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Demos for Black-and-White Picture

Most people never think of showing off their home theater systems with black-and-white movies, but it takes a high-quality, well-calibrated system to accurately reproduce the subtle and intense contrasts of classic black-and-white films. Look no further than the film noir genre, with the deep expressionistic blacks juxtaposed with sharp bright areas. Low-quality displays look murky in the dark; high-quality displays bring out hidden details in the shadows.

Of course, not every black-and-white film is a good showcase for your system. Many older films exist only in dirty and faded prints, full of unwanted grain and unacceptably low contrast. What you want is a DVD created from a fully restored print, one that looks as bright (and dark) and as sharp as it did when first shown in movie theaters 50 or so years ago.

To that end, here are some of the best black-and-white movies you can use to showcase your home theater system:

  • Citizen Kane. The best movie of all time deserves a first-rate transfer to DVD, and this may be the single best black-and-white DVD available today. Orson Welles' masterpiece features groundbreaking cinematography from Greg Toland, with vivid contrasts between dark and light, sharp focus in both foreground and background shots, and incredible depth of field throughout. A good display will show details in even the darkest scenes, without blooming in brighter areas of the picture. The picture quality on this DVD is simply startling, a perfect showcase for this superbly shot masterpiece.
  • Casablanca. Warner Brothers' Special Edition release of Casablanca is an all-new digital transfer that is virtually flawless. The film has never looked this good, not even in the original theaters. There are no speckles, no grain, no dust or dirt; it's literally a perfect picture. This brings out the superb black-and-white contrasts in the film, as well as the impressive background details.
  • Touch of Evil (Restored Edition). Orson Welles again, this time in a film originally envisioned as a B-flick for drive-in theaters. When Welles got done with it, however, Touch of Evil was a film noir classic, with dynamic lighting, startling composition, and generally haunting cinematography by Russell Metty. The shadows are deep, the highlights are bright and clear, and the entire film is a black-and-white feast for the eyes. (The film also has perhaps the best mono soundtrack I've ever heard; Welles was a master of sound recording.)
  • The Third Man. (Criterion Collection). This is another great Orson Welles film—but with Orson as actor, not director. Carol Reed did the directing, and the Criterion DVD presents a full restoration of this visually impressive film. The Criterion folks made more than 22,000 digital repairs to the 35mm fine-grain master, resulting in a crystal-clear, ultra-sharp picture. The picture is darkly expressionistic, playing shadow and light against each other. The best demo scene has to be the final chase through the sewers, with shafts of light jutting through the deep dark of the underground passageways.
  • Sunset Boulevard. This classic film has received a near-perfect transfer from a fine-quality print. The black-and-white picture is brilliant and sharp; subtle gray tones, deep blacks, and vivid whites are all perfectly balanced. And there's lots of gleaming detail to examine, especially in the many interior scenes.
  • Village of the Damned/Children of the Damned. Both of these films are available on a single dual-layer disc, and both have splendid transfers. Blacks are jet black, whites are extremely bright, and every shade of gray in-between is well represented. Look for the detail in the children's fine blonde hair, and the demonic gleam in their glowing eyes.
  • Down by Law (Criterion Collection). This is a modern black-and-white film that stars Tom Waits, John Jurie, and Roberto Benigni as three convicts on the run. Using contemporary filmmaking techniques, this film offers perfect contrast, extremely sharp focus, and a remarkably varied grayscale that will tax lower-quality video displays. The shots of New Orleans streets feel almost real, with damp streets and dirty brick walls.
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