Dooley Wilson, left, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the 1942 film “Casablanca.”(Warner Bros. / First National Pictures)
Crossroads School

Opinion: In praise of black and white films

Coming of age during the 2000s, I was raised on Marvel-esque, super-hero, CGI-enhanced cinema.  Think of all the blockbusters gracing the multiplex screens in the past decade — animated or not — they all smack of super-charged sensory assault.

Hyper-kinetic overload for the eyes and ears, the camera angles make our hearts race with an amped-up disorientation. It’s akin to going on a roller-coaster ride wherein you get shaken, tossed about, but in the end resolve to a peaceful landing. And we love it. And it makes you want more. Another sequel… will it outdo the last one? We wait with excited anticipation.

The movie studios know this, and that’s why they continue to feed us an out-portioned sized diet of bigger, in-your-face films. My aesthetic was formed and informed this way. Yours probably was too.

But recently, my friend and I have been exploring old black and white films. At first, I resisted this seemingly retro deep-dive. But the truth is that there has been a dearth of movies in theaters that have interested me, high-octane or not; so we decided to do a weekly screening at home of films selected from the classic cinematic cannon.

And sometimes, when the Aero or Egyptian theaters host a must-see oldie-but-goldie, we venture out to view it on the big screen with strangers sitting side-by-side — an actual audience — just the way the director intended it.

Before I continue, a note on the terms “old” versus “classic.” Some feel “old” is pejorative, that it means un-fresh, like it needs a dusting. “Classic” on the other hand, implies timelessness, of an everlasting quality. Certainly not all old movies are classic.

There were plenty of B, C or even D movies made in black and white, but I am not speaking of those (just want to get through all the A’s, please…).

Anyway, I recognize that “old movies” is normal nomenclature for my generation, so I am going to use it interchangeably with “classic” without any negative connotation.

Color films came into wide commercial use in the 1950s — that means there are over four decades of black and white films to start catching up on. Thus far, we have watched: “Citizen Kane,” “Duck Soup,” “The Third Man,” “Casablanca,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Psycho,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Double Indemnity,” “The Great Dictator” and “Some Like It Hot.” Although “Some Like It Hot” was made in 1959 when color was the norm, Director Billy Wilder purposely chose to not go with color to project an authentic 1929 setting).

I have come to understand that back and white offers a dimension and quality that color films cannot.  We live our day-to-day real lives in color; therefore, black and white movies represent the unreal. Films in color expose every detail, the good, the bad and the ugly.

In contrast, black and white leaves more to the imagination. Inside the gradations of grays, living in the shadows, therein exists a dreamlike quality embedded in the film’s floating images.

When we see black and whites, it’s as if there was a filter layered over the narrative, the other-worldliness moves the viewer into another dimension. Often more subtle and surreal such as in “Citizen Kane,” or in the case of film noir like in “Double Indemnity,” the blackness provides a wash of grit, or in the stringent juxtapositions of black and white with harsh contrasts as in “The Third Man;” in either of these examples, this cinematic nuance dialogs directly with our psyches.

The process is a tad more participatory and active than modern-day movies — the viewer gets to project what they want to into the dark negative space of the film’s frames.

Based on my, albeit short-lived, experiment with black and white, I now realize that there are simply “good films” and “bad” films — it doesn’t matter if they are old or new. Sure, I still love and can’t wait to see the latest smack-down over-the-top bombardment of the senses films coming out.

After so many years, I am loyal to these franchises and any new upstarts (primarily all now produced by Disney since they acquired most of the properties in this genre). But after this exercise in black and white, I have a newfound appreciation and respect for the old classics.

On the future watch list is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Stalag 17,” “Maltese Falcon,” “On the Waterfront,” “Grapes of Wrath,” “Paths of Glory,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Metropolis,” “High Noon,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “From Here to Eternity,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Hustler,” etc.

Between this viewing list and my college applications, it’s going to be a busy senior year!

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