5 Beautiful Black and White Films

Joseph Gordon-Levitt 	Joseph Gordon-Levitt  driving a car in sin city 2014

For modern independent filmmakers, shooting in black and white as opposed to colour has a number of advantages. For one thing it’s cheaper, and when working on micro budget projects every penny counts. In stylistic terms it also adds a cool, underground veneer to your film, which is important for luring in the hip young crowd.

From classics of 20th century cinema right up to the present day, I’ve got a list of some of the most beautiful black and white films ever made.

Top: Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (2014).
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Scenes from Woody Allen’s iconic “Manhattan” (1979).

Manhattan

Arguably Woody Allen’s greatest cinematic accomplishment in his long years of service and certainly one of the best black and white films of all time. “Manhattan” captures the magic and wonder of New York in ways that have never been bettered: from the spine tingling opening montage of the city’s skyscrapers set, to the music of George Gershwin right through to New Year fireworks over the city. As we track the intertwining professional and romantic lives of a group of New Yorkers, the streets come alive in Gordon Willis’s black and white photography.

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The stylish comic book visuals of “Sin City” (2005).

Sin City

Though there’s the occasional splash of colour, usually in the form of red blood, this highly stylized comic book adaptation is awash with gore, sex and graphic violence. As Film Noir as they come, “Sin City” cuts between a series of violent short stories involving gangsters, cops, strippers and serial killers. Adapted by Robert Rodriguez from a cult graphic novel by Frank Miller, the visuals are dark and beautiful: the whites are pure and the blacks dark as blotted ink. No greys to be found here. It’s a highly striking film, one that feels as fresh today as the day it was made. Roll on the sequel.

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Stunning black and white photography in “Persona” (1996).

Persona

This Ingmar Bergman film from the 60s is held up as one of the director’s finest, and for good reason. It’s a slow burning, philosophical tale of anguish as a nurse (played by Bibi Andersson) is instructed to take care of an actress (Liv Ullman) who has mysteriously become mute, without having any actual symptoms. In true Bergman fashion “Persona” is a highly allegorical tale full of mutations on the meaning of art and religious imagery. The cinematography by regular Bergman DP Sven Nykvist is breathtaking. There’s so much contrast between the blacks and whites, and everything from a pair of sunglasses to the sea takes on a life and meaning of its own.

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A Silent era styling in “The Artist” (2011).

The Artist

A film straight from the heart of Hollywood’s golden era, this Harvey Weinstein backed tale of a silent movie star (Jean Dujardin) whose career slips away with the invention of the talkies. “The Artist” swept the Oscars back in 2011 with its joyful silent movie styling. This includes not only crisp, clear monochrome photography but vintage-era typefaces and cutaway boards just like Buster Keaton comedies. An homage, but also a work of art in its own right. “The Artist” makes you long for a time when going to the movies was the most exciting thing in the world.

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Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” (1995).

Dead Man

Jim Jarmusch is a filmmaker who likes shooting in black and white, most notably in his cult classic “Stranger than Paradise.” “Dead Man” is a hallucinogenic, black and white neo-western starring Johnny Depp as quiet clerk William Blake who is transformed into a sharp-shooting outlaw stalking the forests and towns of The Frontier. The cinematography is intoxicating, luring you into a mind altering state with long cuts of pine trees and smoky mountains.

Images © respective film studios.
Christopher Smail

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Christopher is based in the UK, the former assistant editor of Illusion magazine.

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