Alongside the advent of sound, the shift to color motion pictures was one of the most groundbreaking developments ever seen in the movie industry. Audiences were dazzled by Technicolor images. And thanks to HDR technology and modern displays we can now enjoy more shades than ever before.
With all this colorful spectacle to behold, it’s easy to overlook some of the best films ever made because they’re in black in white. They might not capture your gaze from across the room, but these black and white movies are definitely still worth watching.
1. City Lights
Written, directed by, and starring Charlie Chaplin, City Lights sees his Tramp character get into various misadventures in the city. Despite the growing popularity in sound films at the time of its release, City Lights is silent, accompanied by jaunty music and title cards to express oft romantic, oft comedic storyline.
If you’ve never watched any Chaplin films, you’re in for a treat. City Lights is arguably one of his best, packed with Chaplin’s signature physical comedy stylings while also telling a sweet love story.
2. Citizen Kane
Orson Welles plays Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper magnate who died with the word “Rosebud” on his lips. This black and white movie follows the reporters delving into Kane’s sordid past to uncover the true meaning behind his final word.
Citizen Kane introduced many experimental cinematic techniques to mainstream audiences that have since become commonplace in modern movies. Written and directed by Orson Welles, the film was a commercial failure upon release but has since gone on to be considered by many as the greatest movie of all time.
Set in the midst of World War II, Casablanca takes place in an upscale nightclub that a mix of refugees, military officials, and resistance fighters. Rick Blaine owns the place and tries to remain neutral in matters of the war. That is, until his old flame Isla Lund turns up with her new husband.
Humphrey Bogart stars against Ingrid Bergman, as they each struggle to keep their past in the past and find the strength to fight for what’s right. At both highs and lows, this is an incredibly moving picture. In part, that’s because the war was still raging throughout the movie’s production and release.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Life tells the life story of George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, leading up to a dark night in which he contemplates suicide. At that moment, George is reached by a guardian angel called Clarence, who shows him how important his life has been to the people around him.
Accompanied by Clarence, George witnesses what the world would be like without him in it. What happened at his work; what happened to his wife; and what happened to the small town he supports with his Building and Loan business. Everything comes together for a heartwarming, Christmastime finale that you don’t want to miss.
5. Sunset Boulevard
This black and white movie opens with a dead body floating in a pool. We soon learn the body is that of struggling screenwriter, Joe Gillis. Through flashback, Joe tells us the story of his death after moving into the home of a faded silent film star.
Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, this film noir thriller was nominated for 11 Academy Awards upon its release, winning three of them. Combine that with the fact the lead character is a screenwriter and it’s no wonder that screenwriting books constantly regard this film as a high water mark of great storytelling.
6. Seven Samurai
Directed by movie-making legend Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai is a masterful samurai film that went on to inspire Star Wars, The Magnificent Seven, and much of Quentin Tarantino’s work. If you like any of those films, this is definitely a black and white movie you need to make the time to watch.
Set in 16th century Japan, Seven Samurai tells the story of a farming village that hires samurai to defend it against bandits. Kurosawa created a diverse cast of memorable characters and crafted intense action sequences that are thrilling to watch to this day. For more of the same, check out these classic films that still hold up.
7. 12 Angry Men
Based on a courtroom stage drama, 12 Angry Men takes place almost entirely in the jury room following a murder trial. At first, it seems all twelve jurors in attendance are convinced of a guilty verdict. That is, until Juror Eight, played by Henry Fonda, raises the question of reasonable doubt.
What follows is a gripping moral debate as each juror argues his case, fighting for what he believes to be a just outcome. This is a riveting movie that endeavors to show you that not all matters are as black and white as they first appear.
After stealing a great deal of money from her employer, Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, checks into the Bates Motel to hide out from the law. But something seems off with the motel’s owner, who turns out to be one of the greatest horror villains of all time. You may have seen the iconic shower scene, but if you’ve never watched Psycho from start-to-finish, there plenty more shocks in store for you than that.
Alfred Hitchcock chose to shoot this infamous horror film in black and white because he felt it was too shocking to show in color. As a result, Psycho went on to become the most profitable black-and-white sound film ever made.
Where to Watch Classic Movies
Because so many people are averse to black and white movies, they don’t show up on streaming services as often as they ought to. If you want to watch the films above, you’re unlikely to find them on Netflix or Amazon. Instead, check out these online services for classic movies.
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