Free energies of formation of 'black' lipid films have been determined from measurements of their contact angles. The contact angles were calculated from the interference fringes formed in monochromatic light reflected from either the Plateau-Gibbs border or from lenses of bulk lipid solution trapped in the films. It is concluded that the electrostatic repulsion between the two surfaces of a film is negligibly small and that the 'steric' interaction between the adsorbed monolayers of lipid molecules is of such short range that the free energy change during film formation originates almost entirely from work done by the van der Waals forces. The free energies determined for a range of different films all agree to within a factor of three with the free energy calculated from Lifshitz theory for water phases interacting across an isotropic layer of liquid hydrocarbon. Nevertheless, a systematic trend in the experimental data suggests that this picture of the lipid film is too simple and that either the polar groups of the lipid or the structure of the hydrocarbon region (or both) of the film have a significant influence on the results.