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Learning to Watch Black and White Films

Learning to Watch Black & White Films

Hadley Hury, Film Review Editor


Fifty years after his death, I still see my paternal grandfather very clearly.  I see him in black and white. 

A handsome gentleman with a ready smile, he rejects unkindness to anyone in any circumstance as a viable option, he dresses nattily and never leaves home without wearing a hat. Although I was only fourteen when we lost him in 1963, he imbued me with one of the most constant currents in my life. Perhaps I would have gotten there on my own, but I think he had a lot to do with my becoming a passionate moviegoer.

He was in the movie business. He wasn’t a famous actor, successful director or screenwriter, or wealthy mogul, but he had an unmistakable touch of glamor about him. He owned a few theatres in Birmingham and New Orleans.  Though by the late ‘30s they had become solely movie houses, in the ‘20s they doubled as vaudeville venues and cinemas. My grandfather’s were among the few theatres that booked both white acts and African-American vaudeville circuits. I was too young to know enough before he died to ask about those days, but my father later passed along some of the more indelible images and events of his childhood. Though he may not have been allowed to go and see Bessie Smith’s show,  he recalled watching with his younger brother through the banister late one night as Ethel Waters, then in her early days as “The Jazz Baby” sipped bathtub gin and sang along with some of her band members in my grandparents’ kitchen after a show; a teenaged Ginger Rogers being closely shepherded by her mother backstage; and Bill (“Bo Jangles”) Robinson laughing and telling my twelve-year-old father  during a rehearsal break that he was, ”the slowest white boy I ever tried to teach how to dance”.

My grandfather lost almost everything in The Crash. In 1929, there was a large house on Red Mountain with terraced azalea gardens overlooking Birmingham, an urban-chic apartment upstairs in back of the theatre, a Cadillac and a Pierce-Arrow, and a cabin with a sleek boat on the Warrior River. My father, a high school senior, and his younger brother had their own red damask-and-gilt box—first up, stage-left—at the theatre and were apparently “rounders” of the first order. (My father remembered having his school ring and two fraternity pins in circulation at the same time.) Within months my grandfather had lost his ownership and most of his investments and was reduced to managing two theatres for his former partner. The rest of his career was a slow—and never completely recuperative—rebuilding. He probably had many reasons to be a bitter, or at least severely disappointed, human being.

By the time I came to knew him there was only the perennial kindness, the easy smile and cheerfulness, and the five-dollar tips for the servers who carried our Sunday lunch trays to our table at the grand downtown Britlings cafeteria.

He had a constant, apparently unquenchable, sense of wonder.

Perhaps he saw something in my eyes. I only know he talked with me not as if I were six or ten, but as a person, a person capable of seeing, hearing, thinking, appreciating, making distinctions.  Whenever I spoke of the last films I’d seen in Memphis he listened with intensity and asked engaging questions. Better yet were our family visits. Then I would be taken to one of his theatres where I was not only treated to anything I wanted in the glowing concession counters but was greeted by his staff as though I were a little prince. Later, he would listen to my reactions to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, To Catch a Thief, or Damn Yankees and—with both great fun and seriousness—compare and contrast them with other films, or books I might be reading, or films of the past. He always urged me to be open to different ways of seeing and appreciating film. Most important, he taught a child of the 1950s that anything in life—including films—might be new and interesting and exciting without always necessarily being better. He helped me sense even at my early age that that black and white films are not relics of the past, an understanding many of my peers came to grasp much later and which, sadly, some people never do.

Of course I was avid for color.  It would have been impossible for anyone whose earliest movie memories included those Technicolor spectacles of the ‘50s not to have an appreciation of color in film. When Gordon MacRae lopes into the frame on horseback singing that the corn around him is as high as an elephant’s eye our disbelief doesn’t have to be willingly suspended—we pop it with wanton insouciance like a gum bubble. And when Grace Kelley and Cary Grant tear along The Corniche in that convertible we feel her pink scarf streaming back from that swan neck and see, far below, The Mediterranean as a coruscation of teal.

But Grandpa bequeathed to me an openness for a breadth of experience, and that’s when I began to learn that film was not solely “the latest thing” showing at my neighborhood theatre or at the last of the great palaces downtown; it was a fascinating and utterly absorbing continuity of life. Before I could intellectually grasp the concept, he gave me my first intimation that out of the entirety of human history we were privileged to live in the very first century in which human beings could witness themselves “alive” on the screen, and that this was a tremendously significant new way of experiencing social history.

He made sure I knew about “The Late Show”—and inveighed upon my parents to let me stay up on weekend nights to watch. I was drawn and drawn again to these other films, the ones that were becoming sparser by then, the black and white ones shown on that local television station, and which I had all to myself late on weekend nights, as I sprawled on the den floor or sofa, engorging them, giddy with the pale flickering. It was a densely inhabited solitude.

Sometimes I have a need to watch black and white films, and it’s not a precious whim or retrogression—it’s a recognition, a hunger, and the spur is not always the same: it can be a desire to celebrate as easily as it may be a case of the blues in need of reconfiguring. I may feel my soul in a confined space gasping for expansion or my brain looking for an off-ramp when it becomes trapped like a mouse on a wheel. It has nothing to do with pining for unreality or an escape from our human world. If anything it’s an escape into the human world, a place the seventh franchise of a cartoon action hero can’t take me or computer enhancement digitally fix—it’s a way of facing life.

There are several good reasons why some of our best contemporary directors occasionally make black and white films (to name just a few—Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Kenneth Branagh, David Lynch, Tim Burton, the Coen brothers, Pawel Pawlikowski who won the best Foreign Film Oscar this year for Ida) and why others express the desire to.

When you’ve watched Atticus Finch at work in that courtroom you have no need of remembering the various tints of small-town suits or shirtwaists, complexion or hair—you’ve felt the tension and the seething creep of sweat, and you never forget sticking to those wooden benches, waiting for justice to break.

And once you’re introduced to Edward G. Robinson as Rocco in Key Largo, smoking that cigar in the bathtub, you do not have to know the colors of his henchman’s tie as he stands at the door to know that it is garish—and you will always recognize the uneasy cruelty of thugs when you see it and remember that soap suds can be the slime of pure evil. When in The Best Years of Our Lives your breath catches along with hers as Myrna Loy knows for a split second before she knows and turns from the kitchen to see Fredric March at the end of that hall, it’s because an entire universe comprised of them and you, and complete in itself, is catching itsbreath.

Color is seductive and color is life and who would want a world devoid of daffodils and undistracted by the fathomless blue of October skies? But at times we need recalibrating, and black and white takes us somewhere outside our kaleidoscopic slice of life, this crowded hour on the rushing cusp of which we live. It takes us outside time, to those places in which our life is largely made—light and shadow—the architecture of images stripped bare, a truer artifice, the most eidetic reality. It takes the quickened eye, unfettered by pigment and hue, deeper;  its tonalities speak directly to our heart. It’s the stuff, I remember my grandfather telling me, “of memory and of dreams”. Once seen, these films cannot be unseen.

My father told me that in 1910, when my grandfather was twenty, his first job in the fabulous and brave new art and industry of film was as a projectionist in a rough Southern small-town building where the short reels were interspersed with various live acts. When a pert five-foot-two Canadian emigre came to town (billed as “The Little Girl with the Big Voice”) and played piano for the silent movies and sang in the intermissions, my grandfather liked what he saw and heard. Not unlike a young organist and composer named Bach—who, two hundred years before him, was once reprimanded for “letting an unauthorized maiden into the choir loft”—my grandfather asked the young woman if she would like to see how the machinery in the booth operated. Once he enticed her there, he refused to let her out until she gave him a kiss. They were married for 53 years.

When I watch a black and white film I often feel my grandfather close at hand. I now understand that it is not always mutually exclusive to be a Romantic and to face harshly delineated exactitudes.

When my wife and I watch that last scene of Now, Voyager, and Charlotte tells Jerry not to ask for the moon when they have the stars, we don’t have to wonder about the shade of Davis’s lipstick or of Henreid’s  jacket, or what color the drapes may be—there is nothing but the final swell of Steiner’s theme, the two glowing cigarettes lit from one, their one small strip of territory they must protect, that window opened to the night, and those eyes fixed on one another forever.



The Uninvited (1944, dir. Lewis Allen)



On holiday, a music critic and sometime composer, Roderick Fitzgerald, and his sister Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey), discover a lonely house on the rocky coast of Cornwall.  Entranced with its romantic charm and seeking a change from London, the urbane sophisticates buy it from a curmudgeonly neighbor (Donald Crisp), and befriend his twenty-year-old granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell).

Rod and Pam soon learn that Windward House is determined to exact more than the purchase price from them and their new young friend. The three are drawn into a bizarre romantic triangle from beyond the grave. Set in 1937, The Uninvited is a perennial favorite mystery film among viewers as well as among directors as varied as Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack, and its quietly rich atmosphere is the perfect antidote to loud hyper-action, monsters, and mayhem. It’s a classy and potent reminder of how far we can be taken with a mysteriously locked room, a complex family secret, cold stirrings of air, the odd sound in the night, and an occasional wafting scent of mimosa.

It’s a refreshing reminder, too, of why many directors today say they wish they could shoot a film in black and white, and why others such as Scorsese, Woody Allen, Alexander Payne, and Tim Burton have done so. Charles Lang received a well-deserved best cinematography Oscar nomination for The Uninvited; it is 1940s black and white at its sharpest, lushest, and most expert, evincing psychological shadings not possible with color.

English-born director Lewis Allen’s credits would eventually include the classic gaslight noir So Evil My Love(1948), and Suddenly (1954). Neither gothic nor noir, violent nor melodramatic, it is striking how often The Uninvited defies the conventions of the haunted-house genre. The screenplay, by Frank Partos and Dodie Smith, has glints of humor, two developing love interests, and sunlight to balance both the shudders of the Cornish seaside evenings and the emotional frissons of the resonantly emerging backstory.

The supporting cast also includes author-actor Cornelia Otis Skinner in an arch but fascinating tour-de-force as a sanitorium director and girlhood friend of Stella’s deceased mother. Skinner laces her character’s chill villainy with suggested undertones of madness and repressed homoeroticism.

Milland won the best actor Oscar a year later for his performance in Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend. Here his knack for light, worldly-wise humor and skeptical intelligence is deployed early on, but his doubting Roderick enables our own suspension of disbelief as increasingly he is able to take less assurance in irony and empirical proofs.  Ruth Hussey, one of the most likable actors of the ‘40s and ‘50s—witty, chic, but always down-to-earth—was often cast as a wisecracker (as in her Oscar-nominated reporter role in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story). Pamela is a more rounded character, approaching the arcane phenomena with practicality and Stella’s family history with an open heart. As siblings, Milland and Hussey are companionable foils, and they infuse the various moods of the film with a credible consistency.

The Uninvited remains an elegant and eerie experience, featuring a classic score by Victor Young (including the popular theme “Stella by Starlight”). Turn the lights down, silence your phones, open a bottle of something good, and cozy in.




DARK PASSAGE (1947, dir. Delmer Daves)


Some film fans are surprised when reminded that over the course of their much-publicized 11-year marriage, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made only four films together: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948). Other than to die-hard fans of the famous couple, Dark Passage is the least known.

For those who relish film settings so rich in their sense of place, so redolent of the unique atmosphere of their locales, that they seem a central character in the piece, Dark Passage—like the Joan Crawford suspenser Sudden Fear (1952) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)—is a highly enjoyable immersion in San Francisco. Writer-director Delmer Daves, working from David Goodis’s novel, exploits its picturesque post-War streets, its capricious weather and moody fogs, and the stunning panoramas from the hills to provide sensuous context for the film’s rather outlandish plot.

Sidney Hickox’s crisp black and white cinematography heightens the noir elements and includes some interesting point-of-view and montage sequences, the most engaging of which is that the camera-eye view for the first third of the film is from the perspective of the protagonist, Vincent Parry (Bogart), a cruelly wronged man who escapes from San Quentin prison and is befriended by young artist Irene Jansen (Bacall) who harbors him in her bohemianly stylish apartment. Her generous concern for him stems from the fact that her father, too, was wrongly jailed. The subjective camera in the opening scenes—a technique which Hitchcock and others had tested sparingly for several years and which Robert Montgomery also more fully employed in 1947, directing and starring as Philip Marlowe in Lady in the Lake—puts the viewer in the place of the fugitive; later, as the inevitable love story between Vincent and Irene develops the camera perspective becomes more conventional to take in the raveling of the backstory and corollary subplots.

Another dimension of Dark Passage that shores up viewer involvement even when the storyline feels farfetched or overstretched is the uniformly superb supporting cast. There are vivid performances by Agnes Moorehead as a meddlesome shrew, Houseley Stevenson as an extremely shady plastic surgeon, Clifton Young as a hapless petty crook, and Tom D’Andrea as a philosophical cabby. Moorehead and Stevenson, especially, give their characters an almost operatic intensity, finely etched and electric, that nonetheless manages also to imbue them—and the texture of the film—with a wonderfully gritty noir realism.



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