“Vertigo” Tops “Citizen Kane” as World’s Greatest Movie

6 08 2012

Last week, the British Film Institute revealed its new list of the 50 greatest movies of all time, as selected by a panel of 846 critics, scholars and distributors — and Alfred Hitchcock, perennial also-ran in the world of film awards, hit the top of the list with his 1958 masterpiece “Vertigo.” Longtime critical darling “Citizen Kane” was bumped down to the number two spot after decades at the top.

 I admit to having mixed feelings about this choice. “Vertigo” is an intense movie about obsession, identity, paranoia, guilt and so much more, and it features powerful performances from James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes. Hitchcock shows a masterful command of his art, with his team of experts, including composer Bernard Herrmann, costume designer Edith Head, cinematographer Robert Burks, credits designer Saul Bass and others paying spectacular attention to costume, lighting, hair, makeup, music… Hitchcock and his team exploit every conceivable aspect of the craft. It utilizes the famous dolly zoom (sometimes called the “Hitchcock zoom” or even the “Vertigo zoom”), inducing a momentary feeling of vertigo in the viewer by having the camera zoom in while pulling away. It even has a fairly experimental nightmare sequence that utilizes animation, symbolism and color. If Hitchcock could have come up with a way to include smell, he would have.

There’s a dark sexiness to the film that lends the film an air of mature and serious art. Barbara Bel Gedde’s tragic Midge practically throws herself at Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson, while Novak’s “Madeleine Elster” seems rather matter of fact when she realized that Ferguson had completely undressed her after saving her from death. Later, as Judy Barton, her real identity, she shows a frank knowledge of pickups, sizing Ferguson up as a masher. Judy, it seems, has been around the block once or twice. Where earlier Hitchcock movies played coy with sex, here he tackles the subject head on, and it adds to the film’s mature atmosphere.

Although “Vertigo” does not go to great lengths to analyze Ferguson’s paralyzing condition, it is far more subtle than Hitchcock’s earlier attempt at tackling psychoanalysis, “Spellbound.”

So why am I not entirely thrilled with the results of the BFI’s survey? Perhaps it’s because “Vertigo” is not my favorite Hitchcock film. Despite its amazing technical achievements, there is something cold about it. Ferguson is simply not a very sympathetic character. We never learn much about him, and what we do learn, such as the fact that Midge broke up with him because she realized he wasn’t in love with her, just makes him seem like a cad. And his obsession with Madeleine/Judy, while perhaps earned via his perceived failure to save the former, makes him seem pretty creepy. It is, in fact, an uncomfortable film, and Hitchcock was counting on James Stewart to bring an identifiable, everyman quality to the role.

Stewart is much more winning in “Rear Window,” which I sort of wish were at the top of the BFI’s list. Here, we learn all we need to know about L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, our immobilized hero, as he sits in his sweltering apartment. His pictures tell us about him, as does his relationship with Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). While not as extravagant a movie as “Vertigo,” “Rear Window” has the wonderful subtext that casts it as a movie about movie watching and voyeurism. It has the sexy banter between Jeff and Lisa, as well as the disarmingly dark commentary from Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeff’s nurse. It is not so nakedly introverted a story as “Vertigo.” In “Rear Window,” Jeff avoids the soul-searching he so badly needs to do and focuses only on what’s outside his apartment, which, of course, turns out to be murder.

On a technical level, surely “Rear Window” is equal to “Vertigo.” The elaborate set, the use of New York City street noise, Grace Kelly’s costumes, the red glow of the flashbulbs at the film’s climax, all compare favorably with the achievements of “Vertigo.”

Why, then, is “Vertigo” at the top of this list and not “Rear Window” (or “North by Northwest” or “Psycho” or any of several other Hitchcock films)? I’m guessing that it is the focus that “Vertigo” maintains on Ferguson’s inner turmoil. This is a man grappling with his demons and very close to losing; there is no room for humor in this story. Jeffries, on the other hand, is doing his best to ignore his own issues. And frankly, dark obsession beats fear of commitment any day.

In some ways, the lack of humor in “Vertigo” makes it an unusual film in the Hitchcock canon. Virtually every other successful Hitchcock film has its moments of humor, and those moments are the mark of a Hitchcock film. In a way, the BFI panel has chosen as its top movie of all time a Hitchcock movie that is not a typical Hitchcock movie.

You can look over the whole list of the BFI’s top 50 here. And here you can read my original blog post about “Vertigo.”








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