“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.”


Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” Season Three

12 01 2011

We continue our look “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” with episodes from season three directed by Hitch himself. As in season two, Hitch directed just three episodes of the series this time out.

Alfred Hitchcock’s first episode in season three of his TV series is “The Perfect Crime,” broadcast on October 20, 1957, and starring Vincent Price and James Gregory, best known as Inspector Luger from the TV series “Barney Miller.” It’s essentially a two-man show, with Price as a self-important detective and Gregory as a defense attorney in New York City, around the 1920s.

Gregory has paid a visit to Price’s apartment to talk about a murder case Price had solved involving a small handgun that’s part of his display of murder weapons. Price tells the story of that case, explaining how he solved the murder, and how criminals always make obvious mistakes that allow him to catch them.

The tables turn when Gregory explains that there’s another side of the story: the truth, which is that Price sent the wrong person to the electric chair. Confronted with the truth, Price agrees to stay away from Gregory’s clients, but then turns and strangles Gregory. We rejoin Price sometime later, on his return from a vacation, when he’s being visited by reporters, and he drops a few hints to tell us he had burned the body and put the ashes in a vase.

Production codes being what they were at the time, Hitchcock used his final segment to explain that a cleaning woman knocked over the vase only to find gold fillings among the ashes, which implicated Price in the death of Gregory. “The Perfect Crime” is a fun, chatty tale worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, with a teleplay by Stirling Silliphant, who later wrote “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Towering Inferno” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”

Barbara Bel Geddes stars in “Lamb to the Slaughter,” adapted for television by Roald Dahl from his own story and first seen on April 13, 1958. In this episode, perhaps the best known from the entire run of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Bel Geddes plays pregnant housewife Mary Malone, who awaits her police captain husband’s return at the end of the workday. When he arrives he acts withdrawn and uncommunicative, but she tries to help him, offering to cancel their dinner plans and fix something simple.

As she walks toward the kitchen, her husband finally speaks, explaining that he intends to divorce her. She begs him not to, but he refuses to discuss the matter. Looking shaken to the core, she go to the freezer to get a piece of meat for his dinner. She selects a large leg of lamb, unwraps it, carries it to where he stands in the living room, and smashes in his head with it. Then, after making sure he’s dead, she goes ahead and puts the murder weapon in the oven to cook.

As she had planned earlier, she slips out to the corner store for some vegetables. On her return home, she calls the police and messes up the living room to make it look like there had been a scuffle. The police soon arrive, question her and examine the room. The evening grows late, and she offers the police some of the dinner she had been cooking for her late husband. The episode ends as the police enjoy the delicious weapon that killed their captain.

“Lamb to the Slaughter” is a fun episode, full of dark humor, filmed in a fairly straightforward way. There’s a bit of split-second editing when Bel Geddes swings that leg of lamb; we see both her and her husband as she swings, and then – an edit! – followed by a closeup of just her as he is struck.

Bel Geddes made several other appearances in the series, as well as acting for Hitchcock again in “Vertigo.”

Keenan Wynn plays an American traveller, Mr. Butibol, on the Queen Mary in “Dip in the Pool,” based on another story by Roald Dahl that ran on June 1, 1958. His wife has just inherited some money from a relative, and while she wants to tour Europe, he would rather spend time in the casinos. After dressing for dinner in his favorite gaudy plaid jacket, he meets with a man he’s befriended on the voyage, who is both more worldly and more wealthy.

The friend and his wife find Butibol a bit on the gauche side, but the man puts up with him, agreeing to a drink after dinner “at the pool.” The pool, it turns out, is not for swimming – it’s a daily auction of lots to bet on the day’s travel. Later, at the auction, Butibol tries to use what information he’s gleaned from various members of the ship’s crew before bidding most of his remaining money on the low end of the estimated miles travelled.

The next morning, Butibol awakens to realize that the ship is making better speed than expected – and that he is likely to lose. Then, he concocts a plan: He’s going to find someone to witness him falling into the water. The ship will be forced to stop while he is rescued, drastically cutting its progress so that he can win the pool. Unfortunately, the woman he picks is a poor choice. She watches him jump overboard rather serenely, and when her mother comes along, we learn that she is recovering from a nervous breakdown. Her mother tells her there was no man, and that is the end of Butibol.

Wynn is always fun to watch, and his coarse manner makes him believable as a social climber. On an odd note, the wife of Butibol’s friend is played by Fay Wray. Also, Hitchcock’s intro and final notes show him on a deck chair, out at sea; during the opening, he’s reading a copy of the new “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.”

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