To curb my troubles, I’ve drafted my list of the best looking films of all time, in two parts. Today, we’ll look at the black and white films I’m most visually drawn to. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle color.
One final note: there are dozens (actually, hundreds) of films that I’ve left off this list. The marvel (or anguish) of a list is in exercising the act of exclusion as much inclusion. There are so many more to name, but these are the 11 that strike me most. If I left off your favorite, tell me. And why. But let’s limit it to black and white for now. Color comes later.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Dir. by Orson Welles – Shot by Gregg Toland
Take, for example, the handful of shots that open the film. We’re simply staring at Kane’s once imperialesque Xanadu, right? Then we fade in closer, and closer, and closer. No big deal. Look again. The sole, brimming light from atop of Xanadu doesn’t move from its position in the frame. Even as we move closer, the light stays exactly where it is. It’s attention to detail like that (an infinite amount of which can be heard on Roger Ebert’s commentary track for the film), that make Citizen Kane as sharp as it’s ever been.
The Third Man (1949)
Dir. by Carol Reed – Shot by Robert Krasker
In fact, the underground tunnel sequence alone is enough to justify The Third Man’s photographic greatness. And, of course, its ingenious, beyond audacious concluding shot.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Dir. by Sidney Lumet – Shot by Boris Kaufman
By now, it’s common knowledge that as filming progressed on Sidney Lumet’s set-in-one-room masterpiece, Lumet and Kaufman did two things to make the room look and feel smaller. First, they slowly pushed the set walls closer together, thereby forcing his actors to stand closer to one another. Secondly, Lumet had Kaufman constantly increased the focal point by changing lenses, giving the film its unsettling claustrophobic look.
Common knowledge or not, 12 Angry Men is a perfect example of elementary practices implemented to perfection.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Dir. by Ingmar Bergman – Shot by Gunnar Fischer
For the chess match, Fischer bathed both of the subjects in bright light, while keeping the crashing waves behind them in full focus. The result makes the image look almost fake, as if it was shot on a green screen. Almost.
If you’ve seen The Seventh Seal, you know that once you witness its final moment, in which the main characters dance with Death on top of a large hill, it is forever imprinted in your mind. Shot in gorgeous silhouette, that dance remains one of the best, most iconic shots in the history of film. Interesting fact: those aren’t even the actors dancing. Bergman had sent them home for the day, so he instructed a few crewmembers to get up on the hill and dance. The shot was done on the fly. If that isn’t masterful filmmaking, then I don’t know what is.
Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock – Shot by John L. Russell
Of all the feats pulled off in this movie, the one that baffles me most is the extended take in which Norman and his mother talk off screen in Mother’s bedroom. The camera slowly, hesitantly, pans up the steps then, somehow, slowly moves up to the ceiling. Higher, and higher, and higher, before Norman walks out from the room and carries his mother to the basement. It’s a phenomenal achievement by today’s standards. In 1960, it was unheard of.
8 ½ (1963)
Dir. by Federico Fellini – Shot by Gianni Di Venanzo
8 ½ looks and feels like an extended, lucid fever dream. Which is precisely the point.
Winter Light (1963)
Dir. by Ingmar Bergman – Shot by Sven Nykvist
Now, just think about this for a second. If the sun was hidden by clouds, or overcast completely, Bergman and Co. would have to wait it out, until the coast was clear, so to speak. If a shot was ruined because an actor flubbed up, or the sound engineer faltered, the scene would have to be reshot immediately, if not the next day. Aside from obvious dedication to the craft, Winter Light is one of the best visual examples of the Bergman/Nykvist collaboration ever caught on film. It is breathtaking.
Dir. by Ingmar Bergman – Shot by Sven Nykvist
Take, for example, an early shot of a small boy waving his hand in front of the camera. We cut to the boy’s point of view, and in front of him is a large, projected image of an out-of-focus woman. It’s so poetic in its anonymity. Or the haunting dream sequence bathed in quiet, Swedish summer light. And, of course, the miraculous conclusion in which the same character delivers the same monologue twice, first with the camera on the listener, second with the camera on the speaker. Listen to what is being said, sure, but, more importantly, watch how it is being received by the two characters. Like I said, poetry in motion.
Dir. by Woody Allen – Shot by Gordon Willis
Aside from its color and inventive widescreen style, Willis, better here than ever, has a flawless command of his use of shadows. This is none more prevalent than in the scene in which Allen and Mariel Hemingway discuss their relationship from opposite ends of a large room. Hemingway sits all the way to the left of the frame, with Allen pacing feverishly to the right before he joins her. Between them is nothing but a dimly lit living room. Do we need to see what’s between them? I don’t know, it never occurred to me.
Raging Bull (1980)
Dir. by Martin Scorsese – Shot by Michael Chapman
In addition to the fight scenes, Raging Bull uses a number of fancy tricks to make the film so memorable. It ingeniously uses slow motion to evoke Jake’s present, curious mood, tracks its subjects from the locker room to the inside of the ring (in one glorious unbroken shot), and on and on. The positive analysis one could lend to Raging Bull’s cinematography is endless. The film is an uncontested masterpiece, and Chapman’s contribution to it only helps cement that notion.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Dir. by Steven Spielberg – Shot by Janusz Kaminski
Schindler’s List is a perfect example of a contemporary film that simply would not work in color. For if it was, how could we possibly stomach it?
What’d I leave off that you love? Remember: keep it monochrome for now, color comes tomorrow.