When you stop to think about it, films are a pretty strange phenomena. In some ways, they’re a decaying, outdated form of entertainment that kept previous generations entertained during tough times. But in another way, they remain a vitally inspiring, subliminal influence on us in these “modern times”. Even the most atrocious film can say more about the society in which it was created than any textbook. Therefore, I was rather perturbed when I came across an internet discussion on why all ‘black and white films are dull and boring’. To sum up this article, they’re not.
For a small period during the last century, monochrome movies were the primary means of telling stories to mass audiences in the same way the latest Hollywood blockbuster and internet site attempt to craft narratives for us now. Of course, every story is packaged in the values of its time, but if you can look past that, there’s often not a great deal of difference. You wouldn’t write off all television after one episode of Geordie Shore, so old films shouldn’t be entirely discarded either.
It would be a lie to say that all black and white motion pictures are worth your time. Some make watching Piers Morgan’s Life Stories seem worthwhile. Just. Hysterical overacting, abysmal dialogue and stale direction presumably by a half-resuscitated goat plague older films just as much as any Adam Sandler movie. However, if you know what to avoid (Murder in Soho should never be seen while sober), there are plenty of gems to be discovered in the archives.
Alfred Hitchcock is probably the most famous director of period films. Before his illustrious Hollywood career, he made a number of terrific thrillers here in Britain, most of which still stand up well against modern competitors. The Lady Vanishes has been remade several times, but none manage to capture the wit, drama and excitement of Hitch’s 1938 version. It contrasts well with the assumed gender roles of the time, by having a fiercely independent female lead who is pitted against the rest of her travelling companions when an innocent lady mysteriously disappears on a train journey across Europe. It’s a very enjoyable comedy thriller that subverts many of our modern expectations for vintage films.
The Third Man is regularly voted one of the greatest films of all time, and it’s clear why from its opening sequence. Set in post-war Vienna, it tells the story of an American hack-writer, Holly Martins, who visits the war-torn city to see his friend, Harry Lime. When he arrives, Martins is told that Lime has been killed, but witness statements contradict each other about the number of people around the body when he was run over; who was the mysterious third man seen only by a lowly caretaker? Carol Reed directed the film in noir style to take full advantage of the atmospheric setting: strange camera angles, shadows and reflections incorporated into the narrative dramatically heighten the film’s tension.
Of course, there is more to these films than drama. Comedy is renowned for being the quickest genre to date (even many of Shakespeare’s jokes are awful). Comedy seems to encapsulate societal values and change quicker than drama; love and death are issues that never age, but what makes us laugh can change as we do. Ealing Studios produced an incredible array of comedy films that are still as entertaining as they were sixty years ago: from the black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets to the politically driven Passport to Pimlico. Personally, the finest comedy film is Oh, Mr Porter! It’s a classic British farce about a bunch of incompetents tasked with running a branchline railway station that just happens to be used by illegal pre-war gunrunners. Admittedly, that may not sound like a terrific concept for an amusing film, but its perfect acting, script and direction make it a timeless piece of cinematic bliss.
Filmmakers also found time to invest in the musical film genre. Many of these are forgettable B-movies, but others have a better reputation. George Formby has been credited as ‘Britain’s Original Pop Star’; he made 20 films in 12 years and was the highest paid film star of his time. Truthfully, most of his films follow a very repetitive formula: a plucky, gormless man (Formby) eventually gets his pretty leading lady after defeating the bad guys, with a few cheery songs along the way. However, several do offer more complex narratives, such as I Didn’t Do It, which is an intriguing mix of 40s thriller, musical comedy and murder mystery.
So the next time you come across an old film, try not to assume that they’re bad or slow. Approach them with an open mind. After all, they are just stories. Although you should run like hell from Murder in Soho – that’s 70 minutes you’re never getting back.