If you had to make a list of your favorite black and white movies, where would you begin? That’s the challenge I’m facing this week.
The first place I started looking for ideas for a list of my favorite black and white movies is, of course, my own DVD collection. I’m a big Alfred Hitchcock fan, so there are a few obvious choices right off the bat.
And my favorite black and white film is a Hitchcock film.
I’m curious to know which ones would make your list.
Alfred Hitchcock insisted this 1960 film be shot in black and white because in color, it would be too gory. I have to agree with him; the black and white forces us to focus somewhat less on the gore of the film’s iconic shower murder and more on the psychological impact as we careen toward the big reveal at the end of the picture.
It was the height of the Cold War and this 1964 thriller combined the fear of nuclear war with the fear of technology to explore the potential for destruction if we were to allow our machines to gain too much control. Henry Fonda’s portrayal of the president of the United States facing the ultimate nightmare scenario made you feel as if you were in the pressure cooker with him. It was a little too real, and despite some obvious dating in terms of the technology depicted, it’s still a film that makes you think.
3. ‘Double Indemnity’
This 1944 film is pure film noir and is a murder mystery starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck as the insurance agent and a murderous wife who sees a way to make a quick buck and get out of a marriage she’s no longer happy in. Edward G. Robinson’s character of Barton Keyes, the sharp-eyed insurance claims investigator, keeps the tension high as he gets closer and closer to solving the whodunit until things take a twist that you can see coming from the beginning yet somehow easily don’t necessarily see coming toward the end.
4. ‘Miracle on 34th Street’
This 1947 picture is a comedy-drama about Santa Claus. More specifically, it’s both an interesting story about a kindly old man who appears out of the blue insisting he is the genuine article and a story about having faith in what common sense tells you shouldn’t be — or even can’t be true — and just believing anyway. There’s a moment in that movie when a young Natalie Wood pulls on the beard of Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle, assuming it’s a fake beard that will give way. When it doesn’t, the look on her face just grabs you: it’s a child beginning to marvel at something that might just be extraordinary. No subsequent version of the film quite captures the magic of this one.
5. ’12 Angry Men’
Combine a jury of 12 men, each with his own prejudices and preconceived notions and a murder case that seems clear-cut to all but one member who is willing to take a stand and fight for what he thinks is right, and you have an intense picture shot almost entirely within the jury room. The pressure grows as hate is exposed for all to see, and this film manages to challenge us to look at our own prejudices we might not have been aware of before. Henry Fonda makes another appearance on my list as the lone juror who must stand against 11. Made in 1957, it still holds up today and makes you wonder how often our jury system fails to do its due diligence in favor of just coming to an agreement so they can go home.
6. ‘Anatomy of a Murder’
Otto Preminger’s 1959 legal drama is a story about a soldier accused of shooting to death the man who raped his wife. Jimmy Stewart is the attorney who must prove his client acted only out of an “irresistible impulse” and is not responsible.
7. ‘Shadow of a Doubt’
According to Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, this was her father’s favorite film because it gave him the chance to introduce mayhem into a small town. A girl nicknamed Charley spends her time waiting for excitement and sees her wish granted when her namesake uncle, Charlie, visits. She learns he’s hiding a deadly secret and must expose him before she becomes his next victim.
8. ‘Strangers on a Train’
A chance meeting by two strangers, each of whom is dealing with someone they wish would just disappear, make a pact to do each other’s dirty work. The only problem is that only one of them was actually serious about the conversation…and the other finds himself in serious danger.
9. ‘Citizen Kane
Many people consider this 1941 film to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, ever made. I accept the fact that it’s a particularly superb film, but it’s not my personal favorite, nor is it one I’ve watched as often as most of the others on this list. Orson Welles both starred in and directed this film about a powerful newspaper owner whose strange dying word leads us through the story of his rags-to-riches life. I won’t spoil the ending, because if you haven’t seen it, you really owe it to yourself to experience it, but it reminds us that as much as we might like to, we can’t go home again.
10. ‘Doctor Strangelove’
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, its official title, came out the same year as Fail-Safe and both had similar themes. While Fail-Safe, which is definitely my favorite of the two, sought to capture the terror of nuclear war in a very real, very tense drama, this picture used comedy and satire to tell a similar story. Peter Sellers took on multiple roles in this movie, including the president of the United States, who, in one memorable scene, told arguing officials they couldn’t fight in the war room.
So there you have it.