Black & White Cinema: A Short History – Wheeler Winston Dixon
Rutgers University Press, 2015
Paperback, 220 pages plus works cited, index
“To shoot a film is to organize an entire universe.” – Ingmar Bergman
So here’s an entire book about a method of photographing movies that’s been largely unused and ignored for at least 50 years. No one shoots movies in black-and-white anymore and if you say, “Hey, wait a minute! Nebraska and The Artist were filmed in black-and-white,” you’re wrong. (They were filmed in color and desaturated to black-and-white. Read the book to find out more.) Even if you wanted to shoot a film in black-and-white, the film stock is scarce and costly. Color has ruled at the movies for decades. So why should you care about a book on black-and-white cinema?
Because that’s where the magic is.
One of the marvelous aspects (and there are many) of Dixon’s book occurs as we hear from expert cinematographers and how they made the transition from the black-and-white era to color. Over and over, these cinematographers overwhelmingly say the same thing: they preferred working in black-and-white. You might be tempted to think that, “Oh, these were just old-school guys hesitant to embrace new technology.” It wasn’t that at all. But you should hear it from them, not me, so pick up the book. I think you’ll be surprised and amazed.
Dixon organizes his book by looking at each decade of film history, but wisely expands the boundaries of those chapters to include later eras. Thankfully, many of the cinematographers mentioned in the book enjoyed long careers, their work influencing generations of others. You’ve probably never heard of Lee Garmes, who began his career in silent movies in 1918, but he also shot film noir titles Nightmare Alley, Detective Story, and others. Garmes was also the director of photography (DP) on Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), where he mentored a young James Wong Howe, who racked up 10 Academy Award nominations and won twice. You may not recognize the name Eduard Tisse, who shot Battleship Potemkin (1925), but he was highly influential in the development of Gregg Toland, who shot Citizen Kane (1941). The connections are numerous and vast.
Anyone familiar with this blog will already know of my love for film noir. Many of its greatest cinematographers received prime treatment in the book: Nicholas Musuraca, John Alton, John L. Russell, the criminally neglected Burnett Guffey, and many others. Years after his career had ended, Alton seemed honestly dumbstruck at the how popular his films remain with audiences. After the 1993 Telluride Film Festival, Alton stated, “It’s a strange thing that, when I travel to all these festivals, they show all the small, dark pictures we made in 12 days, not the big pictures we took months to shoot” (p.137).
Black & White Cinema not only provides an overview of black-and-white film history, it also puts us inside the minds of the men and women who shot these pictures. Sven Nydvist briefly opens the door to what it was like to work with Ingmar Bergman, yet that one glimpse is worth the price of the book. At just over 200 pages, Black & White Cinema is a whirlwind tour of both black-and-white cinematography and film history, a book that’s easily readable that leaves you hungry for more and especially hungry to discover (or rediscover) the multitude of films mentioned within its pages. Highly recommended.
This review is part of my participation in the Summer Reading Challenge at Out of the Past: A Classic Film Blog.