Thursday, June 4, 2020

Color/BW Tropes in Cinema

Once again Carl Jennings has inspired a Hue Angles article from me. This time, Carl’s description of Olafur Eliasson’s black-and-white effect with narrowband light (ISCC News, Issue 489) reminded me of various color/black and white (BW) tropes in cinema. Whereas Tony Stanton’s Munsell 2018 presentation ( is a more serious history that highlights the use of color/BW as part of the technological evolution, my essay here highlights some artistic uses of color/BW.

I’ll begin with the Wizard of Oz (1939), wherein the black and white (actually sepia-tone dyed black and white) Kansas shots give way to the dazzling color of Oz. The transition wasn’t trivial: “A set was painted sepia tone and Bobie Koshay, Judy Garland's double was outfitted in a sepia dress and given a sepia make-up job. Koshay walks to the door and opens it, revealing the bursting color of Munchkinland beyond the doorframe. She steps out of the way of the shot and the camera glides through the door, followed by Judy Garland, revealed in her bright blue dress.” [1]

A similar trope occurs in Pleasantville (1998), in which real-life characters are injected into a black-and-white 1950s sitcom. Within the sitcom, the characters (and objects) appear in black and white until they transcend the repression implied by the sitcom and find emotional spontaneity and “modernity” of viewpoint. I find the message is too preachy, but if for nothing else, the film is noteworthy in being claimed to be the first new feature film created by scanning and digitizing recorded film footage to remove or manipulate colors ( .

Certain resonances of Oz can be seen in Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), wherein the entire movie has a ghastly blue-green cast (the color, not the actors), until a fantasy scene at the end that opens out to abundant color and lets the audience sigh in relief. That one is not a black-and-white trope, but a reduced-color trope that recalls the Oz transition, but on a more subtle level.

A more powerful recent trope appears in Schindler’s List (1993), which is filmed in black and white except for the Sabbath candles and a red coat worn by a young Jewish girl who is thereby individuated as a casualty of the Holocaust. The emotional effect was a coup by Spielberg. And it used digital techniques for color replacement five years before the vaunted “first” of Pleasantville.

Finally, I must mention the comedic send-up of Psycho’s (1960) shower scene in Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety (1977), which is entirely in color. A bell boy has not-so-pleasant words with a patron in a hotel. The patron (Brooks) wants his newspaper brought to him, and the bell boy waits until the patron is in the shower and then rips the curtain aside and hysterically stabs at him with the rolled-up newspaper. (“There’s your paper!”) The paper falls under the water, and the black ink dissolves—and swirls down the drain in a vortex exactly like the black and white rendered blood that flows down the drain in Psycho. Pan to the patron’s apparently dead face: “That kid gets no tip!” [see]

There’s no limit to what can be done with the tension between color, and black and white. If you pay attention, you can see BW/color tropes in many other places. My most recent encounter was with the BW world comprising Saul Goodman’s drab alternate identity in Better Call Saul (TV Series). In fact, our editors have experimented with BW/color tension in recent issues of ISCC News.

Michael H. Brill

[1] D. Faraci, True movie magic: how the Wizard of Oz went from black & white to color, written 16 Sep 2013,, website accessed 27 Feb 2020.