Black & White (in the Cinema)

Posted on August 6, 2009


Picture courtesy:

Picture courtesy:


The sight of James Bond in black-and-white suggests a few romantic reasons for the decline of black-and-white cinema.

JULY 2009 – AFTER EACH SCREENING OF CASINO ROYALE, theatre floors everywhere were surely littered not only with stray kernels of popcorn and tattered confetti from ticket stubs, but also the remnants of expectations that were shattered to smithereens. It wasn’t just that this iconoclastic interpretation of James Bond courted heresy, by refusing to kneel reverentially before the Holy Trinity of guns, girls and gadgets. It’s also the black-and-white shots that opened the film, the shots heard around the world as a defiant declaration of independence from the earlier Bonds. As the film opens, the outer edges of the frame are eaten away by the blackness of night. A solitary streetlamp, towards the centre, attempts to dispel the darkness, throwing a harsh, halogen whiteness on the facade of a high-rise.

The stillness is broken only by a white cloud of smoke rising from the asphalt, or possibly from the bowels of a nearby gutter – and the camera observes everything from a tactful distance, gaping upwards, as if in anticipation of a happening that will disrupt the clean lines of this near-noir composition. And on cue, a car drives up, a black car trailing a sinister black shadow. The driver emerges, the features of his wary face leaving little doubt that he’d like nothing more than to be swallowed up by the darkness, become one with the night. But the streetlamp refuses to cooperate. Its white light falls on the planes of his face that lie in its merciless path, but the angle at which he stands ensures that at least some part of him is shrouded in black.

A discreet cut later, the camera, still below, follows the ascent of an elevator as it hums past shiny lattices of steel and chrome. Inside, the man looks up at the counter, which flashes a digital three, then four and five and finally six, as he reaches his destination. He paces across a corridor and opens the door to a room. Now on the inside of the room, we observe the door swinging inwards, towards a space that appears populated solely by shadows. He walks to a table at the far end, snaps on a lamp, and stiffens in the sudden burst of white light. He turns to face an astonishing image of James Bond.

This is the first time we see Daniel Craig’s incarnation of the superspy, as he coldly announces, “M doesn’t mind you earning a little money on the side, Dryden. She’d just prefer it if wasn’t selling secrets.” But it’s not the purring contents of the voice we pay attention to. (Ask yourself: how many people remember what the latest Bond’s first words were, or even who Dryden was?) It’s his face – the black suit amidst the black shadows leave nothing visible except a disembodied deathmask in white. As Dryden collects himself and sits down, he’s lit by the lamp he just switched on – a man of head and neck and shoulders and fingers prying apart the gloves from his hands, while Bond, in a far corner, is still little more than a face and a voice.

With a faint sneer, Dryden points out that had M suspected him of serious malfeasance, she’d have sent along a double-oh, a status to whose elevation requires two killings, whereas Bond, so far, has none. But Bond has already killed Dryden’s contact – again, in grainy black-and-white – and, now, he pulls the trigger on Dryden. After this near-noir opening, a cascade of blood – all luscious swirls of red – washes over the screen and transports the film to a candyland of colours, but what remains with us is the black-and-white Bond, the creature of the night, the man from the shadows, the brute-force “blunt instrument” (as M refers to him) to whom taking a life is a simple matter of pointing a gun, with no complications of grey shades. (M later observes, “I would ask you if you could remain emotionally detached, but I don’t think that’s your problem is it, Bond?”)

A black-and-white segment in the movies, in our modern age, is usually either an affectation, an ornamental design element, or an indicator of a flashback – and the stylisation and the long-ago-ness of the opening of this Bond movie seem to suggest a bit of both. But it’s only after peeling back the layers of character on this version of Bond that a third fanciful theory snaps into place: it’s only fitting that a man to whom life and death are uncomplicated scenarios painted in black and white should be presented to us in the very same colours. There isn’t much of an audience left for black-and-white movies any more – the colours possibly awaken in people long-suppressed horrors of having suffered through art cinema and documentaries – but could there be other (and admittedly more romantic) reasons for the decline of black-and-white cinema?

Could it be that there aren’t, any longer, too many characters – action heroes, or even otherwise – that could be uniquely defined using those colours, as Daniel Craig’s James Bond was? Could it be that the heroes of today are mostly generic good guys, which necessitates that their attitudes be softened, their characters made more crowd-pleasing, by bursts of warm colour, instead of being isolated by stark, gloomy black-and-white more suited to the angsty noir film, which is no longer in fashion? And despite the fallacy perpetuated by films that black-and-white equates long-ago (the world was always in colour, only the technology was, at one point, black-and-white), could it be that only period films lend themselves to monochrome any more – films about long-ago worlds (The Last Picture Show, The Man Who Wasn’t There) or long-ago people (Ed Wood, Good Night, and Good Luck), or films invoking long-ago memories (Manhattan)?

It would seem that the existential superhero films (like The Dark Knight) would work superbly in black-and-white – which really isn’t just black and white, but also the multitudes of grey within – but who’d throw millions of dollars of production money on a colour scheme that would ward off millions of paying customers? About the only representations of black and white in the films anymore are symbolic – like the good Luke Skywalker in white facing off the evil Darth Vader in black. (Occasionally, there’s a reversal of this ethic – The Godfather: Part II had a villain, Don Fanucci, in white.). And that’s a fascinating paradox of our times – that the movies have switched over to colour, while their characters and the worlds they are set in have become increasingly escapist and simplistic, less attuned to the rich and varied shades of grey than the monolithic dualities of black and white.

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Posted in: Cinema: English