Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. None other than the great war reporter Robert Capa was the uncredited still photographer for this film, although of course there's no way of knowing if he took this particular picture. But he might have.
[2018 note: Watching B&W movies and paying attention to the visuals is an excellent way to improve your feel for B&W tonality—those old cinematographers were masters of lighting and of their filmstocks. You might also want to read this fascinating exchange about Roger Deakins' cinematography for the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There from the DVD commentary. And may I just add that I would love to see a coffee-table book of beautiful B&W stills from old movies, including a few of the masterful promo shots and actor portraits done as stills. There are a few more comments and a good example in this post. That would be a beautiful book...but maybe only in my head. —MJ]
A question I posed on TOP in December of 2006 about readers' favorite black-and-white movies quickly racked up a near-record number of comments.
I tallied the results (no trivial task, either—see what I do for you?) which are presented below. Note that readers made what they wished of the question; I'm sure some people nominated great films, some people nominated favorites, and others paid more attention to the actual cinematography and the use of monotone. It's all good.
I've arranged the results in order of the number of mentions a film got, and then, within each category, alphabetically. In some cases I added the year of release to avoid confusion with remakes or other films of the same title, and for consistency I've generally listed the titles in their original languages with the common English-language title, if it's known by one, in parentheses. For simplicity's sake I haven't italicized all the titles in the main list. You should be able to find all of the titles on the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com).
Of special mention are Sunrise, a silent film that got two votes, and In Cold Blood, which is B&W but also in Cinemascope. A few "finds" among little-known films may be Eric von Stroheim's Greed (although it's not available on DVD yet [2018 note: it is now, under the original title]), Alphaville, and The Battle of Algiers. For obvious reasons I disallowed movies shot partly—or all!—in color; however, the runaway runner-up not on the list is no doubt Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï, which got a whopping three votes despite the fact that it was shot in very subdued Eastmancolor. And, finally, the Special Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) which is not only in B&W, but has music by Miles Davis, a plot that turns on a B&W photograph, and the movie includes a scene in a darkroom! Can't beat that.
My only personal comment is that I see a subscription to Netflix in my future—I've seen nine of the top ten (gotta go rent The Third Man) and I consider myself fairly cinematically "literate," at least with older classics, but haven't seen anywhere close to half these films.
Thanks to everyone who participated. And if you see any mistakes in the list, please let me know.
[2018 notes: An old film that deserves special mention for particularly lush B&W tonality, although it's a truly weird movie, is Jean Cocteau's 1946 Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la bête) with cinematography by Henri Alekan.
One film I particularly liked that I discovered from this list is Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette).
A sentimental favorite that, improbably, combines slapstick comedy with nostalgic wistfulness for bygone summertimes is Jacques Tati's lovely M. Hulot's Holiday (Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot)—I feel like I spent many childhood summers at that place, and I don't even know where it is.
Peter Bogdanovitch's Paper Moon also didn't make our list (although his The Last Picture Show did), but I love László Kovács' B&W cinematography for that one.
And if you've never seen Akiro Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai), for heaven's sake run, don't walk. A bucket-list movie without question. I'm not a "repeat watcher" of movies, but I've seen Seven Samurai three times.
And looking forward to the fourth. —MJ]
TOP Readers List of Great Black-and-White Films
Citizen Kane (14)
The Third Man (13)
Dr. Strangelove (7)
Raging Bull (6)
Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai) (6)
Schindler’s List (5)
Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) (4)
Touch of Evil (4)
La Dolce Vita (3)
Good Night and Good Luck (3)
The Maltese Falcon (3)
Paths of Glory (3)
Le Salaire de la Peur (Wages of Fear) (3)
Sin City (3)
Stranger than Paradise (3)
Throne of Blood (3)
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (2)
The Battle of Algiers (2)
La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast) (2)
Creature from the Black Lagoon (2)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2)
Double Indemnity (2)
Down By Law (2)
Ed Wood (2)
Elephant Man (2)
High and Low (2)
High Noon (2)
Jules et Jim (2)
Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief, Bicycle Thieves) (2)
Night of the Hunter (2)
Nóz w wodzie (Knife in the Water) (2)
One, Two, Three (2)
To Kill a Mockingbird (2)
Pather Panchali (2)
Some Like It Hot (2)
12 Angry Men (2)
Young Frankenstein (2)
El Ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel)
Angels with Dirty Faces
Az Én XX. századom (My Twentieth Century)
The Big Sleep
Bob le Flambeur
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
C'est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog)
Les Enfants du paradis
Fort Apache (cited for innovative IR photography)
The Grapes of Wrath
The Great Dictator
A Hard Day’s Night
Hiroshima Mon Amour
Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (Samurai Spy)
In Cold Blood (cited for being in Cinemascope)
King Kong (1933)
Kiss Me Deadly
Kurutta kajitsu (Crazed Fruit)
The Lady from Shanghai
The Ladykillers (1955)
The Last Picture Show
The Long Voyage Home
Lord of the Flies (1963)
The Magnificant Ambersons
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Man Who Wasn’t There
The Manchurian Candidate
Meshes in the Afternoon (short)
Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Misummer Night's Dream (1935)
My Darling Clementine
Night of the Living Dead Night
Of Mice and Men
On the Waterfront
Ostre sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains)
Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows)
Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers)
Såsom i en spegel (Through a Glass Darkly)
The Scarlet Empress
Soy Cuba / Ya Kuba
A Streetcar named Desire
Sweet Smell of Success
Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)
Tsubaki Sanjûrô (Sanjuro)
The Wrong Man
(Thanks to all the readers in 2007 who contributed to this)
Original contents copyright 2018 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
bruce alan greene: "All good films in the list. As an aside, watching digital reproductions of B&W films often give a very different impression than that was produced in the the cinema when the movies were new. I have been lucky enough (and old enough) to see some studio prints of some of the classic films on the list. A studio print is generally fewer generations down from the original negative than the copies that appeared in cinemas. Sometimes it is struck from the original camera negative. And if you really want to see the tonality of these films, seeing these prints projected is certainly the way to see them. I have yet to see any digital reproduction of a B&W film that comes close to reproducing the dynamic range and tonalities of the original prints projected in a theater. And, the digital reproductions have also been re-interpreted as well.
"Sad to say that one of my favorite B&W films, To Kill a Mockingbird, is available today only as a restoration from damaged release prints as I believe the negative was destroyed in a fire at the studio. And this restoration doesn't look anything like the beautiful imagery that audiences originally viewed and that I saw in the 1980s. So, if you ever get a chance to see an original print of any of the films on the list, in a theater, do it!!!"
[Bruce is a Hollywood cinematographer. —Ed.]
Bob Rosinsky: "Having seen 95% of the films on the list, it's hard to rate the best of the best black and white cinematography (my personal favorite is The Third Man). A few more: Ashes and Diamonds, Director Andrzej Wajda; Diabolique, Director Henri-Georges Clouzot; Wages of Fear, Director Henri-Georges Clouzot; The Triumph of the Will, Director Leni Riefenstahl (scary content, innovative cinematography); Double Indemnity, Director Billy Wilder; Nebraska, Director Alexander Payne; Repulsion, Director Roman Polanski; Jules and Jim, Director Francois Truffaut; Stalker (B&W and color), Director Andrei Tarkovsky."
Rob: "One of my all time favorite films, never mind just B&W, is The White Ribbon (2009). It is a German masterpiece by Michael Haneke. The cinematography is splendid. Also Ida (2013), a Polish film by Pawlikowski. This is one of those films that you can watch for the visual beauty alone. Finally, anyone who is serious about independent, classic and foreign films has got to check out Filmstruck, which is a streaming service put out by TCM that you can get bundled with the Criterion Collection. It is my favorite streaming service. My wife and I watched a restored version of Chaplin's Modern Times that looked like it was made in 2016, not 1936."
Mike replies: Several readers have mentioned Ida privately to me. It hadn't been made when this list was first published.
Max Cottrell: ""Ida" was made in 2014 by Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski. Netflix: 'Raised in a Catholic orphanage during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Anna is poised to join the order when she learns she has a surviving aunt. But visiting the woman before taking her vows uncovers some inconvenient truths about her heritage.' The cinematographer must surely also be a B&W photographer. Stunningly well shot. I have watched it at least six times, shared it with non-photog friends, and purchased a copy. Not that easy to watch, but very rewarding, especially if you are engaged in spiritual practice."
Aaron C Greenman: "Hands down the most beautifully filmed black-and-white film I’ve ever seen is Ida—every frame is a beautiful still photograph. I recommend to everyone to watch it today—a wonderful film."
Andrew Lamb: "What? Did none us vote for Rules of the Game directed by Jean Renoir, which features Hank Carter as a butler (he was also assistant director)? ['Hank Carter' = Henri Cartier-Bresson —Ed.] From a photographic point of view, the film is noteworthy for its use of extreme depth of field, aided by special wide-angle lenses made by Kinoptik (think they're still going). This technique pre-dates Citizen Kane by a couple of years. Renoir also made a short film, based on a Maupassant short story, One Partie de Compagne, which has some of the most lyrical B&W imagery I've seen in a film."
Paul De Zan: "The current Blu-ray release (2011) of Citizen Kane is an absolute revelation, the finest transfer of a classic film I've seen. It gives the movie a stunning immediacy I've never felt seeing it in a theater, which I have many times. Highest possible recommendation. Use the TOP Amazon link now!"
Mike replies: Is this the one you mean?
Paul De Zan replies: " I have this set (which includes the very good documentary 'The Battle Over Citizen Kane'), but the disc is the same in both the release you reference and the newer '75th Anniversary' packaging; if it were not, Amazon reviewers would scream bloody murder."
Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir from 1947,
an allegory of impossible pairings
Peggy C.: "I did not know of your blog until only a few years ago or your list would have included the 1947 film, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The cinematography was by the great Charles Lang. I re-watch it several times a year now that I have the DVD. The lighting and tonality are just amazing. This film is the single most important reason for my love of B&W photos and films."
Mike replies: I started watching it on Amazon Prime last night, Peggy, thanks to your recommendation—just the sort of antique movie I like to look at for the cinematography. I have dim memories of the TV series. Lang's B&W tonalities are classic.
Richard Newman: "I am amazed that neither of Ingmar Bergman's great B&W films, Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal were even mentiobed, or, even more, Sergei Eisenstein and Ivan the Great. Three movies with great cinematography by two great directors."
[There are many more good recommendations in the Comments section. —Ed.]
Richard S.: "Glad to see Grapes of Wrath on the list. I starting watching that on TV during a boring Sunday afternoon's channel hopping and ended up completely transfixed.
"Some years ago I knew someone who worked for the British Film Institute, and that year they did a Film Noir calendar; I framed and hung around half of the B&W stills they'd used in the calendar, they were so good."
Grizzlymarmot: "Somehow the list is missing an impressive number of great comedies. Perhaps in their recollections your readers stereotype B&W as menacing or dramatic. The patterns in 42nd Street are mesmerizing. Chiaroscuro makes It's a Wonderful Life wonderful. Mirror scene in Duck Soup; falling buildings by Buster Keaton; stunts by Harold Lloyd—comedy demands the most precise work. B&W is also the most glamorous—Some Like it Hot is in the list but where is Greta Garbo or Jean Harlow—B&W is perfect for creating glamor."