10 great black-and-white films of the 1980s

From Raging Bull to The Elephant Man. With Wings of Desire back in cinemas, we’re turning down the colour in search of other 1980s monochrome masterpieces.

Wings of Desire (1987)

The best film of the 1980s was in black and white. That’s if you go along with the numerous critics’ polls of the time that put Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) up top. And, though it didn’t win best picture, Scorsese’s boxing biopic dominated the Oscar nominations in its year – its count topped only by another black-and-white film: David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.

That’s a very black-and-white start to a decade that nostalgia culture more readily associates with garish pops of colour. But although colour had long since overtaken monochrome as the industry standard (and no black-and-white film had won best picture since The Apartment in 1961), a surprising number of great films continued to appear in shades of grey. The cheaper film stock made it a good choice for first-time independent directors, and the impressive list of notables who made their first bow in black and white that decade includes Gus van Sant, Sally Potter, Spike Lee, Pedro Costa, Wayne Wang, Ildikó Enyedi, Billy Woodberry, Charles Lane and Leos Carax.

But established auteurs also dipped into monochrome, often to evoke a feeling of pastness, the filmmaking of another era, or simply a smoky sense of style. In addition to Scorsese, this group includes Woody Allen (Stardust Memories, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Veronika Voss), Francis Ford Coppola (Rumble Fish), Shohei Imamura (Black Rain), François Truffaut (Confidentially Yours), Nobuhiko Obayashi (His Motorbike, Her Island) and Ingmar Bergman (From the Life of the Marionettes).

Their patron saint might be Wim Wenders, who had clung onto monochrome through much of his 1970s work and had a major arthouse hit on his hands with 1987’s Berlin-set fantasy Wings of Desire. Back in cinemas this summer as part of a touring mini-retrospective of Wenders films, it’s shot like a greyscale out-of-body experience by Henri Alekan, who filmed La Belle et la Bête (1946) for Jean Cocteau once upon a time.

The Elephant Man (1980)

Director: David Lynch

The Elephant Man (1980)

The thought of David Lynch arriving on UK shores to make a new feature today would send most British cinephiles into spasms of ecstasy. But that’s exactly what happened 40 years ago, at the beginning of his career. Lynch was hot off the underground success of his freakish breakout Eraserhead (1977), a film that found an unexpected admirer in Mel Brooks. Brooks was producing a new film about John Merrick, the severely deformed ‘elephant man’ who became a sideshow sensation in Victorian London. Lynch was asked to direct, with John Hurt undergoing hours of make-up for his affecting turn as Merrick, and Anthony Hopkins playing the doctor who takes him in for scientific study. 

Until The Straight Story (1999), this was always the most conventional thing in the Lynch back catalogue, but there are plenty of surreal Lynchian touches, and Freddie Francis’s inky monochrome photography brings the grimy Victorian setting to pungent life.

Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Raging Bull (1980)

For his turn as boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro won the Oscar for best actor – the last actor to win with a black-and-white film until Jean Dujardin with The Artist in 2012. Martin Scorsese’s boxing drama is a monochrome marvel with one foot in Italian neorealism, the other in John Cassavetes’ scalding domestic dramas. 1940s film noir is another reference point, particularly the moody ringside dramas of Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up (1949).

Unlike in such films, however, where the fight scenes were mainly viewed from outside the ropes, Scorsese required cinematographer Michael Chapman to get in the ring, bringing us within bruising distance of Jake and his opponents. The grainy, visceral intensity of these sequences has rarely been matched. Like Scorsese, however, Chapman was surprisingly passed over for his own Oscar. In fact, since the Academy stopped rewarding a separate b/w cinematography Oscar in 1967, only three black-and-white films have ever won: Schindler’s List (1993), Roma (2018) and Mank (2020).

Chan Is Missing (1982)

Director: Wayne Wang

Chan Is Missing (1982)

Zipping by in 75 minutes, this breezy mystery is one of the great debuts of the 1980s. Hong Kong-born American director Wayne Wang later became a critics’ favourite with films like The Joy Luck Club (1993) and Smoke (1995), while dipping into the mainstream with J-Lo romcom Maid in Manhattan (2002). But for sheer flavour and fun, has he ever beaten this shaggy-dog detective story about two cabbies trawling San Francisco’s Chinatown for the mysterious Chan? 

Chan is missing. He’s made off with their $4,000, and the hunt to track him down should appeal to anyone who loves freewheeling slacker noirs like The Big Lebowski (1998) or Inherent Vice (2014). Yet this black-and-white gem also has plenty to say about the lives of Chinese-Americans and their problems of assimilation. Indeed, astonishingly, as late as 1982, Wang’s film is considered to be the first Asian-American feature to get wide distribution.

Bless Their Little Hearts (1983)

Director: Billy Woodberry

Bless Their Little Hearts (1983)

Shot and written by Charles Burnett, whose own debut film Killer of Sheep (1978) was a black-and-white wonder of the late 1970s, Bless Their Little Hearts is the feature debut of Billy Woodberry, completed as his master’s thesis film at UCLA. It’s a soulful, emotionally acute look at a marriage suffering under the stresses of unemployment in modern-day Los Angeles – specifically the predominantly Black neighbourhood of Watts. 

Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) is out of work and out of favour with his wife, Andais (Kaycee Moore), who must take the strain of bringing up their five children while he searches for a means of income. Their increasing rancour comes to a head in a 10-minute shot that the New Yorker has called “one of the great domestic cataclysms of modern movies”. But it’s not the noise you remember Woodberry’s film for but its poignant attentiveness to place and character, captured with grainy, unadorned images. One of the pearls of the LA Rebellion movement, which ushered in a wave of trail-blazing Black American filmmakers.

The Gold Diggers (1983)

Director: Sally Potter

The Gold Diggers (1983)

Only one British film solo directed by a woman was released in cinemas during the whole of the 1970s: Jane Arden’s The Other Side of the Underneath (1972). At the dawn of the 80s, Sally Potter emerged as one of the major voices looking to improve on that abysmal record. Her feature debut, following acclaim for her 1979 short Thriller, is a startling experimental work, a kind of avant-garde period musical with an all-female cast and crew, and scored to a post-punk soundtrack by Lindsay Cooper. 

Among several 1980s films (including a number on this list) to riff on the silent era, The Gold Diggers features Julie Christie as the kind of Victorian-era heroine once played by Lillian Gish in her series of melodramas for D.W. Griffith. The theme of alchemy and money, specifically how the capitalist system has sought to oppress women through history, runs through an adventurous non-narrative that takes us from the glaciers of the gold rush era to the experiences of a bank worker (Colette Laffont) in contemporary Britain. The gravelly black-and-white images are by Babette Mangolte, who shot Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) for Chantal Akerman.

To Sleep So as to Dream (1986)

Director: Kaizo Hayashi

To Sleep So as to Dream (1986)

Kaizo Hayashi’s one-of-a-kind debut feature was never released in the UK, but it’s now been unearthed as a treasure thanks to Arrow’s recent Blu-ray. Perhaps that’s an apt fate for a puzzle narrative that itself is concerned with the lost secrets of the cinematic past. Filmed virtually silent and with intertitles, it’s a dreamlike mystery in which two private detectives with a taste for hard-boiled eggs (get it?) follow a series of fiendish clues to uncover the whereabouts of the daughter of an ageing film actress.

Somewhere between the film-as-dream adventure of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) and the prismatic reflection on bygone stardom of Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress (2001), Hayashi’s film is steeped in references to film history – from film noir to antique chanbara (samurai) films and the benshi tradition (in which Japanese silent films were accompanied by a live narrator). For an equally inspiring appropriation of black-and-white silent-era aesthetics from the 1980s, see also Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories (1989), a modern riff on Chaplin’s The Kid (1921).

Damnation (1988)

Director: Béla Tarr

Damnation (1988)

In a haunting moment early in Damnation, our depressive hero, Karrer (Miklós B. Székely), watches out of his window as raised cable carts carrying coal continue their slow, endless progress to and from the horizon. Pylons line their route through the desolate landscape. There’s a fog that looks like it has never lifted. The carts clank rhythmically. There’s a low, subaudible drone on the soundtrack. Welcome to purgatory, Béla Tarr style.

Damnation is the film in which the Hungarian master settled on his distinctive, late style, which would be honed in those monoliths Sátántangó (1994), Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and The Turin Horse (2012). Black-and-white cinematography. Rain. Mud. Oppressive soundscapes. Shots that move as slowly as it takes ice to form. In Damnation, Karrer’s only source of light and hope is the singer at the local Titanik Bar. Yet, once you get a taste for Tarr’s world, the gloom proves strangely intoxicating.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Tetsuo is a ‘metal fetishist’ who’s grafted iron attachments onto his own body. But now the wounds have maggots and they’re driving him wild. Out in the city streets, he’s knocked down and killed by a businessman and his wife, who choose to save their own skins by disposing of the body in secret. But soon the salaryman is being tormented by dark techno visions of his own.

Shinya Tsukamoto’s gnarly, industrial horror enmeshes the hermetic nightmare-scape of Lynch’s Eraserhead with the body-horror perversions of David Cronenberg. An unholy congress, to be sure. There are bits and pieces of Hollywood’s man-machine blockbusters The Terminator (1984) and Robocop (1987) too, but Tsukamoto’s frenzied clatter of noise and violence feels more under the counter: low-budget, black and white, almost dangerous to the touch. It was shot on 16mm, using stop-motion animation to accomplish the many graphic and unhinged effects. 

Looking for Langston (1989)

Director: Isaac Julien

Looking for Langston (1989)

The film masterpiece of British artist and director Isaac Julien, Looking for Langston is a 42-minute tone poem in gleaming monochrome. A tribute to the Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist Langston Hughes, it draws together grainy archive footage and crackly vinyl recordings with impressionistic scenes evoking the smoke-filled dancefloors of the Cotton Club. There’s one unforgettable dream sequence – a homoerotic encounter filmed on Norfolk fenland. 

A lush and lyrical conjuring of Black gay life and perspectives, Julien’s film teases a connection across time between the experiences of African-American artists in New York in the 1920s and the Black gay community of the 1980s, living with the spectre of AIDs. Jimmy Somerville has a brief appearance. With this film, Julien found himself on the crest of what would soon be labelled the New Queer Cinema.

My 20th Century (1989)

Director: Ildikó Enyedi

My Twentieth Century (1989)

Closing out a decade in monochrome was this knockout debut from Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi, a phantasmagorical voyage back to the close of the 19th century, when the grime and shadow of the Victorian age were suddenly becoming illuminated and transformed by the twin innovations of electricity and cinema itself. In Budapest in 1880, two girls are orphaned into poverty. Becoming match sellers on the street, they are kidnapped by nefarious men before Enyedi’s film jumps forward to New Year’s Eve, 1900. One of the girls is now a glamorous con woman; the other a bomb-wielding radical. They’re fated to almost meet again on the Orient Express, while travelling into the new century.

Complete with irises straight out of the silent era and talking, twinkling stars borrowed from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), My 20th Century is a comic, cosmic vision of two women’s escapades in an antique past on the cusp of modernity. Think Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) as directed by Guy Maddin. In other words, a high-voltage pleasure.

10 more

  • Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassinder, 1982)
  • Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner, 1983)
  • Death and Transfiguration (Terence Davies, 1983)
  • Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen, 1984)
  • Stranger than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984)
  • She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee, 1986)
  • Black Rain (Shohei Imamura, 1989)
  • Blood (Pedro Costa, 1989)
  • Sidewalk Stories (Charles Lane, 1989)
  • Near Death (Frederick Wiseman, 1989)
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