For some, black and white movies are as distracting and inaccessible as shaky cam action sequences are to me. Older movies present an unfortunate hurdle for certain viewers of all ages. We see in color. So it takes effort to look into a world where grayscale rules the screen, especially when it comes to science fiction. We might also come to expect other dated elements to go hand in hand with black and white, like cheesy acting, corny scripts, and bad soundtracks.
Here are a few accessible, fun science fiction movies that are black and white yet are also essential viewing. This is a short list and there are dozens of other entries that deserve a place here. Do you have a favorite that comes to mind?
While most movie fans favor John Carpenter’s 1982 version, the 1951 Thing (full title The Thing from Another World Dir:Christian Nyby http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044121) is a delightful monster romp that many haven’t seen. It’s a bit dated, especially how the female lead gets treated, but remains a favorite of mine with a great monster and exciting conflict between it and the scientists and military personnel. You’ll note the scenes with the big block of ice and the line of scientists used to give scale to the frozen UFO as essential visuals borrowed by Carpenter in his remake/sequel. I also love the dialogue, especially the memorable last line to “Watch the skies!” and the sparring between the scientist and the military men on how to deal with the monster.
Dr. Arthur Carrington: You’re doing more than breaking army orders. You’re robbing science of the greatest secrets that ever come to it.
Hendry: You’d better go back, Doctor.
Dr. Arthur Carrington: Knowledge is more important than life, Captain. We’ve only one excuse for existing – to think, to find out, to learn.
Ned “Scotty” Scott: What can we learn from that thing except a quicker way to die?
Dr. Arthur Carrington: It doesn’t matter what happens to us. Nothing counts except for our thinking. We thought our way into nature. We split the atom.
Eddie: Yes, and that sure made the world happy, didn’t it?
THEM! (1954 Dir: Gordon Douglas http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047573/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2) Giant ants. One of the most memorable monster sounds ever. Indisputable proof that radiation just makes things get bigger. Look for Leonard Nemoy in an uncredited early role as one of the soldiers.
This Island Earth (1955 Dir: Joseph Newman http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047577/?ref_=tt_rec_tt) Watch this for a cool brain-on-the-outside mutant monster as well as a great villain played by Jeff Morrow. The cheesiest of the bunch listed here.
The studio had to change the mutant (see above pice) makeup which was supposed to have legs similar to the arms but because of time and budget went with human legs for the final production. (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Island_Earth)
And while many have seen the essential The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 Dir: Robert Wise http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043456) I include it here as an one of the most iconic soundtracks ever. The composer Bernard Herrmann went on to compose an impressive body of soundtrack work, especially with Alfred Hitchcock and including most famously the music from Psycho. You can listen to some of the Day the Earth Stood Still soundtrack here featuring one and sometimes two theremins (the electrical music instrument made famous by this score.)
All these films should be part of anyone’s science fiction movie primer. These are obvious choices, yet good starting places for examples of dialogue, action, creature effects, sound design, and soundtrack that often hold up to modern tastes. I’ll talk about some lesser known examples at another time.
Don’t let the black and white keep you from science fiction gold!
What are your favorite black and white science fiction films?