10 of the best modern monochrome movies

Black and white doesn't have to mean old fashioned...




Occasionally, a film appears from nowhere and knocks all who see it for six. In 2011, that film was The Artist (Sunday BBC2) – a giddy celebration of the silent movie directed in the style of a silent movie itself. It’s a gleeful ode to movie-star glamour and the human spirit, with a whole lot of hoofing going on.


Tributes from one director to another don’t come much more loving than Tim Burton’s portrait of the man hailed as the worst movie-maker in history. With Johnny Depp in the title role, Burton had to split with one studio to get his vision made his way, but the result was a marvel. 


Director Francis Ford Coppola whipped up SE Hinton’s novel about youthful gang warfare into a gorgeous confection that he called an “art film for teenagers”. Antihero the “Motorcycle Boy” (Mickey Rourke) was colour blind, which Coppola took as the cue to capture his tale in ravishing monochrome.


Some actors’ faces were made for black and white, and one of them belongs to the creased and creviced Bruce Dern. In Alexander Payne’s wryly compelling Nebraska, Dern is marvellous as a cantankerous coot convinced he’s won a fortune, and Payne gives the Midwestern landscapes a truly stylish sense of grandeur.


If you ever wondered how an angel might see the world, the answer is that they see it in lush, sepia-tinted black and white – or that’s the implication of this 1980s arthouse classic from Wim Wenders. It became the inspiration for dodgy perfume adverts for a decade.


Very occasionally, a film will have such gravity that it would seem impossible for it to have been made in anything other than black and white. Steven Spielberg’s portrait of Oskar Schindler, and his rescue of more than a thousand Jews, is one. It could have been documentary footage from the time, to remind us of the truth of what we’re seeing. 


That grand spoofer Mel Brooks used monochrome in this sidesplitting tribute to the Universal horror movies of the 1930s. Gene Wilder plays the grandson of the scientist (“it’s pronounced Fronkensteen”) desperate to leave the family business. Elegant mover as Jean Dujardin might be in The Artist, how can he compete with Wilder and Peter Boyle’s lumbering Monster doing Puttin’ On the Ritz in top hats and tails? 


Shooting a movie in black and white implies a certain reverence – it’s the director’s equivalent of taking a story out to a fancy restaurant. So it was for Woody Allen with Manhattan, his flawless New York romance. For him, the real star of the film was the city, and so he opted to film it the old-fashioned way. The decision gave the movie the look of an instant classic.


The same Mel Brooks would later executive-produce the tragic story of John Merrick – which is a strange enough thought even without the film also being directed by the young (well, he was then) American surrealist David Lynch. Yet Lynch proved the perfect choice to make this near-flawless film. Shot in haunting monochrome, the shadows and fog of Victorian life were stunningly re-created. As friends of mine know, the result routinely has me sobbing.


The greatest boxing movie ever made? Probably. The finest black-and-white film of the modern era? Again, I’d say so. Martin Scorsese’s biopic of troubled champ Jake LaMotta was shot that way to distance itself from the rash of naff boxing flicks at the end of the 70s – and to honour the classic old fight movies of the 40s and 50s. Watch this mythic, mesmeric movie and see why, for filmmakers and film lovers alike, black and white will never die. 

The Artist is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2