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Black and White

Where did it all begin? In childhood I suppose. Born in the mid-fifties, at a time when many children had teddy bears, I had a panda, stuffed of course. I was five years old when, on a late friday evening, my parents let me stay up past my bedtime to watch Karl Freund's THE MUMMY, starring Boris Karloff. What I remember above all about this film was its ambience, its atmosphere, its dreamlike pacing.

In the 1960s a major development, a transition, was taking place in film and television as things became more feasible, more affordable to film in color. Eventually, over time, black and white was being phased out in favor of color. No one wanted to see new product filmed in black and white, and it became hard to market movies and TV shows that weren't in color. Since the 1970s if any filmmaker chose to shoot their work in black and white as opposed to color it has most likely been an aesthetic decision, not an economic one. What's interesting about black and white as opposed to color is this: color more accurately depicts what we all see in visual reality. The same cannot be said of black and white, of course. So in a sense everything filmed in black and white is unreal, or perhaps can be construed as an alternative reality, but not one that we experience naturally.

A large part of film noir's appeal is black and white, and to the noir purist it isn't truly noir if it isn't. During the classic period of film noir, from 1940 to 1959, it was all in black and white, with very few exceptions (SLIGHTLY SCARLET and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN are two that come to mind). However, it also is worth noting that there was a distinct difference in visual presentation that took place as the '40s ended and the '50s began. The deep shadows and high contrast of light and dark diminished, to be replaced by the flatter, blander grays of television. And the major film studios began to use color more and more as a way to compete with television, a medium they feared would overtake film because of its initial popularity, its immediate accessibility to the homeowner. Of course we know now that those fears were groundless, that the moviegoing experience is as popular as its ever been. This despite the fact that one can rent or own films that wre totally inaccessible twenty, thirty years ago. For those of us who've perused Silver and Ward's "Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style" time and time again, wishing that there was a way to see those films we've read about but never had access to, these may be the best of times. Twentieth Century Fox has released more than twenty films previously unavailable or out-of-print, and Turner Classic Movies has shown or will be showing five Columbia noirs, all of which have never before been shown, to my knowledge, on TCM. Black and white is alive and well, at least as it applies to the world of Noir, which may be as popular now as its ever been.