If there’s one holiday movie that I simply must watch at this time of year it’s Miracle on 34th Street (1947). This amazing, post-World War II project starring a young Natalie Wood is filled with everything you could want from a holiday movie: great sounds, fantastic sites, and a wonderful story. What this movie doesn’t have, or rather, what the original version doesn’t is color. Oh, the movie has since been released in color, but that’s not my version. And I’m not trying to sound like a movie snob, I simply prefer the black and white version of the movie. I don’t need red, white, and green blasting me in the face as I’m trying to enjoy this simple yet brilliant tale involving the one and only Kris Kringle. I’ve seen its colorized counterpart, and the color doesn’t add anything. It doesn’t make the movie feel more Christmasey. If anything, it detracts from the visuals. Miracle on 34th Street is black and white (and gray) in form and function, and I simply like it that way.
But then again, I grew up watching black and white movies, and I carry with me a general if not overwhelming fondness for them. On the other hand, if my husband’s going to join me for a Miracle on 34th Street viewing, he’d prefer it be in color. He’s not the world’s biggest black and white movie fan, and I can’t blame him for that. I’ve see plenty of old movies that I’ve thought could use a little punch. (Frankly, I like the colorized version of Holiday Inn, for example, over the black and white original. There the color adds to the general spectacle.) But that’s not to say that we’ve never found common ground over a black and white movie. “Classic movies” aside, we’ve seen plenty of great, modern black and white movies, and a few we have marked as favorites. So here are five that stand out just a little more than the rest of the pack.
Trying to sum up Clerks in a few sentences is..well…pretty damn easy. I mean, what’s there to describe? Not much when you’re looking at the slice-of-life imagery associated with convenience store clerk Dante and his attempt to just get through a day, It’s a convenience store, in New Jersey, next to a video store, that also happens to be, coincidentally, in New Jersey. Haha. Okay, silliness aside, Clerks is a genius comedy that needs no outward colorization because all you need is the script. How Dante, his friend Randall (the video store clerk), the duo of Jay and Silent Bob, and the other cast members appear is almost irrelevant. But what they have to say about life, ah, now there’s the color.
Paper Moon (1973)
Speaking of wonderful scripts, if you’ve not seen Paper Moon then get thee to a streaming service forthwith! Really great and believable adult-child collaborations are rare in movies, but the team of the young Tatum O’Neal (Addie) and her father, Ryan O’Neal (Moses), is too good to be true – only it is true and it is really good! In Paper Moon, Moses, a con man, takes Addie, his perfect accomplice, on a con-filled romp across several states during the Great Depression. Everything about the film is gorgeous, from the simple black and white visuals to the dialog; especially the dialog, and especially the dialog between Moses and Addie. It’s one of those movies that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it, and I can’t even think, and would prefer not to think about what it would all look like in color.
The Elephant Man (1980)
I first saw The Elephant Man (just a portion of it) in a college English class, and I thought for sure it was an “old movie.” Everything about it had a very classic movie look — from the grainy black and white film to the “noire” qualities of the story. Imagine my surprise when, upon renting it later on, I saw that it had been made in 1980! If you’ve not seen The Elephant Man, then you’re probably familiar, at least in part, with the true drama of nineteenth century Londoner Joseph Merrick who suffered from severe deformities and sought out what little of a normal life he could. John Hurt’s turn as Merrick (named John in the film), is quite possibly one of the best performances ever given on the silver screen. Though Merrick’s life may have been colorless, his personality and emotions were as painfully colorful as could be.
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
Ah, give me a great true-to-life/historical portrayal of the past, particularly one that revolves around our mid-twentieth century evolution of media and politics, and I’m a happy camper. Good Night, and Good Luck gloriously portrays, in simple black and white, the development of broadcast journalism in the 1950s. At the story’s core is newscaster Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn) and the work he did to bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy (shown through archival footage) and his “fight” again Communism. If there’s one color to worry about in this film, it’s red. Beyond that, black and white lends polish to this story about fear and the war against it that played out on national television.
Cigarettes and Coffee (2003)
Viewing Jim Jarmusch’s Cigarettes and Coffee is as surreal as it is entertaining. It’s almost voyeuristic in the sense that it seems wrong to horn in on this series of seemingly private conversations between various individuals. Only thing is, these various individuals happen to be famous, so it’s okay. The film features a group of vignettes, most with two unrelated individuals (actors, musicians, or those of similar ilk), having conversations in a diner. And everyone enjoys coffee and/or cigarettes, while they converse on disparate topics such as medicine, Paris, and music, and sometimes coffee and cigarettes. The conversations range range from easy to awkward (like the Iggy Pop/Tom Waits scene below, though I can’t imagine a conversation with Tom Waits being anything but awkward). The black and white film serves to mirror their (and our own) black and white (and sometimes gray) opinions of the world.
What are your favorite black and white movies, classic or modern?