Monday, May 14, 2012

The Best Looking Films of All Time (B&W)

When I was drafting my list of My 11 Favorite Cinematographers, I quickly noticed a disconnect: some of the best looking films of all time were not shot by my favorite DPs. Every single cinematographer listed in this post has proved that they are a master of their craft, but I was bothered that so many great films were left off that initial list.

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
As I said earlier this month, Citizen Kane is the best-shot film of all time. Period. Its structure, tone, use of angles, shadows, mirrors – every single shot is thought out exhaustively and executed masterfully.

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
As Peter Bogdanovich expertly notes in his Criterion introduction for Carol Reed’s postwar noir, black and white photography implores a lack of distraction. Instead of focusing on the actor’s bright blue eyes, we’re focusing on Krasker’s use of shadows, Dutch angles, and moisture (those Vienna streets just feel wet, don’t they?).

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
Most of the films on this list are here because of their tone – the way they look and feel and live. Others, like 12 Angry Men, are here mostly because of their technique.

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
I hope you don’t mind the name Bergman, because you’re going to see him a few times here. Frequent Bergman collaborator Gunnar Fischer did plenty of notable work with Bergman, none better than his iconic cinematography for The Seventh Seal. Two infamous sequences in particular come to mind: the Knight playing chess with Death, and the final dance of doom.

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.

Psycho (1960)
Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock – Shot by John L. Russell
The long tracking shot intro, the extended take of Janet Leigh driving, the game-changing shower scene, there’s nothing normal about the way Russell shot Psycho. Even when the camera is calm in conversation, the film just looks real.

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
The whole point of Fellini’s 8 ½ (photographically, that is), is to never let the audience become fully aware of what is real, what is being filmed, and what is really being filmed. 8 ½ tells the story of a director’s inability to shoot the movie he’s working on. So, more often than not, the audience doesn’t know if they’re watching a segment of the director’s frequent dreams, his day dreams for his new film, a scene from his new film, or just 8 ½ in general. There’s a lot going on here, and Venanzo matches the tone(s) seamlessly.

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
Dig this: after Bergman had constructed a large church in the countryside as the main setting for his Winter Light, he and Sven Nykvist sat in the church for days on end, fastidiously logging exactly where the sun hit different areas of the church at different times of the day. So, essentially, Bergman shot his film around the sun’s rotation. Wherever it was, he was (or wasn’t, depending on his use of shadows).

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.

Persona (1966)
Dir. by Ingmar Bergman – Shot by Sven Nykvist
I said Winter Light was one of the best, as a means to make room for Persona, which is arguably my favorite looking film ever. Going for a far more experimental guise this time, Nykvist’s work on Persona is one of the main reasons the film plays out as mysteriously and ingeniously as it does.

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.

Manhattan (1979)
Dir. by Woody Allen – Shot by Gordon Willis
Woody Allen made the early decision to shoot his masterpiece Manhattan in black and white because he thought it would give New York City a unique look, and act as a character in and of itself. He was right, and with Gordon Willis on board, and his pioneering use of the 2:35:1 aspect ratio, Manhattan is justly remembered as Allen’s best looking film.

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
Scorsese broke every rule in the book when shooting the fight scenes for Raging Bull. He used fake smoke to evoke visual metaphors, extended the ring, made it smaller, and so on. But most importantly, he and Michael Chapman did what no other boxing film up until that point had: he never left the ring. All of the fight scenes are filmed from the boxer’s point of view, not the spectator.

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
There’s something about Schindler’s List that just feels dreadful. Long before the ghettos are liquidated and Amon Goeth starts sniping people from his balcony for no reason, Schindler’s List suggests a dark, wet, cold mood in which nothing but dread is to come. That is, except whenever the titular Schindler is on camera, and Kaminski washes him in flawless rays of bright light. (Really, has anyone ever smoked a cigarette as artistically as Liam Neeson does in this film?)

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.

56 comments:

  1. I'm proud to say that I've seen 8/11 of these films - all of which I would attest to being well shot.

    Great thing about Kane, Welles gave Toland co-director. Something the studio made him do I'm sure.

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    1. I believe the studio did make Welles do that, but hell, if there's a DP that deserves it, then it's Toland. Which haven't you seen? Winter Light, Persona and 8 1/2?

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  2. The one thing I love about black-and-white cinematography is that it is timeless. Let me explain: if Schindler's List had been made in colour, the colour would be fading now and it would look really tacky (the colour scenes surely feel their age). But with the black-and-white, it still looks like someone could have made it yesterday. It creates so much atmosphere, so much perfection - it is just beautiful. And no, no-one has ever smoked a cigarette as artistically as Liam Neeson. Love this list!

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    1. That is a fucking perfect explanation as to why black and white cinema (particularly contemporary black and white cinema) works so well. Very well said. Also... thanks for your kind words!

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  3. Loving this (and have seen all of the above), can't wait to see what's on the color edition. I'm semi-surprised to see Bergman take 3 spaces, but certainly wouldn't argue too hard against it. There are five others that would DEFINITELY make my cut: La Dolce Vita, Last Year at Marienbad, Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, L'Avventura, and Anton Corbijn's Control. Gorgeous, all of 'em. I could also make a serious argument for the atmosphere at work in Norma Desmond's mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

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    1. I battled hard with 8 1/2 and/or La Dolce Vita... both are just so incredible to look at. All of your other choices are solid, Beauty and the Beast in particular is visually spell bounding to me. And Control, damn... that IS bloody gorgeous.

      Also, I'm a Bergman nut, what can I say?!

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  4. Great list, especially love seventh seal and schindler's list. I know it doesn't technically count, but I'd want to add the black and white portion of American History X. While I don't think it's on the same level as most of these films, I think that it is some of the most important and powerful moments of 90's cinema and the better part of a fantastic film.

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    1. Hey man I definitely think AMX counts. The black and white is so rich and bold in that movie... it is a perfect contrast to the (purposefully) overexposed color. That register flying in slow motion through the window is an epic shot.

      If you have the stomach for it, Kaye's abortion documentary, Lake of Fire, is shot in gorgeous 35MM black and white. Tough film to take, but a brilliant and beautiful one.

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  5. Seen 10/11 films. Boo-yah. (And yes, Alex, I agree with these additions.)

    Naturally you'd know which film I'd add, so I'll avoid bringing it up. And I absolutely agree with Wilde about her addition of Control. Guh, so gorgeous.

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    1. Sweet Smell of Success is insanely good looking, especially its use of shadows toward the end. I love seeing all this love for Control. I had no idea people dug that flick as much as me.

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  6. I have a few I'd like to mention, Roger Deakins who shot The Man Who Wasn't There for the Coen Brothers, Nestor Almendros for Francois Truffaut The Wild Child, Ghislain Cloquet for Robert Bresson's Mouchette, and Sacha Vierny for Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad.

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    1. Man Who Wasn't There is insanely beautiful. I especially love the jail scenes and how Deakins lit Freddy Riedenschneider so ominously.

      Excellent other choices, too. Happy to see Marienbad getting a lot of love.

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  7. It seems I'm frequenting the best blogs because I'm learning so much. Especially from you, Alex. I'm sad to report that I've only see 6 or 7 of these titles, but thrilled to note that the rest have been added to my queue.

    Great post, great discussion. I'm just a movie lover soaking all of this in.

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    1. Ha nice man. There are tons of great-looking movies out there, happy to offer up a few suggestions!

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  8. Great List Alex !! I haven't seen Winter Light and don't remember The Third Man much but otherwise, I am in full agreement with every single movie in the list - like 12 Angry Men(I love that bit about changing focal length), Psycho, 8 1/2, The Seventh Seal.

    If I made such a list, I will probably have Notorious on it, but it is more of camera work than photography.

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    1. Christ, Notorious is so sneaky with its camera work, easily my second favorite shot Hitch flick. Glad you dig my choices here!

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  9. Incredible list. I love that you have three Bergman films on here (of course I do). Lesser known fact: many people believe Sven Nykvist didn't start working with Bergman until the 60s, he did shoot a film for Bergman years earlier in 1953 called Sawdust and Tinsel. The film is incredibly well-shot and makes use of black-and-white excellently, so it's no surprise Nykvist was involved there.

    A few black-and-white films I think have fucking flooring cinematography:

    Last Year at Marienbad - Seriously, I hope you at least thought of this one while writing your list.
    The Fire Within - Not phenomenal cinematography, but I love it a lot.
    Werckmeister Harmonies - you know this is my favourite movie. There are at least 50 reasons why it is, and cinematography is a big one.
    Satantango - My second Bela Tarr film on this list. If you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend you at least consider purchasing it. And Werckmeister while you're at it. I'm 100% fucking certain they are both among the best purchases I've ever made, if not THE BEST.
    The Turin Horse - I know what you're thinking. ANOTHER Bela Tarr movie? Not only is The Turin Horse the best movie of 2011, it's the best movie of the last ten years, and although it only contains 30 shots in 150 minutes, all 30 of them are absolutely flawless.
    The White Ribbon - Haneke's most beautiful film.
    Ordet - HOLY FUCKING SHIT THIS MOVIE HAS FUCKING AMAZING CINEMATOGRAPHY

    I'll stop there. Cannot wait to see your next list.

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    1. I knew you'd hit back with some Bela Tarr, which just makes me want to explore his work more. I'll do a marathon viewing one weekend, bang them all out.

      Marienbad was very very close to making my list, in fact, it'd be number 12. Totally agree with White Ribbon, so rich and bold. Ordet... gonna have to seek that one out.

      Oh and yeah, Nykvist did great work with Bladh on Sawdust, but when I compare that to Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, Persona, etc... well, you know.

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  10. Ooh great list. I love black and white. There is this quote from a book that I always think of in this case, "In those days, thought Mr. Fisher, we dreamed in colour, though films were in black and white, good always triumphed in the end, and only Americans spoke American."
    It sort of makes me think about how the world should be... as Stevee said, it's timelesss.

    I recently saw Persona and was totally blown over by how gorgeous it looked. I agree with whoever mentioned Control in this list. That film is stunning. One of my personal favourites is Coffee and Cigarettes by Jim Jarmusch. I think it's kind of whimsical and sexy, with all those shots of patterned tablecloths, and the coffee and the smoke. Also maybe something from the French New Wave... Paris in black in white is gorgeous :)

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    1. Whoa, that is a great quote, I really like it. I think I saw that on your site when you discussed... Pleasantville, maybe?

      Ah I was so close to adding a New Wave flick, which probably would've been Vivre se vie. Couldn't agree more with you - Paris, like NYC just looks better in B&W.

      Coffee and Cigarettes is an inspired choice. I like how you can tell that he shot them years apart, based on the film stock and print processing. Love that flick.

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  11. Totally with you on 12 angry men and Persona, but I have not yet seen 8 1/2, Manhattan, Raging Bull and Schindler's list, which I know, it's a travesty and shame from my part and I plan to make up for it soon :) Great list! Looking forward to your color list, I am pretty sure I will see Tree of Life, Kubrick and Spike Lee there :) am I right?

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    1. Ooohh, do yourself a favor and forgo the Sherlock and Downton Abbey this weekend and catch AT LEAST Raging Bull and Schindler's List. They will floor you.

      You've got two out of three for my color choices, and that ain't half bad ;)

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    2. Shouldn't I see Taxy driver first, then Raging Bull? someone said they are connected (I know, I haven't seen TD, just shoot me)

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    3. "Taxy" ha, I got a good chuckle outta.

      Aside from having the same star, writer and director, the films are not the same at all. See both, ASAP!

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    4. God, I actually wrote Taxy? what was I thinking? you know, I do know it is written Taxi, I must have been in a hurry writing the reply, sorry :P

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    5. Hahha I know you do, I just thought it was funny! Good for a laugh.

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  12. This is a phenomenal list, Alex! Psycho is actually my favorite black and white cinematography achievement - it is also the only movie which frightened me with its use of cinematography and editing - it's all so odd and creepy and that moment where Norman's "mother" kills the cop always makes my heart beats faster because of how it is shot.

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    1. Dude, that scene freaks me the fuck out every single time. Falling backwards down those steps, and then Mother just bum rushes on top of him stabbing him over and over. Love that scene!

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  13. Great list! And even better bulbs. Spot on about 8 1/2 and Schindler's List! And now I've got a pile of Bergman to see...

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    1. Thanks! Oh Bergman is the best. Just the best. Hope you enjoy them!

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  14. Black and white movies are often quite stunning, I've been seeing a bunch of them as part of my Gregory Peck marathon. I so agree with Schindler's List amongst contemporary films. It's so well done and the moment a pop of color was introduced, the impact was nothing short of astonishing. I really want to see 8-1/2 after seeing NINE, no doubt Fellini's work is beautifully-shot.

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    1. Oh if you liked Nine, you'd LOVE 8 1/2, it is an incredible film. Glad to hear you like B&W flicks so much!

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  15. Nice list,Alex.I own 3 Blu-rays(8 ½ ,Raging Bull,Schindler’s List) of these 11 films,and they just look amazing.

    I'd like to add some personal faves from mine:Sansho the Bailiff,Harakiri,The Woman in the Dunes,The Earrings of Madame de…,Orpheus,The Rules of the Game,Sunrise...

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    1. Dude, those are some great choices there, especially Sunrise... that film is glorious.

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  16. Great post, man! I have seen all but three of these, and I completely agree with your selections. Psycho may be my personal favorite of the group -- I finally sat down to watch all of it last year and it blew me away. Unbelievably well made.

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    1. Thanks buddy! The one problem I have with Psycho is that, whenever it is on, I am forced to watch it. I simply cannot help myself. Just last night, I turned it on at 11 p.m., right as Marion pulled into the Bates Motel. I was stuck - I'm that in love with it.

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  17. Great post, and great blog! You've got yourself another follower, and I invite you to check out my own cinematic scribbles at www.cultcinema.net

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    1. Thanks! I'm gonna head over to your site later on today. Thanks for reading!

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  18. Terrific list/blog - first of yours I happened to stumble onto; I can tell I'll be happily chewing up hours browsing the rest...

    So much great B&W to choose from, how to pick... OK, so I'll add one I know will be totally unexpected: Frankenheimer's The Train (1964). First-rate, gorgeous, deep-focus black and white. Frankenheimer's early-sixties triple-play of The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and The Train deserve more respect - and viewings, today - than they get.

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    1. Hey, thanks for stopping by! I actually haven't seen The Train, but The Manchurian Candidate is definitely a fantastic pick. Both for its look and just as an overall film.

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    2. Thanks, Alex -

      I have no quibbles whatsoever with your above list, although I want to point out that many shots/sequences in Citizen Kane are matte shots, including your frame-grab, above. Doesn't detract from the incredible artistry, just an observation. Hitchcock too utilized mattes extensively, especially in The Birds, not sure about Psycho. Hello Netflix: you got Winter Light and Persona? only two I haven't seen.

      As for The Train, well, I'd urge you and any other blogizens to check it out, on the biggest screen you got, with the volume up. I hope/don't-think you will be disappointed: not a single matte, and only ONE process shot, which when you see it, is understandable. A personal favorite. Terrific story, acting, to boot.

      Oh, can't resist this, though wrong blog: I saw 2001 on its first release in *Cinerama* in '68. I was 16. As the cliche goes, it changed my life.

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    3. Dude you really seem like you know you're stuff, which is awesome... I love totally geeking out on the technical side of films with people. Yeah, the matte shots are pretty obvious in Citizen Kane and a lot of Hitch's work, but like you said, I still think there is incredible artistry at work there.

      Persona is one of my top 3 films of all time. My favorite Bergman. Love it.

      I'm getting on The Train (...see what I did there?) however I can. You have me very very interested in it.

      Your 2001 experience sounds revelatory. I'd kill to see that on the big screen.

      Hey, do you have a blog or Twitter or anything? I'd love to read about your thoughts on films.

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    4. Nah; I started a blog years ago and dropped it when I realized noboby except *me* was interested in *my* opinions about anything... I'm now content to cruise the Internets 'tubez' looking for sympathetic souls whose opinions sync with mine - like you, Alex - and poop all over them in the commentary.

      BTW, for you fans of classic movie stuff, NZ Pete has an outstanding blog surveying the decades of great matte artistry when it was really about *painting*, not PhotoShop pixel-whomping: see http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.com/. Gigantic, exhaustive, wonderful posts.

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    5. Whoa, NZ Pete's site is crazy detailed. One post a month and I can see why! Thanks for linking it here.

      My friend, please feel free to poop all over my comments section anytime you'd like.

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  19. Fantastic list, man! I adore black and white films, just can't get enough of them. There is an almost surreal kind of appeal in those black and white movies which is simply not possible in color. My personal favorites seem to be most of the movies made by Fritz Lang. Hope you have watched them and also check out "The Third Man" by Carol Reed. It is simply extraordinary. Love the cinematography by Robert Krasker. Must say I have a fetish for film noir. Keep up the good work! You got a follower in me.

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    1. Ah, I love Fritz Lang, and my favorite (and favorite looking) film of his has got to be M. I love everything about that movie. The Third Man is actually in this post, second film mentioned! Great film there.

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  20. While I wouldn't challenge any of these selections I'm just the tiniest bit disappointed that no one mentioned Stanley Cortez' oustanding work in "Night of the Hunter." That fairy tale trip downriver always amazes me, not to mention the famnous underwater shot...

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    1. Oh god, what fantastic work Cortez did there. Night of the Hunter made my shortlist, for sure. Great great call.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  21. The Night of the Hunter, Strangers on a Train, The Last Picture Show, The Seven Samurai, Paths of Glory, Wages of Fear, (how can such colourful films, be in black and white?

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    1. I couldn't agree more - colorful films indeed. The Night of the Hunter specifically was VERY close to making the final cut here.

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  22. I thought for sure that Dr Strangelove would have made it, although it started off a little slow I thought the cinematography was great throughout.

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    1. Oh God, the look of Dr. Strangelove is just perfect. Though that can be said for most all Kubrick films. Great pick!

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    2. Tamra Will ScarletJanuary 28, 2013 at 3:56 PM

      I'm a bit late to the party; found your blog whilst taking a walk through the Net.

      To your list, I would add "The Scarlet Empress," a film about Catherine the Great starring Marlene Dietrict and directed by von Sternberg. It is worth watching just for the visuals.

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    3. Hey there, better late than never! I have not seen The Scarlet Empress in many many years, but that is a fantastic choice. Good call there.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  23. I would add "Sin City". Such perfect and beautiful images, also in black and white.

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    1. Sin City definitely looks great, but it uses color as much to its advantage as black and white, so I didn't include it in this list. Still, gorgeous film.

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