When color alone is a special effect FOR THE RECORD

October 25, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach

For the first few decades, movies only came in black and white. Then color took over and elbowed its predecessor into the shadows.

But a little black and white can still do a lot for a film - as New Line's "Pleasantville" proves. "Pleasantville," which opened in theaters Friday, uses glorious B&W to depict the title town, a throwback to those wholesome little villages that dominated TV screens of the 1950s (think "Father Knows Best" or "Leave It To Beaver"). The effect is both nostalgic and visually striking.

Gary Ross isn't the first director to mix color and black and white to great effect. Here are a half-dozen of the more notable examples.

* "The Phantom of the Opera" (1929) - By the end of the silent era, film studios were beginning to toy with early versions of Technicolor. None used the process to greater effect than this horror classic, with Lon Chaney as the tunnel-dwelling Svengali who has his eye on the lovely Mary Philbin. A grand party sequence was shot in color, and the newness of the technique made everything seem even more otherworldly - particularly the flaming red costume worn by the Phantom, topped off by a skeleton mask. Horrors!

* "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) - Drab old Kansas is shot in black and white; it's only when Dorothy arrives in Oz that glorious color arrives, too. The filmmakers, who didn't have the computers that make all things possible nowadays, had to cheat a little with the initial changeover. When Dorothy first opens the door after landing in Oz, the shot is actually in color; it's only the lighting that makes the home's interior look sepia. Of course, those of us who grew up with black and white TVs never knew the difference.

* "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985) - One of Woody Allen's most memorable films of the '80s has Mia Farrow as a lonely 1940s wallflower who falls in love with an image on the screen. The black-and-white object of her affection: Jeff Daniels.

* "She's Gotta Have It" (1986) - Spike Lee's feature debut, the tale of an African-American woman and the three boyfriends she has trouble saying "No" to, was shot in black and white - save for a song-and-dance number that has nothing to do with the rest of the film, but sure is fun to look at.

* "Dead Again" (1991) - Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are unfortunate lovers who turn out to be the reincarnation of some even more unfortunate lovers from the 1940s. When the script calls for flashbacks, the scenes change to black and white.

* "Schindler's List" (1993) - Save for its epilogue, Steven Spielberg shot his emotionally charged Holocaust drama entirely in black and white, except for one image: a tiny girl wandering the Warsaw ghetto in a bright red coat. The color acts as a metaphor for all the blood that would ultimately be shed by Hitler's millions of innocent victims.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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