January 12, 2011


An interesting discussion arose this week with Spy Vibers commenting on our Batman Anniversary post. Batman and its success pressured other TV productions to film in color. Like today's 3D boom, programs proudly boasted that new seasons were broadcast "in color." The quality of color photography has changed quite a bit throughout its history and technical developments. For some, the retro palette is one of the most endearing elements and pleasures in watching old films and programs. And it is a quality that is hard to duplicate- one reason that many modern homage pieces fail. Many of us also had the experience of watching on black and white TV sets. So, in fact, rediscovering things like the Batmobile and Gerry Anderson's futuristic vehicles in color re-releases on DVD can be a bit surprising. Black and white photography also has a patina that can date a piece to a particular period, yet it still maintains a timeless quality for me (although my young students, with their different frame of reference, may disagree). Color often dates a picture to my eyes, but it is something I relish and savor. It's part of the time machine that sends me back into a story.

In our comments discussion, I brought up the work of Jack Cardiff- probably best known among Spy Vibers for his film, Girl on a Motorcycle. His collaborations with Powell and Pressburger may be the strongest experiences I've ever had with responding to color as a key element. Of course, I love the bold pop of Batman, the stripes and umbrellas in The Prisoner, Emma Peel's costumes in The Avengers, the pallet of the sets and costumes in Casino Royale (1967), but Cardiff's work in Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes drew me in because of the more subtle poetry and expression of the images. These are gorgeous films, and I encourage Spy Vibers to check them out if they haven't been on your radar. Here is a brief celebration of Cardiff by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

What are your favorite moments of Black and White or Color imagery? Fans of Fritz Lang, Hitchcock, Wong Kar Wai, and Tarantino may have something to say.


  1. I love the colors of the Batman TV show, that whole smooth, over-bright 1960s color is fabulous to me.

    Tarantino, the Coen Brothers (esp the first 4 films), and Spike Lee have great color in most their films as well. American Beauty had some great color to it also.

    For B&W, I love Citizen Kane, Out of the Past (the outdoor shots by the water especially), The Naked City, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Big Sleep. I like a lot of Hawk's visuals, color or B&W. Also the Coen's The Man Who Wasn't There for B&W.

  2. I forgot to say I'm not really a fan of Hitchcock's color. His B&W is much better visually. Saboteur is great in that department.

  3. That is indeed a fantastic clip on Jack Cardiff – I have never seen such a muted, painterly color palette in a film. I just added to my Netflix queue to see more!

    Selecting favorites is difficult. When I think back on well-shot B&W films, I think of the old Bogart or Cagney movies, like The Big Sleep that Robert mentioned.

    One Hitchcock color film that did have a good look was Topaz with cinematography by Jack Hildyard. I believe that was the only film on which they collaborated.

    There are too many great color films, but I can think of three straight off: The 10th Victim, for many reasons. Goldfinger, mostly for the way everything having to do with Auric Goldfinger is not quite gold, but subtly gold-toned, i.e. brown, yellow, mustard, etc. Even his tuxedo is dark brown! Finally the early-eighties French film Diva made beautiful use of color.

    I also remember a really bad color moment. In the Persuaders Season 1, Episode 1; we first see Roger Moore driving his mustard-yellow Aston Martin (a perfect period-correct early-seventies color) – and unfortunately, he is dressed head to toe in pale turquoise. Not a good color combo!

  4. ah! The 10th Victim- now you're talking about my favorite film :) and Diva is exceptional as well. Never tried those as a double feature...could be cool!


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