I had a friend who used to sigh whenever some young film-maker would release his first short in black and white. “It’s just lazy,” he’d say. “A short cut to importance.”
That cynic might lay the same accusations at two recent innovations by directors of massively budgeted Hollywood blockbusters. Last year, George Miller confirmed the existence of a monochrome version of Mad Max Fury Road. "The best version of this movie is black and white," he remarked. "But people reserve that for art movies now."
In autumn the grandly named Mad Max: Fury Road Black & Chrome edition emerged on streaming services. This month it can be seen in a few selected cinemas. Sit back and allow the grey glow to wash out across the wastelands.
An unwritten rule of journalism states that it takes at least three instances of any phenomenon to create a trend. But, in this case, as the phenomenon is so unexpected, we can probably settle for two. James Mangold has confirmed that there will be a black and white version of his X-Men spinoff Logan. "Suggestion. Hard core B&W loving Logan fans should not make any plans on the evening of May 16th," he tweeted. "Won't be on a TV. And the answer is no. To make a great B&W version of a film the whole thing's gotta be regraded & timed shot by shot."
That last observation is worth making. Anybody can sling a copy of Logan into their DVD player and turn down the colour. (You can still do that. Can't you?) Those of us from a more mature generation will remember watching colour films on black and white televisions. But monochrome cinematography is a different art to its flashier counterpart. Shadows take on greater significance. Composition is more nuanced. If the directors are transforming the films themselves, we can, perhaps, avoid bitter comparisons with the colourisation of classic films that went on in the 1980s. That really was sacrilege.
Miller always wanted to make Fury Road in monochrome, but he knew no studio would finance such a thing. Can you tell that the action was designed for exhibition in colour? Well, the film has great fun with coloured flares and extravagant costumes. We know Fury Road would have been lit differently. It would also almost certainly have been composed differently. Any retro-fitted black-and-white version is still bound to be something of a compromise.
All these things can be said of Logan. That film was, however, nowhere near so visually impressive to start out with. Nobody walked out whistling the colour grading. Perhaps Mangold will find new visual epiphanies in the black and white version. We watch with interest.
Miller is right to point out that black and white was long ago abandoned as a medium for mainstream pictures. By the mid-1960s, fearful that television would not entertain the supposedly old-fashioned medium, colour had all but taken over. Monochrome remained the preserve of arthouse entertainments such as The Last Picture Show or low-budget horror such as The Night of the Living Dead.
Two films in black and white have won the best picture Oscar over the past 50 years, but both were notable oddities. Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List was muted in respect for victims of the Holocaust. Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist was a pastiche of cinema from a distant era. To locate a monochrome winner that was not a novelty you need to go way back to The Apartment in 1960.
Black and white films are now special. They will remain so until films such as Logan and Fury Road have their initial wide release in colourless versions. I'm betting that Transformers: The Last Knight will be in colour.
Neither Mangold nor Miller is a fool. Both will have sincere aesthetic arguments for moving towards the grey. But it cannot be denied that the re-releases give the impression that Fury Road and Logan are classier, more serious entities than the blockbusters that surround them. Look at us, we're projected in the same medium as Cries and Whispers and The Rules of the Game. Aren't we important?
The battle has been largely won already. Fury Road won more Oscars than any other film in 2016. Logan, the tale of an aging Wolverine, was well reviewed on its release earlier this year. Many pundits noted the copious allusions to George Stephens's Shane in Mangold's film. Now, there's a classic. Fine turns from Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur. Great score by Victor Young. And lovely colour cinematography by Loyal Griggs. Nobody felt the need to monochromise Shane to confirm its status. Excuse my cynicism.