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The Cricket: Sometimes black-and-white movies are just more colorful

Published April 26, 2013 3:10 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

One of the greatest reveals in all of movie history is that moment in "The Wizard of Oz" when Judy Garland's Dorothy opens the door of her tornado-displaced home and discovers Munchkinland — which, unlike her sepia-toned Kansas, is rendered in dazzling Technicolor.

At the end of that movie, when Dorothy clicks her heels and returns to Kansas, she lands in her own bed, and back in black-and-white (or, technically, brown-and-white).

And that's how it has remained: Color is where wonder happens, but black-and-white is home.

This summer, moviegoers will be offered a full array of blockbusters in full color — nothing new there for the past few decades. But there are three films that will intrigue viewers without color at all:

• "Frances Ha," a collaboration between director Noah Baumbach ("Greenberg") and actress Greta Gerwig (who are currently partners in writing and in life), in which she plays a dance-company intern with dreams of being a dancer. (Opens May 31.)

• "Blancanieves," Spanish director Pablo Berger's surreal spin on "Snow White," with our fairy-tale heroine reimagined as a bullfighter. (Opens sometime in May.)

• "Much Ado About Nothing," in which director Joss Whedon ("The Avengers") gathered a bunch of his friends and favorite actors (including Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker) to his house to shoot Shakespeare's romantic comedy in modern dress in 12 days. (Opens June 14.)

Why use black-and-white?

The late, great Roger Ebert wrote this on the subject in 2004: "Black-and-white is an artistic choice, a medium that has strengths and traditions, especially in its use of light and shadow." Ebert went on to chastise those who don't watch black-and-white films, saying that "to exclude b&w from your choices is an admission that you have a closed mind, a limited imagination, or are lacking in taste."

For each film, it seems there are reasons behind the choice. With "Blancanieves," Berger says in the movie's press notes that the film is a tribute to the silent-movie era. Whedon's film seems to take a cue from '30s screwball comedies. And in a recent New Yorker profile on Baumbach and Gerwig, writer Ian Parker opines that "Baumbach seems to have made his 'Manhattan,' " referring to Woody Allen's 1979 classic take on Big Apple life — in which the city lights are captured beautifully in black-and-white.

They would not be the first filmmakers who had color at their disposal and opted against it. And for each, using black-and-white brought out something in the story that color could not.

In "Raging Bull" (1980), Martin Scorsese captures the brutality of Jake LaMotta's boxing career, and the black-and-white images allow us to see the damage without being sickened by a screen full of red blood.

The same goes for "Schindler's List" (1993), as Steven Spielberg emulates World War II newsreel footage for a documentary feel and uses bits of color — notably the red coat of the little girl Oskar Schnindler (Liam Neeson) spots in the Warsaw Ghetto — to drive home the human toll of the Holocaust.

Sometimes black-and-white can take viewers back to a particular era. In David Lynch's "The Elephant Man" (1980), the use of black-and-white makes us think of the photography of the Victorian era, plunking us squarely in the world in which the disfigured John Merrick lived. And "The Artist" (2011), like "Blancanieves," copies the style of classic silent movies, where color was as scarce as speaking voices.

When watching old movies, I've found that black-and-white films have a timeless quality, while color movies feel slightly dated. Here's an experiment: Watch the Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman classic "Casablanca" (1943), shot in black-and-white, and then watch the David Niven/Kim Hunter wartime romance "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946), shot in color, and notice the difference.

I'm not advocating that all movies should be "like they used to make 'em." Back in the day, black-and-white was a given because color film was either not yet feasible or too expensive. That's one reason "The Wizard of Oz" goes from one to the other, because there was limited color stock. But sometimes, the classic feel of a well-made black-and-white film does the trick better than anything.

spmeans@sltrib.com.