Widescreen Black & White

I recently saw two new Netflix films shot in widescreen scope and black and white. It’s an interesting mix. They were never intended to work together, but they do very well. (The movies were Mank and The Forty-Year-Old Version.)

In 1953, 20th-Century Fox decided to make all its movies in its new widescreen format, CinemaScope. The company also decreed that all their movies would be in color. That made sense. The large, wide screen was intended to create an immersive experience. Color (and stereo surround sound) was an obvious part of that.

La Dolce Vita

But the color rule didn’t last. Samuel Fuller’s 1957 western Forty Guns was a Fox film shot in black-and-white CinemaScope (I don’t know if there were others before it). While most widescreen, or scope, films were shot in color, quite a few were in black and white.

An explanation: When I say CinemaScope, I mean a particular process owned by 20th-Century Fox. When I write scope, I mean a frame that’s more than twice as wide as it is tall, no matter whose technology is used.

Why would a scope film be shot in black and white? Initially, there were financial reasons. But as audiences demanded color, it became an artistic choice. By the late 1950s and into the 1960s, three major international auteurs had what you can call black-and-white scope periods where they made nothing else:

Jules and Jim

François Truffaut’s first three features – The 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and Jules and Jim (1962) – were all shot that way. The last of these is often considered his masterpiece.

Billy Wilder made five black and white scope films in a row. He started this string with The Apartment (1960), which is still the only scope, black and white movie to win the Best Picture Oscar. He followed that with One, Two, Three (1961), Irma la Douce (1963), Kiss Me, Stupid (19640, and The Fortune Cookie (1966). Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end of Wilder’s talent.

Akira Kurosawa made six black and white scope films in a row: The Hidden Fortress (1958), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963), and Red Beard (1965). Except for The Bad Sleep Well, these are among his most popular.


Kurosawa wasn’t the only Japanese director to mix black and white with scope. Masaki Kobayashi used the formats in his massive trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-1961), along with Samurai Rebellion (1967), and my favorite of his work, Hari-Kiri (sometimes called Seppuku, 1962).

And let’s not forget that Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) – often considered his masterpiece – stretched its monochrome images to a scope frame.

Behind the Iron Curtain, Andrei Tarkovsky created magnificent images of width and monochrome for his powerful Christian epic Andrei Rublev (1966). And then there’s Grigoriy Kozintsev/Iosif Shapiro adaption of King Lear (1970). When Lear goes off into the wilderness, there’s nothing like a desolate, colorless landscape stretching across a wide screen. Unfortunately, this film is hard to see these days.

Andrei Rublev

What about American films? Woody Allen used monochrome scope in one of his best films, Manhattan (yes, he’s a horrible person, but I judge the art, not the artist, 1979). Other good English-language films include In Cold Blood (1967), The Elephant Man (1981), and Nebraska (2013).