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plappen's review of Wheeler Winston Dixon, Black and White Cinema: A Short History

★★★★★

“Highly recommended for passionate movie fans”

Written on: 17/10/2015 by plappen (119 reviews written)

Black and White Cinema: A Short History, Wheeler Winston Dixon, 2015, ISBN 9780813572413

I got an advance copy of this book, and after seeing it recommended on TCM, all I have to say is that it is a really interesting book. Most movie histories focus on the actors or director. This book focuses on the cinematographer, the person running the camera (also known as the Director of Photography, or D.P.)

Black and white film, even during the silent movie era, allowed an opportunity to experiment with light and shadow, and camera angles, in order to create a mood. Some directors were happy to give their D.P. free rein to light a scene the way they thought best, knowing that what showed up on the screen would be amazing. Other directors planned every bit of a scene, including the lighting, ahead of time, giving the D.P. not much to do except run the camera.

For every great film that was made, like "Citizen Kane" or "Casablanca", hundreds of cheap, lesser-quality B-pictures were produced. During the height of the studio "system", in the 1930's and 1940's, an Oscar-winning D.P., as an employee of one of the studios, might be obligated to work on a low-budget film, that if made today, would go straight to video. Each studio owned their own chain of theaters, which needed a constant supply of movies, so Hollywood really was a factory, churning out film after film. People needed an escape from the Great Depression and World War II, so they went to the movies.

The 1950's and 1960's were the era of Cold War paranoia, and New Wave cinema. It was also the time of the introduction of various "versions" of color movies, like Panavision or Cinemascope. Some of the D.P.'s profiled in this book were able to make the transition to TV and color films; others were not so fortunate. The last great black and white film was 1962's "Psycho."

The author starts the book by mentioning that the vast majority of films from the early days are no longer available, at all. The reasons include improper storage of film canisters, human stupidity, or the fact that movie film does not last forever. A film might be a boring, amateurishly done piece of schlock, but it is still a piece of film history, and it is still gone, forever. A number of the films mentioned in this book are not available anywhere.

This book is highly recommended for really passionate fans of old movies, people who are familiar with names like Gregg Toland, Nicholas Musuraca and John Alton. For the rest of us, this is a really interesting look at black and white films. Yes, it is well worth reading.

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