Throughout history, since the invention of shooting films in pure colour, filmmakers have experimented with mixing their usage of colour and black & white to create a distinctive effect. Whether its distinguishing two different timelines or simply accentuating the difference between different locations, viewpoints or emotions, it can be a powerful technique. Here are five primarily colour films which incorporate sequences of black & white to make their point.
As Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg make passionate love in the shower, their infant child tumbles to his death in the most memorable scene of this widely disputed film. Whether you love it or hate it, you must admit this opening sequence is quite startling, and I believe it’s the best scene von Trier has ever directed.
American History X (1998)
The fair majority of Tony Kaye’s bloody, gruesome social drama about the effects of racism on a suburban society is shot in black & white; namely, the flashback sequences, which examine the disturbing past of the film’s reformed protagonist. While the film isn’t Kaye’s masterpiece (*cough* Lake of Fire *cough*), it is certainly well-made and the B&W sequences are impressive.
Christopher Nolan’s second film, and arguably his most confusing, interweaves scenes of black & white and colour as the colour sequences unfold the film’s plot in reverse-chronological order and the B&W scenes provide an alternate timeline which, at the film’s conclusion, collides with the colour timeline. Confusing, but a stroke of genius for Nolan.
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Incorporating various visual effects including discoloration and saturation of the quality of visual images, Oliver Stone’s critique of media influence on serial killers, while disliked by many, is a fiercely well-made and brilliantly edited film. There are thousands of cuts, all subtly interweaved with numerous visual effects including the use of black & white. While not the most notable selection for this list, Stone’s film nevertheless uses its B&W shots wisely.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
This is probably the one, if any, that you guessed before the list began. And yes, it deserves to be here; it needs to be here. The use of both colour and B&W at a time where it was really one or the other and few were choosing colour is extraordinary at highlighting the difference between reality and Oz, rather than blurring them together in the same colour; a smart choice which accentuates the beauty and fantasy of one of cinema’s most memorable landscapes.
What’s your opinion? Which ones have I either forgotten or just not had room to put in? There’s a few that didn’t make the cut, can you guess which ones? What do you think of these examples? Leave a comment below.