Hitchcock in Black and White: Why Hitchcock’s Colorless Films are his Greatest Works

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, 1960

Hitchcock’s films essentially grew up with the film industry, from silent film to black and white talkies to color film. While Hitchcock worked on silent films, black and white talkies, and color films throughout his career as the master of suspense, his black and white audio films stand out among the rest and are his best works. Hitchcock’s earliest works in silent film were well before he found his niche, and with the advent of audio-rich film, Hitchcock found that niche in suspense.

Hitchcock started his film career off by creating and working on silent films (Barson, “Alfred Hitchcock”). Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature film as a director, “The Pleasure Garden”, was a silent film (Dixon & Webb). This was a good silent film, but not a good Hitchcockian film. While many great silent films exist, one could say that Hitchcock’s audio films are better in that he had a much greater time to develop his personal style and grow as a director. While Hitchcock’s early work in silent film proved to be of a variety of genres, he did not truly establish his personal style or “touch” until he eventually found his niche in Suspense and Film Auteur during his black and white audio-dense filmmaking period.

Due to the fragility of early filmmaking techniques, many of Hitchcock’s early silent films were lost, damaged or incomplete until modern restoration processes took place (National Film Preservation Foundation). If one has ever has ever seen “Inglorious Bastards”, one would be aware of the fragility and flammability of Nitrate film. It is thought that the first feature film by Hitchcock was “The White Shadow”, and only three of the six reels to the movie survive. These first three wheels are made of, as writer Ray Rahman describes, “Highly unstable nitrate material.” (Rahman). In addition to “The White Shadow”, there are (currently, as of this writing) only nine silent films by Hitchcock that are not that lost, damaged, or incomplete. These films are commonly called “The Hitchcock Nine” (British Film Institute). This further showcases that Hitchcock’s best works are black and white audio films versus his silent films.

While Hitchcock started his first foray into film with black and white silent film, he soon evolved over time to adapt to audio-dense, color-rich film. As film evolved, so did Hitchcock; and the evolution of Hitchcock saw the habituation of Hitchcock in the standard of color film. Hitchcock began using Technicolor film in 1948. While Kinemacolor was the “most successful of the so-called natural color processes in early cinema” (Timeline of Historical Film Colors), Hitchcock’s first color film, “Rope” was produced in color by the now well-known and celebrated brand, Technicolor (Oxford). The invention of color film brought many new opportunities for experimentation, including the production of 3D films. Hitchcock filmed his only 3D film, Dial M for Murder in 1952. By the time the film was released, audiences soon grew tired of the 3D fad. Hitchcock is noted in saying of 3D, “it’s a nine-day wonder, and I came in on the ninth day.” (Hoberman, “Dial ‘M’ for Murder”).

While Dial M for Murder is an incredible work, this could lead one to believe that his work is far more mysterious, edgy, and better, in black and white format. Many film critics and fans alike have attributed Hitchcock’s colors to have specific meaning and purpose (Horton, “Vertigo, Color, and Identity”). For example, the colors in the 1958 release, “Vertigo”, have widely been critiqued as having specific connotations. Film critic, actor, and writer Jim Emerson is quoted as saying, “Say “Vertigo” and I see green. For the color green is associated with Scottie Ferguson’s vertigo and, especially, its underlying cause: the dizzying fear of falling, and of falling precipitously, deliriously in love.” (Emerson, “Vertigo”)

While the colors used may or may not have been used as a method for Hitchcock to convey a specific purpose, the usage and symbolism of colors are constrained to cultural and historical context, rendering the symbolism of color in his films as temporary versus timeless. An audience in 1950 could possibly recognize the “lady in red” or “promiscuous woman” connotations of Grace Kelly’s red dress in Dial M for Murder, whereas an audience in the current day would see a red dress as a red dress. Compared to Hitchcock’s color films, his black and white films remain unvarying, unwavering, and persistent in timelessness.

Hitchcock’s first black and white “talkie” was also the first talkie to be introduced to Great Britain (Kerzoncuf, Senses of Cinema). Hitchcock’s 1929 release, “Blackmail”, is memorable not only in that it was Great Britain’s first talkie, but it was one of the stepping stones that led to Hitchcock’s signature style in suspense (Matthew 79). Hitchcock’s greatest works are his black and white audio-rich films, and “Blackmail” is a fantastic example of the birth of Hitchcockian suspense.

Because Hitchcock found his footing in black and white film before experimenting with and finding his footing in color film, much of Hitchcock’s color films could be viewed as culturally significant to the time period in which they were made or even trial and error in a brand new medium, thus making Hitchcock’s best work in black and white. For example, Paramount’s highest-grossing film was Hitchcock’s blockbuster hit “Psycho” (Turner Classic Movies). In support of the opinion that Hitchcock’s greatest work is devoid of color, his popular TV show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was in black and white (IMDb, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”).

Despite the invention of color filmmaking techniques, Alfred Hitchcock recognized the mystery, and suspense, in using black and white film. While color film had gained popularity by the 1950s (McKittrick, “How Movies Went From Black and White to Color”) and Hitchcock himself had created his first Technicolor film, “Rope” in 1948 (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), Hitchcock produced the 1960 blockbuster hit, “Psycho” in black and white. The use of black and white film was intentional (Getlen, “Hitchcock Made ‘Psycho’ Even Creepier by Manipulating Us”). Alfred Hitchcock was well aware that film had evolved, and with that in mind, he used what he thought would be best to create an eerie, ominous visual: black and white. The evolution from black and white to color provided the perfect means to mentally “fill in the spaces” while watching the film. In the published interviews of Alfred Hitchcock by film critic François Truffaut, Hitchcock posited that there is no fear in the explosion of a sudden bomb, only in knowing that a bomb will go off:

The intentional lack of color presented a film in which the viewer essentially created the colors, and horrors, in their very own minds.

The resulting conclusion is literally, and figuratively, black and white. Regardless of the invention of both color and 3D filmmaking, Hitchcock’s black and white films persist as his greatest works. Hitchcock’s silent films were created when Hitchcock was “growing” as an artist, and thus it is apparent that his style did not fully develop. With the advent of color film, Hitchcock experienced a sort-of second “growth spurt” in film, showcasing an inexperienced take on the media. Due to his growth as a filmmaker in both silent and color film, one could certainly come to the conclusion that Hitchcock’s best, and most important, film is in audio-rich black and white film.

Works Cited

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