Our film studies tutor Hilary Smith considers why Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo has knocked Orson Welles film Citizen Kane from the number one spot after fifty years:
Can we really say what the greatest film of all time is? Even if we managed the impossible task of seeing every film ever made, what criteria would we use to compare and evaluate them? Nevertheless, we tend to form opinions of a film as being good, bad or ugly and often a general consensus emerges.
That is the case with Sight & Sound film magazine’s Greatest Films of All Time poll. A survey of international film critics for their ‘top ten’ every ten years, the 2012 poll garnered a formidable amount of attention in the press and social media, not least because, for the first time in 50 years, the no.1 film changed from Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 release Vertigo.
So if we accept Vertigo as the best film, what makes it so? And why no longer Citizen Kane? Is it that tastes have changed? It could well be that Vertigo now appears a more modern film, or indeed post-modern film, than Citizen Kane given - without giving too much away - its radical approach to narrative structure. But it also has many other remarkable qualities, including the innovative camera technique since enshrined as the ‘Vertigo effect’.
Whatever the reason, there is a certain irony in critics now championing the film, as critical acclaim was not universal on Vertigo’s original release. Variety damned it with faint praise as "prime though uneven Hitchcock" whilst The New Yorker just damned it as "far-fetched nonsense". It didn’t get a love-in from the industry either; only two Oscar nominations, in the unglamorous categories of sound and set decoration.
Does the opinion of critics matter anyway? Surely it’s the paying customers - voting with their feet (and wallet) - that count? Vertigo performed adequately at the box office but was not as commercially successful as the three Hitchcock films that followed, which may seem surprising given it was part of a run of films now viewed as Hitchcock’s glory days in Hollywood.
What about a film’s afterlife following its theatrical release? Does familiarity breed contempt? In these days of a seemingly endless stream of material available on a variety of viewing platforms it may seem remarkable that for a number of years Vertigo could not be seen anytime, anyplace or anywhere, as it was withdrawn from circulation in the mid 1970s.
And the bottom line... do polls matter? Surely it’s just some nerdy High Fidelity-style list-making at work? Well, if a poll acts as a gateway to the discovery, study and appreciation of films like the wondrous Vertigo I’m heartily in favour of it; we’d be missing out on one of the great pleasures of life otherwise.
Hilary Smith will be exploring the qualities of Vertigo in an introductory study day: Hitchcock’s Vertigo in Close-up, Saturday 3 August as part of our summer School.
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Image is a still from Vertigo, directed by Alfred Hitchcockand starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. Courtesy of the British Film Institute.