good Night, and Good Luck did boffo box office as well, grossing $54,641,191 (worldwide), nearly eight times its relatively meager $7 million budget.
Here are eight more color-era black and white films that earned a profit at the box office.
Rated R (retroactively)
Box Office: $32 million (domestic)
For Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock is often given credit for killing off the protagonist early on—an unusual move for a director, especially at the time—but that’s how Robert Bloch, the man responsible for the novel on which the film is based, wrote the story, which was adapted for the screen by Joseph Stefano.
Hitchcock, who financed Psycho himself, is also routinely praised for his choice of black and white photography, but he did so primarily as a budget-cutting maneuver, not an artistic choice (though he was influenced by the 1954 black and white French film, Les Diaboliques). Regardless, Psycho is a masterpiece of dread, tension and horror. (Avoid the pointless color remake, which Gus Van Sant foisted upon the public in 1998.)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Budget: $1.3 million
Box Office: $29,133,000 (domestic)
Set in the fictional West Texas town of Anarene, a bleak, depressing place that is losing its one escape—the old movie house—The Last Picture Show was directed by Peter Bogdonavich, who once told Roger Ebert that he shot it in black and white because “color made the town look too pretty.”
The film, based on a novel by native Texan Larry McMurtry, featured the cinematic debut of Sybil Shepherd and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, with Ben Johnson winning Best Supporting Actor and Cloris Leachman winning Best Supporting Actress. A disappointing (artistically and commercially) sequel, Texasville, followed in 1990, but it was shot in color, giving it a cheerier, less poignant feel.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Budget: $2.78 million
Box Office: $86,273,333 (domestic)
To fans of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s, it’s obvious why Young Frankenstein wasn’t produced in color. The movie parodies those classic films—particularly Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939)—but director and co-writer (with Gene Wilder) Mel Brooks pays homage as well, from the black and white photography to the familiar sets to the hilarious dialogue and sight gags, which turn the serious nature of the Universal pictures on their (disembodied) ear.
Brooks followed Young Frankenstein more than two decades later with Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), which was filmed in color, wasn’t nearly as funny and tanked at the box office, grossing barely a third of its $30 million budget.
Budget: $9 million
Box Office: $39,946,780 (domestic)
It’s no secret that Bronx-born Woody Allen loves New York. He also loves shooting in black and white, as evidenced by such pictures as Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Shadows and Fog (1991). In Manhattan, Allen’s first and best black and white film, he plays a middle-aged comedy writer who hangs out with the cultural elite and dates a 17-year-old girl (played by Mariel Hemingway).
The plot is serviceable, but less important than the gorgeous cinematography and sweeping musical score. To quote the film’s opening: “He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion…to him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”
The Elephant Man (1980)
Budget: $5 million
Box Office: $26,010,864 (domestic)
Directed by Twin Peaks auteur David Lynch, who also directed the black and white cult classic Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man is based on the life of Joseph Merrick (called John in the film), a severely deformed Englishman who died in a London hospital in 1890 at the age of 27. John Hurt played the tragic figure, famously wailing, “I am not an animal! I am not an animal! I’m a human being!”
To gain employment, Merrick, who had a troubled relationship with his father and stepmother, allowed himself to be used as a colorful sideshow attraction, but it’s hard to imagine the movie he inspired being filmed in color. The black and white photography at once mutes and makes more real the horrors of Merrick’s disfigurement.
Raging Bull (1980)
Budget: $18 million
Box Office: $23,383,987 (domestic)
Widely regarded as the greatest boxing movie of all time, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull stars Robert De Niro as real-life middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, who, if La Motta’s memoir (1970’s Raging Bull: My Story) on which the film is based is any indication, was as tortured and as vicious outside the ring as he was inside.
De Niro, who had collaborated with Scorsese on three previous films (including 1976’s Taxi Driver), had to convince the director to take the job, since Scorsese claimed he didn’t like or know anything about boxing. Thankfully, he was a quick study. The boxing scenes, which were filmed inside the ring (unlike most previous pugilist films), are brutal, dynamic, immediate and, like the rest of the movie, beautifully shot in black and white.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Budget: $22 million
Box Office: $ $321,306,305 (worldwide)
Inspired by Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel, Steven Spielberg’s masterful Schindler’s List popularized the heroic efforts of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who was a member of the Nazi Party during World War II, but saved more than 1,000 Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories.
Shortly after the release of the compelling, yet sobering film, Spielberg explained to the BBC’s Jeremy Isaacs why he filmed it in black-and-white: “My only frame of reference not only to the Holocaust, but the entire second World War is black and white because I was brought up watching black-and-white documentaries, black and white archival footage, black and white movies about that period…I don’t have a color frame of reference.”
Sin City (2005)
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $158,753,820 (worldwide)
Based on Frank Miller’s hardboiled, neo-noir graphic novel series, Sin City is the closest Hollywood has ever come to reproducing comics on the silver screen. Director Robert Rodriguez, partnering with Miller, follows Miller’s work slavishly, often recreating scenes panel-for-panel. The effect is mesmerizing.
Like the comic books, Sin City the movie makes brilliant use of black and white, contrasting the juxtaposed hues to heighten the drama, the tension and the dark mood of the trio of intertwining tales (the film adapts The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill and That Yellow Bastard). The movie adds judicious splashes of color, such as red blood, blue eyes and yellow skin, adding to the visual panache. If you enjoyed Pulp Fiction (1994) and Natural Born Killers (1994), or you’re a fan of experimental cinema, you should definitely see Sin City.
*Box office numbers courtesy of www.boxofficemojo.com
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