Best Black and White Films from the 1930’s to 1960’s

m

M (1931)
Directed by Fritz Lang, M is one of the first fine sound films. The 1931 German thriller is about a serial killer who targets children. A blue print for psychological thrillers, M is considered by Fritz Lang, who also directed Metropolis, to be his finest work. A film that provides plenty of suspense will satisfy a classic film lover and a contemporary audience that can appreciate the film despite its age.

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I Am a Fugitive from the Chain Gang (1932)
The film is based on the true story of Robert Elliott Burns who was wrongfully convicted for a crime and ended up being imprisoned on a chain gang in Georgia. Another biographical role for Paul Muni who has played other real life protagonists such as Emile Zola in The Life of Emile Zola. In its 90 minutes of run the film is able to capture the brutal reality of imprisonment in a chain gang which was shocking to the audiences back then.

Scarface-2

Scarface (1932)
Not everyone knows that the 1983 film with Al Pacino is a remake. Of course there are many differences between the original and the remake but there are a lot of similarities, too. The 1932 Scarface is loosely based on the life of the infamous gangster Al Capone whose nick name was Scarface due to a scar on his left cheek. One of the fundamental films of the gangster genre, Scarface is the story of Antonio “Tony” Camonte, played by Paul Muni, and his rise and fall in the world of organized crime. Paul Muni gives one of his best performances, if not his best, portraying a ruthless Italian-American gangster.

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The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Frank Morgan, The Shop Around the Corner is a romantic comedy about two people who in person dislike each other despite not knowing that they are feeling in love by being correspondence partners anonymously. The main plot of the film is very similar to the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail in which Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were corresponding through e-mail instead of mail.

Edward-G-Robinson-and-Fred-MacMurray

Double Indemnity (1944)
Most cinephiles and critics consider The Maltese Falcon to be the best film-noir. Some other consider to be The Big Sleep. I consider Double Indemnity to be the best of all of them. Double Indemnity is a film that set the standard for the film noir genre and elements of it have been copied extensively. In this film a femme fatale persuades an insurance agent into a scheme that brings them into the suspicion of an insurance investigator. The film was directed by Billy Wilder (Sunset Blvd., Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) and co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

it's a wonderful life

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
After facing problems related to his work and because he feels disappointed by how his life turned out George contemplates suicide. Before his attempt an angel stops him and tries to convince him to not go through with the suicide. The angel, named Clarence, shows him how the life of the people that George knows would be if he never existed. Frank Capra’s favorite film among the ones he directed and a stable film for the Christmas season in the USA due the endless reruns. The film also has been characterized as one of the most inspirational films ever made.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Louis’ mother has been out-casted by her aristocratic family of the D’Ascoynes for marrying a man of lower social status and after her death she wasn’t even allowed to be buried in the family crypt. Louis, wants to avenge the D’Ascoynes by planning to kill all his competitors one by one until he becomes a Duke. One of the great black comedies coming from the UK, Kind Hearts and Coronets was one of Roger Ebert’s favorites films and has been featured in many top lists such as Time magazine’s top 100 and also in the BFI Top 100 British films.

The Third Man

The Third Man (1949)
“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” says Orson Welles in one of the most memorable scenes in movie history. In The Third Man Joseph Cotten is the novelist Holly Martins who travels to Vienna after the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) who promises him a job but instead of that he finds himself investigating the death of his friend. Dark and atmospheric with exceptional cinematography and powerful performances The Third Man is considered one of the greatest films of all time.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
A movie star of the silent era refuses to accept that her glory days have passed. With the help of a young, opportunistic screenwriter she plans her comeback. He thinks he can take advantage of her delusional sense of reality but soon he realizes otherwise. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won three, Sunset Boulevard is considered by critics and cinephiles one of the best films ever made.

The Seven Samurai

The Seven Samurai (1954)
Despite being a “Samurai film,” The Seven Samurai has strong elements of American western films. Major reason for that is that john ford was Kurosawa’s favorite American director. The main plot of the film is this: The residents of a village to protect themselves from a gang of bandits seek the help of a samurai. With the help of sex other samurais he will try to protect them. The Seven Samurai is one of the most influential films ever made. Its influence is visible on films like The Magnificent Seven.

Film and Television

The Fiends / Les Diaboliques (1955)
The wife of Michel and his mistress are plotting to kill him but after their attempt the body mysteriously disappears. Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (Wages of Fear) Les Diaboliques inspired Hitchcock to make Psycho. The film has a great mix of horror and psychological thriller elements.

The Killing

The Killing (1956)
After serving a prison sentence in Alcatraz, Johnny Clay sets up a complex race-track heist. Will all go according to plan? One of the early works of Stanley Kubrick in which he gives signs of his artistic style that will become the trademark in his future films. The film served as a major influence for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick directs a powerful anti-war film set in World War I in which Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is a French commander who stands on the side of his soldiers who are on trial for refusing to carry out a suicide attack against enemy troops. It’s a film where Kubrick solidified his artistic style with his typical trademark wide angle shot. His collaboration with Kirk Douglas in this film earned him the directorial chair in Spartacus after its previous director Anthony Mann was removed from the production.

The 400 blows

The 400 Blows / Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959)
A troubled kid faces problems at home and school which leads him to petty crime. One of the most important movies of the French New Wave and world cinema in general. It’s the debut film of director François Truffaut which felt very personal to him since it was inspired by his own childhood.

Some Like it Hot

Some Like it Hot (1959)
Two musicians after witnessing the Saint Valentine’s Massacre disguise themselves by dressing as women to avoid the mafia that is after them. One of the best comedies ever made in which the themes of cross-dressing and homosexuality are depicted despite the Motion Picture Production Code which was typically in existence. Marlin Monroe gives her most memorable performance in a film with her explosive sexuality which earned her a Golden Globe in the category of Best Actress in a Motion Picture.

The Apartment

The Apartment (1960)
As to benefit his career Jack lets the superiors from his work use his apartment for their romantic meetings. Even though it was criticized for its portrayal of adultery the film was a financial and critical success, earning five Academy Awards. A nice mix of romance, comedy and drama.

Psycho

Psycho (1960)
As a film pioneer in the slasher/horror genre Psycho received mixed reviews when it was first released. It was criticized for its violence and for its sexuality; even though the only naked scene was masterfully concealed by the camerawork. The film follows Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who after stealing money from her job tries to get out of town. She ends up staying in a motel with a peculiar owner and his overbearing mother.

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The Hole / Le Trou (1960)
Another great French film that made it to the list. Directed by Jacques Becker, Le Trou is a story of four prisoners who are attempting to escape by digging a tunnel. While they were still opening the tunnel a new prison mate is transferred to their cell. The film is based on true events which took place in La Santé Prison in France in the year of 1947. As a touch or realism the director used many non-actors for the film. One among them was actually involved in the real escape attempt in which the film is based.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
A film that is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book and came out during the unstable times of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s rare to watch a film that is equally good as the book but the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird managed to do that. Atticus Finch is a respectable lawyer of a small town in Alabama where racism during the 1930’s was part of their daily life. In one of the cases that is assigned to Atticus he has to defend an African American man who was accused of raping a white woman.

america america

America, America – The Anatolian Smile (1963)
A personal film for Elia Kazan. It’s the story of his uncle who escaped his life in the Ottoman Empire, living as an oppressed Christian Greek, and made it to America – the promise land. A film that isn’t as well-known as Kazan’s other works such as On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire but equally good. The leading role has George Chakiris who also starred in West Side Story.

Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Directed, produced, and co-written by Stanley Kubrick Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy which satirizes the cold war and the fear/love of a nuclear holocaust. The film stars Peter Sellers, who plays multiple characters. The film was nominated for 4 Oscars and has been selected as the number three entry in AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs.

George Kechiopoulos

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