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Bleeding from Color to Black-and-White

The recent release of Logan on Blu-ray offers a unique bonus “extra” that any conscientious film buff will want to watch again and again: an alternate black-and-white version of the otherwise unedited film—aptly titled Logan Noir.

Rather than merely bleeding all color from the image, the alternate black-and-white edition has been remastered from the ground up, with subtle tweaks to contrast and light/shadow textures that go far beyond what we can achieve through some minor MENU screen adjustments. The stunning B&W remaster accentuates the lovely widescreen cinematography and strengthens the film’s iconic western and film noir roots. It also brings to the forefront director James Mangold’s classical and decidedly unglamorous approach to moviemaking.

In stark black-and-white, Logan looks and feels like all the most important and indelible classic films of the 1940s and ’50s. Were it not for Hugh Jackman’s worldwide celebrity and the film’s unflinching depiction of grizzly violence and salty dialogue, any virgin viewer might be forgiven for thinking the movie was filmed sixty odd years ago.

Celebrated as the alternate monochromatic edition is, Logan Noir is not the first time a movie has been issued on home video in a separate black-and-white version.

A decade ago, the Stephen King adaptation The Mist was issued on home video in a dual edition that contains director Frank Darabont’s preferred B&W version on its own disc. The monochrome edition heightens the otherworldliness of the inter-dimensional alien invasion and is significantly creepier than the theatrical version, more in the spirit of its meager B-sci-fi genre roots, but because one of the R-rated film’s main selling points is its unabashed gore, the anemic B&W version never properly satisfies our bloodlust.

More recently, Mad Max: Fury Road was issued in an alternate “Black & Chrome Edition,” and was even treated to a brief B&W theatrical engagement. Other than the obvious diminishment of shock value of splatter effects, the bleeding out of the color takes away one of the Fury Road’s most distinctive signature elements: its over-the-top extra-saturated orange/teal color palette.

The “Black and Chrome” version will help you focus more intently on George Miller’s masterful compositions, and in turn keep a sharper eye on the way every shot is spliced together, how the tempo is maintained, and how it all marries up with the propulsive music and enveloping audio flourishes.

You know, master class film school stuff that directors such as George Miller earn a legion of life-long fans for because he makes movies the old-school way, using actual stunt people, life-sized rigs, constructed models, and real live practical effects, with only minor digital trickery to enhance the backdrops and erase the stunt wires.

I don’t know how it escaped my notice for nearly three years, but in late 2014 Steven Soderbergh doctored a unique B&W version of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and, for education purposes so he cannot get sued, made it available online for all to marvel over.

This phantom monochromatic edition—substituting the lurid Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross scores for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the film’s original dialogue and music tracks—offers a fascinating look at Spielberg’s indelible compositions and his skill for conveying information purely visually, signature Spielbergian elements that harken back to the great cinema classics of the Silent Era and, especially here, all those brisk Saturday morning matinee cliffhanger serials that Raiders so splendidly honors and reinvents.

Soderbergh’s introduction is wonderfully written, and he doesn’t understate his case when he beams how wonderful the film looks in black-and-white. Several shots take on a renewed impression: Indy stepping out of the shadows for his first close-up; the tower of illuminated liquor bottles behind Marion Ravenwood’s Nepalese bar glowing like moon-lit jewels, along with trays of shiny shot glasses scattered around the room reflecting the practical fire; later, the first vista over the rooftops of Cairo is breathtaking; the architecture inside the Well of Souls looks brand new even though we’ve seen the film dozens of times; even the face-melting bits take on a documentary realism that overcomes the inherent reduction of bloodlust.

Thankfully, you can perform your own version of this “experiment” at home and try it on your favorite movies. Though the results will not be as impressive as when a filmmaker digitally or chemically remasters a picture, anybody can desaturate their monitor’s color levels to “zero” and further tweak contrast and brightness levels to the point where the darkest parts of the black-and-white film image bleed into and match the black “letterboxing” borders above and below a widescreen image.

You’ll quickly notice that not every movie translates as comfortably into black-and-white, but you may soon be surprised to discover just how many films works extremely well—and perhaps even better—when their colors are desaturated. Movies that emulate the film noir style and feature stark lighting and long shadows tend to work best for the translation to monochrome.

I’ll likely have a few more things to say about this topic after experimenting with a few of my favorite films, especially since a few of those favorite movies currently on my “Black & White” playlist include:

  • Chinatown (1974)
  • Batman Returns (992)
  • The Shining (1980), specifically the 1.33:1 ‘Academy Aspect Ratio’ version available only on DVD
  • Se7en (1995)
  • Dark City (1998)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  • Angel Heart (1987)
  • L.A. Confidential (1997)
  • Dune (1984)
  • The Godfather (1972)
  • The Road Warrior (1981)
  • Dracula (1979)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • Halloween (1978)
  • Heat (1995)
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