Younger friends and family members routinely say they won’t watch black & white movies. Contrary to what they may think, old films can be profound and even relevant today.
A list of only 25-30 American movies like this is superficial on one level, but basic to film language. Sorry, there are no films listed here from Chaplin or Keaton, no classic horror, no silent films, no Japanese, Indian, Swedish, Russian, German, French, Italian (ok: one), or British (pretty much). There’s perhaps too much Orson Wells, but not really much in the way of film noir, Westerns, sci-fi, or gangster movies. These and similar films are well worth seeking out, or keeping an eye out for, even if you somehow feel repulsed by black and white.
- Duck Soup (1933) The Marx Brothers consider politics
- His Girl Friday (1940) screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell
- The Grapes Of Wrath (1940) Henry Fonda has a heart
- My Little Chickadee (1940) both Mae West and W.C. Fields are a scream
- Citizen Kane (1941)
- The Maltese Falcon (1941)
- Casablanca (1942) Rick: “…remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.” Louis: “That is my least vulnerable spot.”
- The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
- Double Indemnity (1944) the lady from The Big Valley toys with the father of My Three Sons
- Notorious (1946) with Cary Grant and ingrid Bergman, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
- It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
- Out of the Past (1947) with Robert Mitchum, who was also in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962)
- Red River (1948) over the less polished Stagecoach (1939)
- The Third Man (1949)
- Sunset Boulevard (1950) …the end is pretty funny
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) definitely not the Apocalypse Now Brando
- On The Waterfront (1954)
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
- A Face In The Crowd (1957) where Andy Griffith is more Trump than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Meet John Doe (1941)
- Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
- Touch of Evil (1958) Orson Welles changed after parting with Rita Hayworth in the The Lady From Shanghai era
- Psycho (1960)
- Dr. Strangelove (1960) that’s Peter Sellers NOT Henry Kissinger
- To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
- The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
- What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) the horror, the horror
- 8½ (1963)
- Night of the Iguana (1964) with regrets to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Manhattan (1979)
- Raging Bull (1980)
Here’s sample skills from The Ox-Bow Incident, which looks at mob rule and lynching after trumped-up charges:
To dive deeper into film history (much of it is in B&W), check out the “greatist films” metasurvey at AMC Filmsite.
For the years 1940–1966, a separate Academy Award for Best Art Direction was given for black-and-white movies along with one for color.
You could also take a guided tour with director Martin Scorsese in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, a 225-minute documentary hosted by the insightful Scorsese and produced by the British Film Institute. Here’s an excerpt, along with a clip from The Bad and The Beautiful, where Kirk Douglas & Barry Sullivan discuss how to make a scary movie without showing “the monster” (ala The Cat People).
A few of these films are out of copyright control. Here’s His Girl Friday, a hilarious fast-talking 1940 screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy. You can find much better copies out there. It’ll be presented in better quality on TCM a few times a year.