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The Timeless Magic of Black and White

A celebration of the glorious potential of black and white.

Recently, a number of filmmakers have chosen to work in black and white, rather than in the far more common colour - a reminder that monochrome can enhance mood, reinforce meaning and produce a beauty quite different from that experienced in everyday life. Here is a selection of classic movies notable for their superb camerawork; it’s a celebration of the glorious potential of black and white.

Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-large, BFI Southbank

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BaitBait

Drama201889 minsDirector: Mark Jenkin

Simmering tensions between locals and newcomers in a modern-day Cornish fishing village reach boiling point in this hugely acclaimed British independent film.

Mark Jenkin’s DIY sensation is stunningly shot on a vintage 16mm camera using monochrome Kodak stock, presenting the Cornish landscape in a new and alien light.

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Battleship PotemkinBattleship Potemkin

Historical drama192569 minsSilentDirector: Sergei M. Eisenstein

A fixture in the critical canon almost since its premiere, Eisenstein’s film about a 1905 naval mutiny was revolutionary in both form and content.

The cinematography by Edward Tissé – who shot all of Eisenstein’s films – is strikingly effective, whether stressing the solidarity of the sailors in group shots or emphasising the suffering of individuals, as in the memorable close-ups of the renowned Odessa Steps sequence.

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A Bagful of FleasA Bagful of Fleas

Documentary196243 minsDirector: Vera Chytilová

Věra Chytilová's 'fictionalised documentary' uses non-actors to portray girls' lives in the cotton mills of Náchod.

Věra Chytilová’s 'fictionalised documentary' is shot cinéma-vérité-style to emphasise the gritty experiences of female factory workers in a male-dominated world.

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Steamboat Bill, Jr.Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Comedy192871 minsDirector: Charles F. Riesner

Waterway hi jinks abound in this Buster Keaton classic, in which he plays the reluctant heir to his father's paddle steamer business.

Waterway hi jinks abound in this Buster Keaton classic, which is also memorable for its lovingly detailed, beautifully shot evocation of life in a small town on the Mississippi.

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VampyrVampyr

Horror193273 minsDirector: Carl Th. Dreyer

The first sound-film by one of the greatest of all filmmakers, Carl Theodor Dreyer, is akin to a waking-dream; guiding the viewer on a trance-like journey between reality and the supernatural.

Dreyer's horror masterpiece is suffused with a pallid, cloudy grey, the world of shadowy beings and deathly visions feels as eerily intangible as it is terrifying.

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The Old Dark HouseThe Old Dark House

Comedy193272 minsDirector: James Whale

A group of weary travellers arrive at a spooky mansion with a madman on the loose, in this classic horror-comedy from James Whale (Bride of Frankenstein)

Arthur Edeson’s highly atmospheric camerawork uses deep shadows, distorted compositions and unexpected angles to create an unsettling mood of crazed intensity.

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Bicycle ThievesBicycle Thieves

Drama194889 minsDirector: Vittorio De Sica

Vittorio De Sica’s story of a father and son searching for a stolen bicycle on the streets of Rome is a classic of post-war Italian cinema.

Rossellini’s neorealist classic utilised a new kind of cinematic naturalism to convey its vivid documentation of a downtrodden Rome.

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Smiles of a Summer NightSmiles of a Summer Night

Comedy1955109 minsDirector: Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman’s Cannes prize-winning comedy assembles various couples in a country house in 1900.

The magnificent monochrome compositions, highlighting the almost theatrical nature of the characters’ deceptive intrigues, are courtesy of Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s favourite cinematographer during the ‘50s.

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The Hidden FortressThe Hidden Fortress

Martial arts1958139 minsDirector: Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa’s thrilling mix of fairy story and samurai movie - a story of rival clans, hidden gold and a princess in distress - was famously a key inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars.

Kurosawa's first film shot in Tohoscope exploits the the widescreen process to the full in the film's rich variety of landscape locations.

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Eyes without a FaceEyes without a Face

Horror196090 minsDirector: Georges Franju

Georges Franju’s gorgeous, poetic horror film about a surgeon’s dark obsession with restoring his daughter’s disfigured face.

Passionate cineaste Georges Franju imbues the film with expressionist mood and poetic grace inspired by his love of silent cinema, with gorgeous photography by Eugen Schüfftan.

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La NotteLa Notte

Drama1961122 minsDirector: Michelangelo Antonioni

Michelangelo Antonioni's masterpiece stars Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau as a couple re-examining their emotional bonds.

Photographed in rapturous black-and-white by the great Gianni di Venanzo, La Notte is one of the masterworks of 1960s cinema.

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A Hard Day's NightA Hard Day's Night

Musical196488 minsDirector: Richard Lester

The Beatles’ freewheeling film debut remains the pinnacle of rock-n-roll cinema; still deliriously entertaining 50 years on.

The cinematography, at times imaginatively witty, at others almost documentary-like, was by the great Gilbert Taylor.

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Bande à partBande à part

Crime196495 minsDirector: Jean-Luc Godard

Godard's playful tribute to the Hollywood pulp crime movies of the 1940s, executed with typically Gallic cool.

Godard's playful tribute to the Hollywood pulp crime movies of the 1940s is executed with typically Gallic cool, with superb photography by Raoul Coutard.

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Woman of the DunesWoman of the Dunes

Animation & Artists Moving Image1964147 minsDirector: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Hiroshi Teshigahara's mystifying, serene and provocative fable about an entomologist who becomes trapped in a young widow’s desert shack.

Hiroshi Teshigahara's mystifying and provocative fable features startling high-contrast photography from Hiroshi Segawa.

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The Saragossa ManuscriptThe Saragossa Manuscript

Fantasy1965183 minsDirector: Wojciech Jerzy Has

During the Napoleonic wars, a soldier discovers a strange manuscript that reveals endless stories-within-stories. Wojciech Has' opus is a major cult film of the 60s, revered by Luis Buñuel, David Lynch and Jerry Garcia.

Wojciech Has' cult classic is more renowned for its multilinear, Matryoshka Doll-like narrative, but its unforgettable imagery and Gothic atmospherics are equally impressive.

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The Battle of AlgiersThe Battle of Algiers

Drama1966121 minsDirector: Gillo Pontecorvo

Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece about the last years of French colonial rule in Algeria, seen from the perspective of both the revolutionaries and the French authorities.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s use of newsreel-style cinematography emphasises the tension in this gripping account of of French colonial rule in Algeria.

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Kings of the RoadKings of the Road

Road movie1976169 minsDirector: Wim Wenders

One of the finest achievements of New German Cinema, Wenders' remarkable road-movie follows two young men as they travel through a country in the midst of momentous change.

And its stunning monochrome images – at once pleasingly matter-of-fact, memorably lyrical and event, occasionally, reminiscent, in their gentle melancholy of the films of John Ford – are by the late, very great Robby Müller.