Even in the age of color, lessons from the best film noir movies can ignite inspiration and captivate audiences.
I'm sure we've all met people (you might be among them!) who espouse a distinct aversion to black and white films, for whatever reason.
But according to this video essay from Jack Nugent of Now You See It, not only are they some of the most important movies, they can "do just as much if not more than color." Check it out below to learn how the techniques of black and white filmmaking can be just as important to cinematography in the age of color film.
Learning From The Best Film Noir Movies
The essay lays its case primarily by looking at monochromatic filmmaking through the lens of film noir, as film noir is one genre where black and white cinematography is put to its full use (a handy guide to the stylistic elements of film noir can be found here).
"Black and white can do just as much, if not more than color."
But that begs the question...
What is film noir?
The classic film noir period is considered as being from the early 1940's until the late 1950's. The films that qualify as film noir cinema feature low-key, black and white photography inspired by the chiaroscuro lighting of renaissance art and German Expressionism.
Many film critics and historians have cited Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil as the bookends of the film noir era in Hollywood, of course both of those films were directed by Orson Welles.
Film noir movies were as much a moment in history as they were a look created by a lighting style. It was the post-war era in America. The world, and particularly the returning veterans, had seen horrors the likes of which they'd never imagined.
They'd killed, seen friends killed, liberated concetration camps, witnessed first hand the horrors of a world war. The men who came back had a unique view of the world. One that they were not equipped to talk about.
How did this manifest?
One way was in classic film noir cinema. Picture Humphrey Bogart playing Phillip Marlowe. Or Sam Spade. In either case he was a man with a past, and man capable of violence. A man unsure of right and wrong until the final moment.
This was the hardboiled detective, and the film noir detective is a large part of the genre.
Many famous film noir films weren't detective stories.
Classic Film Noir Examples
The stark contast and low key lighting complimented the inner state of the primary characters.
They were living in a world that felt enveloped by darkness. Sometimes they were criminals trying to go straight after one last heist. Check out John Huston's Asphalt Jungle, which also featured Marylin Monroe in an early role.
Huston was something of a film noir movie mainstay as he also put out genre definer The Maltese Falcon, and the star-studded Key Largo.
Key Largo takes place almost entirely in a hotel in the Florida Keys, but the tension sizzles the entire time. Bogart, Bacall, and gangster movie icon Edward G. Robinson are all there, but the scene stealer is Claire Trevor as Robinson's drunk and miserable moll.
Bogart is a veteran, come home to visit the family of a man from his platoon that died in action. He brings with him the jadedness, and the events of the movie test his jadedness, and question if his inner hero will come out.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is another classic film noir example, starring Lana Turner in the defining execution of the femme-fatale. She practically burns the celluloid. One of cinema's most enduring entrances of all time:
Poor John Garfield. He never stood a chance.
Another classic entry into the film noir cinema hall of fame? Out Of The Past starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. Mitchum is running from the past. But the past catches up. Out Of The Past features the kind of tough guy inner monologue running through the action that is also a beloved film noir convention.
The best film noir movies aren't all from the United States, however. Cinematic master Akira Kurosawa had his own entry, Stray Dog, which uses many of the same motifs but of course it takes place in Japan and is influenced by the Japanese side of the WW2 experience. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's not all that different.
Stray Dog stands as one of the greatest film noir movies of all time because it presents audiences with two reactions to the horrors of war. It changed some men for the better, and some for the worse.
In the end, everyone was a victim.
A nice companion piece to Stray Dog is Kurosawa's much later film High and Low. Again shot in beautiful black and white, the film has very noir sequences and undertones as it explores morality.
It honestly doesn't get much better than High and Low.
Learning From More Modern Film Noir
Nugent begins his examination by showing what film noir is not, or rather, by showing what happens when, in his words, "black and white is done wrong."
To wit, the essay looks at some film noir examples done in parody, specifically this skit from Saturday Night Live, a parody of the classic Casablanca, a film that, while not rigorously adhering to the thematic tenets of film noir (primarily in its lack of the doomed cynicism endemic to the genre), employs many of its most important visual elements.
And, yes, Nugent does admit that it's perhaps unfair to compare a classic film to a TV parody of said film, but parody does, in a multiplicity of fruitful ways, have a way of throwing difference into sharp relief.
The point is that in the parody, the contrast is extremely low. And contrast, it is argued, is a central element of skillful black and white cinematography. In the skit, there "isn't much difference" between the darkest and lightest shades. Compare this to the same scene in Casablanca, where "The darkest shade on screen is nearly black, while the brightest shade on screen is nearly white."
Nugent's thesis is that, when done well, the "simplicity of black and white means that the eye can observe more key features in the shot." But the video essay isn't a polemic on the virtues of black and white over color cinematography.
Rather, it is that by carefully using elements of black and white cinematography, filmmakers who are working in color, but going for a film noir feel, can achieve greater results than by ignoring the simple tenets of excellent black and white cinematography.
As examples of color cinematography that successfully achieve a noir-ish feel, the essay cites, among others, the work of David Fincher and cinematographer Darius Khondji in 1995's Se7en, a modern film that uses many elements of classic film noir, from its doomed mood to, in Roger Ebert's words, "locations that reek...of shadows, of alleys, of the back doors of fancy places, of apartment buildings with a high turnover rate." Verily. (Please note, this clip is a great demonstration of film noir techniques, but it is also pretty yikes, so, you've been warned.)
The essay also cites the cinematography of Breaking Bad, which is full of high-contrast lighting, as well as examples of film noir's ubiquitous "blinds shot," where a character is seen through the slats of venetian blinds, with the alternating points of contrast providing visual storytelling.
A good example of this would be where the image on the screen splits the characters and provides a visual metaphor for their two sides, the good and the bad, the visible and the hidden.
The effect can be seen in the above clip from Se7en, in the apartment of a man who is simultaneously a criminal, as well as the victim of John Doe's plan to teach the world his twisted black and white morality, where there are no shades of grey, only sin and virtue. It can also be seen in the following clip from the classic film noir example, Double Indemnity:
This is a fascinating essay that makes the case, not just for black and white cinematography in and of itself, but as an aid to storytelling in all filmmaking, and any filmmaker interested in the art of light and shadow would do well to give it a look.
What We Learned From Film Noir Cinema
The movies of the past have value. The photograhic tools available to us now when we create content certainly give us more rang,e and far more color, than the film noir classics had.
But they can still teach us how to compose an image that pops, draw our eye to the right place, and use light to reveal who are characters are, and who we are. All the while leaving some of the truth forever shrouded in pools darkness.