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  • Writer's pictureAlex Leptos

6 Effective Uses Of Black And White In Colour Movies

Updated: May 21, 2021

Film has come a long way since the times of colorless moving pictures, from the seductive femme fatale and serious steely eyed detectives in film noir to guessing what flippin' color hair Lucille Ball had!

But you know what they say — sometimes, you've just gotta go back to basics; sometimes less is more. As far as we may have come, good ol' fashioned black and white can still be as moody and atmospheric as ever, especially now since we aren't as accustomed to it. Modern black and white films are few and far between; they including some stunners such as 2014's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2016's The Eyes of My Mother, 2011's modern silent film The Artist, and the beautiful Polish Academy and BAFTA award-winning Ida, about a young (almost) nun in 1962 going on a search to learn about her family.

'Ida' [Credit: Solopan / Memento Films / Artificial Eye]

Some of the most effective uses of the monochrome palette however, come from colour films when used for effect. The alteration of style can really help change and sell the mood, keeping it fresh and transporting us to a bygone era. Here are some that did it best:

6. 'Sin City' (2005)

'Sin City' [Credit: Miramax Films]

OK, so Sin City is a bit of a cheater because I suppose it technically is a black and white film — or is it? In any case, Frank Miller's Sin City isn't just black and white for the sake of being black and white. The decision was made not only to give it the mood and atmosphere of classic film noir, but also in order to stay as close as possible to the source material (being the Sin City graphic novel series). Co-director Robert Rodriguez, a longtime fan of the graphic novels, wanted to make a "translation, not an adaptation."

The film's noir style is also aided by the no-nonsense dialogue between its characters and frequent use of voice overs of the characters' dark and sombre thoughts as we delve into their corrupted minds, reminiscent of the detective stories of the 1940s and '50s.

'Sin City' [Credit: Miramax Films]

The film uses selective colour throughout on certain subjects for emphasis. Some of said subjects include Alexis Bledel's piercing blue eyes, Jaime King's red dress and blonde hair; Clive Owen's red Converse shoes and Cadillac; Mickey Rourke's orange prescription pill container, Marley Shelton's red dress and red lips, as well as Elijah Wood's white glasses. It's through this that the film takes on a unique and highly effective nature, making it technically a black and white film, but also technically not a black and white film. Sin City is kind of a grey area (there are a lot of grey areas, actually.)

Sin City strived to create a certain mood and a certain feel that we as viewers would respond to. If it wasn't for the use of black and white, not only would it not allow us to be transported into the pages of the graphic novel, it wouldn't be nearly as effective.

5. 'The Assassin'/ '刺客聶隱娘' (2015)

'The Assassin' [Credit: Well Go USA / StudioCanal]

Shot in the Academy ratio, Golden-Lion winning Hou Hsiao-Hsien took his artistic style of filmmaking to the max with BAFTA-nominated The Assassin. The director has never been one for the conventional way; Hou's films have a much larger emphasis on setting, image and atmosphere than traditional storytelling, and to this extent The Assassin could be viewed to be even slightly pretentious. It's really difficult to care though, with visuals as drool-worthy as these.

In regards to the film, Hou told The Guardian:

“I don’t think that plot is the only way to appeal to an audience. The audience can catch the message of a film through landscape, character, details.”

'The Assassin' [Credit: Well Go USA / StudioCanal]

The beauty and vibrancy of the colors may not have been as initially effective without the opening scene. The first eight minutes of the film are presented in high contrast black and white as we see Yinniang (Shu Qi) — our titular character — fail to carry out a mission due to the presence of the target's young son. The elegance of the scene sets us up for what's to come, and the absence of color is effective because when we are presented with some, it's like being transported into a Zhang Quan Zong painting.

While there doesn't seem to be an official explanation as to why Hou chose to shoot the scene in black and white, it could be interpreted as being symbolic of the assassin rules. An assassin is assigned their target, they locate and assassinate them. It's black and white — there is no grey area. Perhaps Hou wanted to remind us of that as we watch Yinniang ultimately cross over into that grey area.

4. 'The Notorious Bettie Page' (2005)

'The Notorious Bettie Page' [Credit: Picturehouse]

Mary Harron's biographical film is about the relatively brief career of 1950s pinup model, "Queen of Pinups," Bettie Page. The film chronicles her early days as a naive and devout Christian woman and hopeful actress through her discovery and transition into what would make her the first (and still the most famous) bondage model.

The Notorious Bettie Page is mostly in black and white in order to capture the nostalgic mood of the time period, but also serves as a strong contrast to the very vibrant color scenes of the film. The color palette is in place in order to show the seediness of her career, its more vibrant and cheery side, and the escape she would ultimately make. Cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III used old color stock to imitate the cheerfully vivid look of Technicolor common in films of the 1950s.

'The Notorious Bettie Page' [Credit: Picturehouse]

Holding the film together is Gretchen Mol's (Boardwalk Empire) bubbly and charismatic performance as Bettie Page as she swings between modesty and exhibitionism in a fantastically fluid way. Not to mention that she looks so much like the model that this could have been a documentary.

3. 'Casino Royale' (2006)

'Casino Royale' [Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Columbia Pictures]

2006's Casino Royale was a restart of the James Bond story and took us right back to the beginning, when 007 first attained his "00" status and his license to kill. The film wasted no time in presenting us with a new style in order to prepare us for what was to come.

The black and white opening flashback sequence can be seen as a homage to the series' long running history with its extremely basic, almost Hitchockian setup and stark facial closeups. The slow music and tension building before becoming exciting and fast-paced is reminiscent of older Bond flicks. Absent, too, are the mind-blowing special effects and breathtaking visuals; gone are the death-defying stunts, flashy gadgets, cars and beautiful women.

The opener very much took it back to basics with a seriously brutal fight scene without the slick martial arts that we have become accustomed to. We also see Bond talking to turncoat MI6 section chief, Dryden, in his office in the present day, giving the scene a further noir feel.

'Casino Royale' [Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Columbia Pictures]

The scene also saw a way to introduce us a much more ruthless and steely-eyed take on England's most powerful weapon in Daniel Craig. The classic version of the character is classy, with morals and values; Pierce Brosnan had a family motto, but not this guy. He is still suave and stylish but this Bond is tougher and a lot meaner. As Time put it:

"This Bond, however, seems to have no such upper-class pretensions."

Would the opening scene of Casino Royale have been cool in colour? Yes, but it wouldn't have been anywhere near is badass.

2. 'Kill Bill: Volume 1' (2003)

'Kill Bill: Volume 1' [Credit: Miramax Films]

Quentin Tarantino's multi-award winning Kill Bill is a homage to the '70s grindhouse genre as well as the zero-gravity action of classic martial arts flicks while also taking influence from samurai movies and spaghetti westerns. It even has an anime sequence. Kill Bill is a pretty straightforward revenge story but is one of the greatest of all time.

The standout scene of Volume 1 is without a doubt the Crazy 88's fight as Uma Thurman tears through an army of 44 men (and one seriously badass woman — Chiaki Kuriyama). The 10-minute bloodbath is brutal and the ridiculous stunts are reminiscent of Wuxia cinema such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

'Kill Bill: Volume 1' [Credit: Miramax Films]

Early on, the scene abandons colour as the Bride pulls a man's eye out. The decision is seen as a homage to '70s and '80s US airings of kung fu movies, in which they were shown in black and white to conceal blood in order to bypass the TV censors. Black and white actually wasn't originally going to be included (and in the Japanese version, none is).

Prior to its US release, the MPAA demanded measures be taken to tone the scene down to attain an R rating. So, in a way, it kind of was a homage, but not an intentional one. The fact that the scene had to be toned down for being too brutal is pretty crazy, and though the black and white wasn't necessarily put in place for effect, that's exactly what happened.

1. 'Lady Vengeance'/ '친절한 금자씨' (2005)

'Lady Vengeance' [Credit: CJ Entertainment]

Prolific South Korean director Park Chan-wook is known for his tales of revenge and vivid dream-like imagery. Lady Vengeance (also known as Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) is the spiritual successor to the highly acclaimed Oldboy and the final entry in the director's 'Vengeance' Trilogy (the first being Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance).

The standard version of the film is in full colour, but a second version of the film exists, aptly titled the "Fade to Black and White version." This version begins in full colour and gradually fades until it is totally black and white by the end.

'Lady Vengeance' [Credit: CJ Entertainment]

This change in colouring is very symbolic of how the film becomes more and more sinister and brutal as it goes, and the colour and hues being stripped away really helps change the tone and atmosphere.

In addition, there is also a change in the colours used in the background settings and clothing within the film. At the beginning, the environments contain a lot of vibrant hues (in a neo-noir sort of way), whereas toward the end of the film, blacks, whites and much darker tones are used. Furthermore, the protagonist, Geum-ja, wears a blue coat during earlier scenes in the film and by the end, it is replaced by a black leather one.

Lady Vengeance not only uses black and white in its on-screen palette, but also in its physical attributes, utilizing it to high psychological effect.

(Written by Alex Leptos, owner of Outside the Spotlight)

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