An Experiment in Black and White


About a month ago, a friend of mine sent me a curious text message out of the blue. It said:

“Watch The Fifth Element in black and white. It changes everything.”

My mind was subsequently blown. I asked him what the big difference was and he told me that it made was more like a classic B movie, and it changed the whole approach of the movie.

I thought back to the recent reruns of AMC’s The Walking Dead in black and white. These changes can have a huge impact on storytelling, and possibly converting a story to something as simple black and white picture may make significant alterations in the delivery. American History X and Clerks were made in black and white, as was The Artist, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ed Wood, etc (for obvious reasons). What is it about black and white that makes a difference?

So thusly began my experiment: watch 5 unrelated movies in black and white, and see if it changed the movie, and if so, for better or worse?

The first step, clearly, was to drop the color settings on my TV. When doing this, please be sure to memorize and reset it as not to frustrate the hell out of those living in your household.

Then I picked the movies. I opted to choose films of a variety of genres to see how content lends itself to the alteration. I purposely avoided things like period pieces, cartoons, or overdone CG (ahem, Avatar). I really had to choose movies that carried themselves with a strong storyline and characterizations.

Jurassic Park (1993)

How could I resist this one? Jurassic Park was significantly changed sans color. Much like The Fifth Element, it came across like a Sci-Fi B level monster movie, through and through. The scene in which Alan and Ellie first see dinosaurs lost all of it’s impact, but I feel that was to be expected. What I didn’t expect was how much the T-Rex would seem like Godzilla; it was still somewhat threatening, but really more campy than anything. It was equally as fun, but more in an MST3K sense rather than action/adventure blockbuster.

Interestingly enough, Jeff Goldblum’s scenes were the best to watch. I’m not sure why, but his charisma really carries through in b&w. The scene in which Ian Malcolm is on the back of the jeep watching the ripple in the footprint puddle. There was something oddly bleak and dramatic about it, more so than the obvious “A dinosaur is about to kill us” sort of way.

Different: Yes

Improved: Depends on what you’re looking for…

Worth Watching: Hell yes.

 

Runaway Bride (1999)

I know I risk judgement for this choice, but I wanted to try a typical “Rom Com” that I’ve seen a several times over, and because frankly, I think the movie is adorable. Modern romantic comedies tend to be so brightly colored and vibrant in their cinematography, I figured the juxtaposition would be potentially compelling.

I was wrong.

Dear lord, it was DULL. The jokes didn’t stick, the sentimental moments were frustratingly long, and even though Julia Roberts looks like a classic starlet, it didn’t save the movie watching experience. This was far from Bringing Up Baby, however. Not to mention there was a gag about dying Ike’s (Richard Gere) hair pink and blue and of course that didn’t come across in b&w, so there’s that. Lesson learned: romantic comedies are in color for a damn good reason. All that sparkle and shine covers up the vapid and banal.

Different: Yes.

Improved: No.

Worth watching: No. Stay far, far away.

Crash (2004)

Oi vey. I wanted to try a drama, so I chose the most dramatic of dramas readily available in the collection at home that wasn’t a period piece. This film is already very dark in subject, and I went into this thinking that it might be more artsy. I walked away not really knowing what to think.

One one hand there were some scenes that became more powerful, namely the car ride scene where Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillippe) shoots the hitchhiking Peter Waters (Larenz Tate), and the scene in which Lara (Ashlyn Sanchez) jumps in front her dad (Michael Pena) when he is held at gunpoint. On the other hand, this movie didn’t need the extra drama the b&w can provide. It isn’t necessary. Either way the movie makes you love and hate humanity all at the same time, whether or not it’s in color.

Different: Sorta.

Improved: Kinda.

Worth watching: Yes?

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

Here was an opportunity for some classic swashbuckling action with a classic storyline set in classic b&w film. Monte Cristo didn’t quite translate that way, but it was still a damn fine movie. The action scenes were just as good, and the tone of the film was exactly the same as before even though the color was gone.

The only real highlight was the beach scene early in the film with Dantès (Jim Caviezel) and Mercédès (Dagmara Dominczyk). That scene in b&w had additional romance and a nice mood about it. Other than that, though, nothing about the movie without color was tremendously notable.

Different: No.

Improved: No.

Worth Watching: No.

 

I Heart Huckabees (2004)

Oh David O. Russell… I like this movie a lot. I think Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman, and Mark Wahlberg are the stars, and I am so glad I chose to rewatch this one in b&w. I think that a huge opportunity was missed by shooting in color.

Maybe it’s because, thematically, the movie talks about existentialism and fate so much that I think that b&w fits it so well. As it is the ideas expressed in the movie are elaborate, intellectual, and pretentious, and I think b&w cinematography matches it superbly. Huckabees comes across as more of an arthouse piece but with big name actors to pull the weight of the story. The very best part was the opening scene. Jason Schwartzman comes across as a man on the verge of a full blown mental breakdown more than just a stressed out kid. It sets a wildly different tone for the duration of the film and tugs on a certain element of hopelessness.

Different: Yes.

Improved: Yes.

Worth Watching: Yes.

 

So what did I learn from my little experiment? Color, or lack thereof, can really turn a movie into something else. It’s really interesting to see how some scenes transform into something bizarre or bleak, or campy and delightful. My roommate and I had fun kicking back and rewatching some old favorites in a new light, and it’s a delightful game to play. So give it a shot and tell me, what movies are better/different in black and white?

Special thanks to Bryan Knapp and Liz Golden for inspiration and “research assistance,” respectively.