25 iconic directors' first films in color

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March 30, 2020

25 iconic directors' first films in color

The early 20th-century film industry experienced several technological innovations that would forever define the art form. Along with the genesis of synchronized sound and dialogue in movies, Hollywood also went through growing pains with the advent of color film. Most of the popular films in the early period of Hollywood were black-and-white, as was standard at the time, and it would take decades for color to become the norm.

Before mainstream films were presented in full color, there were several attempts to add color to movies either for the entire running time of the film or for certain sequences. Methods included tinting the physical film frames with dyes, or the Pathéchrome technique that involved the use of stencils. Some filmmakers hand-painted film stock, with an iconic example of this technique being the 1902 film "A Trip to the Moon."

Eventually, advances in photographic processes allowed filmmakers to shoot and edit films in color natively. Kinemacolor, invented by George Albert Smith in 1906 and inspired by the earlier efforts of Edward Raymond Turner, involved a two-color additive process that used red and green filters to create colorful images. The Boston-based Technicolor company moved forward with its process after the eventual demise of Kinemacolor, finally finding success in 1932 with a new camera that photographed three strips in the three primary light colors—red, green, and blue.

While the Technicolor process remained the gold standard for decades, and the introduction of digital photography rendered most of these techniques obsolete, black-and-white photography remained a style and many filmmakers kept reverence for it. Only using two colors and focusing on shadows and contrast led to many moody pictures, most prominently film noir features. On the other hand, the introduction of color gave filmmakers a new set of tools for artistic expression.

Stacker surveyed film history and chose 25 iconic directors who made the switch from black-and-white films to films in color at some point in their career. Due to the scarcity of women filmmakers in a male-dominated filmmaking culture throughout history, there is only one woman on the list. Only feature films were considered.

Click on to see the first steps that some of these directors took into a new, colorful cinematic world.

Luis Buñuel - ‘Belle de Jour’

- Year: 1967
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Run time: 100 min.

By the time Spanish-born director Luis Buñuel was in his 60s, he was making films around the world in countries including Mexico and the United States, with “Belle de Jour” being shot in France. This film, starring Catherine Deneuve as a married woman employed as a sex worker, was Luis Buñuel’s first of six color films made in France. “Belle de Jour” is defined by some of its visuals, with the color helping to emphasize the beauty and crispness of Paris.

Andrei Tarkovsky - ‘Andrei Rublev’

- Year: 1966
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Run time: 205 min.

One of the most legendary Russian film directors was Andrei Tarkovsky, who only made one black-and-white film, and is probably most famous for his sci-fi film “Solaris.” But Tarkovsky’s biographical film “Andrei Rublev,” which tells the story of the 15th-century Russian painter of the same name, significantly uses both black-and-white photography and color for thematic purposes. While the main film is in black and white, the epilogue, which shows off many of Rublev’s icon paintings, is in color; the artist’s life is depicted in black and white, while his art is the only source of color.

Yasujirō Ozu - ‘Equinox Flower’

- Year: 1958
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Run time: 118 min.

Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu had his start in the silent era of film, but at the tail end of his career, he began making color films, beginning with “Equinox Flower.” Based on a novel, this film is about a businessman in a dispute with his daughter as she decides who to marry. Ozu specifically wanted to convey the color of red for the film, giving it a warm and vibrant feeling and helping to flesh out his subtle depiction of everyday Japanese life.

Agnès Varda - ‘Cleo from 5 to 7’

- Year: 1962
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Run time: 90 min.

Agnès Varda, a Belgian-born French female director, was a central figure to the French New Wave that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. Initially a photographer, Varda’s first film was “La Pointe Courte,” but her second film, “Cleo from 5 to 7,” was her first that featured any sequences in color. It was only the opening that featured it, with a credits sequence that had fortune cards in color, to contrast with the rest of Cleo’s story, which is told in real time as she awaits a medical diagnosis.

Satyajit Ray - 'Kanchenjungha'

- Year: 1962
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Run time: 102 min.

Satyajit Ray is considered to be one of, if not the greatest, Indian film directors in history, but even after more than a decade of filmmaking, it wasn't until "Kanchenjungha" that he directed his own original screenplay. It was also his first color film, and narratively an innovative film as well—telling the story of an upper-class family, this film weaved in numerous different characters and storylines. The color was thought to help display Ray's penchant for slowness and sweetness to create a tone and mood in his films.

Federico Fellini - ‘Juliet of the Spirits’

- Year: 1965
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Run time: 137 min.

The famed director of “8½,” Federico Fellini would follow up this classic with his first feature-length color film, which has a woman experience visions and other experiences that would lead her to leave her unfaithful husband. Fellini had already made a name for his surrealist work, but “Juliet of the Spirits” took it further. The rainbow color palette would help to characterize the title character’s psyche.

Orson Welles - ‘The Immortal Story’

- Year: 1968
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Run time: 58 min.

While many famous directors embraced color in film, famed “Citizen Kane” creator Orson Welles hated the format, and his film “The Immortal Story” was not only his first color film due to contractual obligations, but also his last fictional narrative film. Meant to be the first of a two-part anthology, the film is also Welles’ shortest, a roughly hour-long film based on a short story. Welles portrays a wealthy merchant who wants to bring an old sailor’s tale to life, with director Welles creating a dreamlike look to contrast illusion and reality.

John Huston - ‘The African Queen’

- Year: 1951
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Run time: 105 min.

Ten years after John Huston directed Humphrey Bogart in the film “The Maltese Falcon,” Huston made “The African Queen,” the first color film for himself, Bogart, and co-star Katharine Hepburn. The film features adventure and romance, with Bogart as a riverboat captain and Hepburn as a missionary who convinces him to attack an enemy warship. Filmed in Technicolor, the shoot proved difficult for Huston, due to the unwieldy equipment and cameras.

Ernst Lubitsch - ‘Heaven Can Wait’

- Year: 1943
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Run time: 112 min.

Known for his “Lubitsch touch” and comedy of manners in his films, Ernst Lubitsch directed “Heaven Can Wait,” his first color film, near the end of his long and storied film career. Unrelated to the Warren Beatty film of the same name that would follow in 1978, Lubitsch’s film was a comedy about a man who recalls his life story to prove that he is worthy of entry into the underworld. Filmed in Technicolor, Lubitsch uses purples, pinks, and blues to indicate the blooming of romance in certain sequences.

Charles Chaplin - 'A Countess from Hong Kong'

- Year: 1967
- IMDb user rating: 6.1
- Run time: 120 min.

One doesn't have to be a cinephile to be familiar with the works of Charlie Chaplin, but his only color film "A Countess from Hong Kong," which also functions as the last film he ever directed, isn't one of his most well-known projects. Starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, the film depicts an encounter with a Russian countess, marooned and without a passport, who stays with an ambassador, played by Brando. The negative reaction to the film, which featured color cinematography that some considered to be washed-out and overlit, was disheartening to Chaplin.

Robert Bresson - ‘A Gentle Creature’

- Year: 1969
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Run time: 88 min.

Minimalist French film director Robert Bresson eventually got into color cinema in the back half of his filmography, starting with tragedy film “Une Femme Douce,” also known as “A Gentle Creature” or “A Gentle Woman.” This film had a number of Bresson’s usual signatures, including casting nonprofessional actors and actresses and focusing more on visuals rather than actors’ expressions to convey emotions. The film has a muted and darkened color palette, reflecting the troubled life of the eponymous character, whose death begins the story.

William Wyler - ‘Friendly Persuasion’

- Year: 1956
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Run time: 137 min.

“Ben Hur” director William Wyler had shot two documentaries in color, but “Friendly Persuasion” was his first color film for a major motion picture studio. Taking place during the American Civil War, this drama film depicted a Quaker family in Indiana as its pacifist beliefs are being tested. The addition of color in Wyler’s directing provided a “warm rusticity,” as some critics described, giving a warm and mellow feeling.

George Cukor - ‘A Star Is Born’

- Year: 1954
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Run time: 154 min.

The lengthy career of director George Cukor had his remake of “A Star Is Born” as a highlight, as it is thought to be one of the greatest musical films in cinematic history. While Cukor passed on an opportunity to direct the original film, he took this opportunity to work with Judy Garland while also directing his first Technicolor film and his first musical film. Cukor’s use of audio and color contributed to adding a sense of realism to his depiction and view of Hollywood.

Jean-Luc Godard - ‘A Woman Is a Woman’

- Year: 1961
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Run time: 84 min.

As one of the pioneers of the French New Wave movement, Jean-Luc Godard is an inspiration for many filmmakers who are still working. One of his earlier films during the French New Wave period, right after his famous film “Breathless,” was “A Woman Is a Woman.” His first color film acts as a tribute to American musical comedies and centers on an exotic dancer who wishes to become a mother. The film, which Godard calls his “first real film,” uses the widescreen format and primary colors in a way that the director would continue to utilize throughout his more famous films in the 1960s.

Fritz Lang - 'The Return of Frank James'

- Year: 1940
- IMDb user rating: 6.6
- Run time: 92 min.

Fritz Lang broke filmmaking ground with pieces including "Metropolis" and "M," but the middle of his career had Lang dabble with other genres as well. "The Return of Frank James" was the director's attempt at a Western, a mostly-historically-inaccurate account of Jesse James' brother following his death. The film doesn't particularly stand out in Lang's larger filmography, but its use of color did indicate that it was one of the higher budget Western films.

Akira Kurosawa - ‘Dodes'ka-den’

- Year: 1970
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Run time: 140 min.

Late in Akira Kurosawa’s legendary career as a filmmaker was “Dodes'ka-den,” not only his first color film, but also a departure in that the director used mostly unknown actors. The film contains a number of different stories following various characters, painting an image of the Tokyo slums. The film was not well received at the time, but contemporary accounts appreciate it for its background coming in the midst of a tumultuous time in Kurosawa’s life and for its “glorious” use of color.

Howard Hawks - ‘A Song Is Born’

- Year: 1948
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Run time: 113 min.

One of the most prestigious and versatile film directors during Hollywood’s classic era was Howard Hawks, who had the unusual distinction of essentially making the same film twice: “Ball of Fire” in black and white, and “A Song Is Born” in color. Both films depict professors creating a musical encyclopedia, but unexpectedly becoming entangled with gangsters. Hawks had no desire to make the Technicolor-filmed “A Song Is Born,” only taking the job for the paycheck.

Ingmar Bergman - ‘All These Women’

- Year: 1964
- IMDb user rating: 5.6
- Run time: 80 min.

Swedish director Ingmar Bergman continues to be an influential figure in filmmaking, and although he was best-known for his dramas, Bergman would also make a handful of comedies that included “All These Women.” A parody of Federico Fellini's “8½,” this comedy was also Bergman’s first color film, focusing on a music critic who is being blackmailed regarding his many affairs. Bergman’s use of color contributed to the light-hearted nature of “All These Women,” but the film’s lukewarm reception led the director to move away from color for several years.

Jean Renoir - ‘The River’

- Year: 1951
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Run time: 99 min.

One of the first filmmakers to be considered an auteur is French director Jean Renoir, who worked in film from the silent era to the end of the 1960s. The beginning of the 1950s brought Renoir’s first color film to the screen, a noir romance shot in Technicolor called “The River.” The film depicts a heartbroken woman who comes of age and falls in love again; “The River” was shot and set in India, and the color palette gave the film a clean and naturalistic look.

John Ford - 'Drums Along the Mohawk'

- Year: 1939
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Run time: 104 min.

Prolific director John Ford made films from the silent era until his death in 1973, but early on, Ford would make the color film "Drums Along the Mohawk." A historical drama starring Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda, this Technicolor film was loosely based on real events on the New York frontier during the American Revolution, and is thought to be a visually arresting film thanks to its use of color. To some critics, Ford's work in "Drums Along the Mohawk" was a visual prelude to his famous John Wayne Technicolor film "The Searchers" in 1956.

Billy Wilder - ‘The Emperor Waltz’

- Year: 1948
- IMDb user rating: 6.1
- Run time: 106 min.

Billy Wilder was a prominent director during what is considered to be the Golden Age of Cinema, thanks to classics like “The Apartment” and “Sunset Boulevard.” Before either of these films, however, was his film “The Emperor Waltz,” a movie starring Bing Crosby that centers on an American gramophone salesman trying to get the Austrian emperor to buy one of his products. Wilder sought to dress the set with extravagance and blue daisies to take advantage of the Technicolor technology and create a regal look for the film.

Elia Kazan - ‘East of Eden’

- Year: 1955
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Run time: 118 min.

Director Elia Kazan received honors and recognition for “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront,” but “East of Eden” receives its own amount of attention for having a rare James Dean starring role. This dramatic interpretation of Cain and Abel, with Dean as a misfit son and younger brother, was Kazan’s first color film, and that, along with the use of a CinemaScope lens, created an expansive and moody image of California.

Michael Curtiz - ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’

- Year: 1938
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Run time: 102 min.

Some of the most basic filmmaking and camera techniques used today were innovations brought by director Michael Curtiz, whose first color film, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” came in the middle of his long career. The film was probably the most famous for swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, who starred in the title role. As the first large-budget color film to use Technicolor technology, “Robin Hood” was a watershed moment for the industry, with its elaborate set pieces and costumes popping out thanks to the greens and reds presented in the film.

Alfred Hitchcock - ‘Rope’

- Year: 1948
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Run time: 80 min.

The name of Alfred Hitchcock is as famous as the films he directed, and “Rope” represented a significant step in his career. The murder thriller was not only Hitchcock’s first Technicolor film, but was also shot with the illusion of one continuous take. The use of color as symbolism would become a signature visual element of many of his films, most prominently the color red, to represent themes such as fear, death, or love.

Stanley Kubrick - 'Spartacus'

- Year: 1960
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Run time: 197 min.

Before his technologically-innovative films that included "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "Barry Lyndon," and more, Stanley Kubrick would make his first foray into both color filmmaking and epic directing with "Spartacus." Previously, Kubrick had made color documentary shorts in the 1950s, but "Spartacus" was of a completely different scale, winning a number of technical and craft Academy Awards, including cinematography—color, and costume design—color. Kubrick's use of color created contrasts, distinguishing the slaves and the Romans, along with creating stunning imagery.

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