No. 102 | May 24, 2010
One of the constants in the history of film is the advance of technology. Filmmakers are always inventing new ways of telling stories, and in many ways those developments have created a richer experience for film audiences. Sometimes a new technology is adopted widely and immediately. Sound came to Hollywood in 1927 and by 1931 Chaplin’s silent classic City Lights was viewed as a nostalgic anomaly. Other times, technology is adopted in fits and starts. Bwana Devil arrived in 1952 but 3-D never went mainstream; now, with Avatar and other films, 3-D seems new all over again.
Then, there are times when the shift to new technology happens gradually. So it was with the introduction of color, with the transition in Hollywood films from almost all black-and-white to almost no black-and-white taking decades. From 1939 to 1966 (except 1957), the Academy awarded separate Oscars each year for black-and-white and color cinematography, with Gone with the Wind winning the first for color and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? winning the last for black-and-white. Since the change to a single award, only one black-and-white film, Schindler’s List in 1993 (with a few scenes in color), has won the cinematography prize.
The black-and-white film is now an endangered species, but not extinct. Recent years have seen a few exceptions to the general trend, and we’ll look at some of them in this week’s theme.
Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
The Man Who Wasn’t There is typical for the rare black-and-white film of recent times. Its story is set in a period when black-and-white was the predominant choice for the medium. In this case, the film borrows heavily from the traditions of film noir. Some of the apparent influences, in style and theme, include The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and In a Lonely Place.
Joel and Ethan Coen wrote and directed the movie, with frequent collaborator Roger Deakins, who earned the film’s sole Oscar nomination, handling the cinematography. (Notably, and unlike movies from decades earlier, the film was shot in color but released as a black-and-while film.)
Set in mid-century Santa Rosa, California, the film stars Billy Bob Thornton as barber Ed Crane. In the early minutes of the film, Ed says, “I don’t talk much,” and it’s true that he has little to say to the characters in the movie, yet in a series of voiceovers, he doesn’t shut up. Ed shows little emotion but has a lot on his mind. Much of it has to do with the people from his small-town world. They include his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), her boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), who’s having an affair with her, his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco), who owns the barber shop, and Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), the businessman who talks Ed into investing in a dry cleaning operation. Ed may be the protagonist in the film, but his true fate is as a secondary character subject to the whims and conceits of the others.
Ed is not unlike the heroes in some other Coen brothers’ movies—the man whose best efforts are no match against forces greater than himself. He’s in one respect a tragic figure, but also darkly comic. The Man Who Wasn’t There seems to get the balance just right. The performances and writing are crisp, as you’d expect from the Coens. The black-and-white photography is a feast for the eyes. Part homage to earlier films, the visuals are unmistakably Coen brothers’ material. When a shot dollies in, the Coens don’t stop at a close-up, they continue moving in till the camera is nearly inserted into the character’s mouth. The Coens are playing with viewer expectations, and even dentists in the audience probably feel uncomfortable.
Unlike films from the noir era, which typically zip along, The Man Who Wasn’t There is slow-paced, even meditative. Perhaps the movie is a little too concerned with appearances rather than just telling its story. That said, the film truly comes alive when Tony Shalhoub is onscreen. Shalhoub plays Freddy Riedenschneider, a brilliant, slick lawyer hired to defend Doris in a murder trial. It’s one of the great portrayals of any lawyer in any film from recent years—a performance not to be missed.