The Dizzying Heights

This year, Vertigo finally replaced Citizen Kane as the best film ever made. If you can believe film critics, that is.

by Philip Matthews

“I think what you get in awards is favouritism. People can say ‘my favourite movie was Annie Hall’ but the implication is that it’s the BEST movie, and I don’t think you can make that judgment. Except for track and field, where one guy runs and you say that he wins. Then it’s okay.” – Woody Allen.

For decades, Citizen Kane was the most immovable object. It was officially the greatest movie ever made, and not just according to the Sight & Sound magazine poll of international critics, which launched in 1952 and voted the Orson Welles film the best in every poll from 1962 to 2002. Its status as the best was taken as a given, as a basic fact: I remember when Sight & Sound republished Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” essay in book form as a gift to subscribers, retitling it “Pauline Kael on the Best Film Ever Made” (which seemed ironic given that the Kael rant was largely a dubious attempt to unseat Welles as the film’s author). But there was a time before Kane. Despite being around for a decade by then, the Welles film missed the 1952 top ten.

Amazingly, the best film in 1952 was even newer, just four years old – De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves – although everything else in the first top ten was older (two Chaplin films tied for second place). In the next poll, in 1962, Bicycle Thieves had slipped to number seven and Citizen Kane was king, although another very new Italian film – Antonioni’s L’avventura – nudged it at second place. Half a century on, in the 2012 list, Bicycle Thieves is 33rd in the critics poll (and 10th in the directors poll), L’avventura is 21st with critics and the two Chaplin films that trailed De Sica in 1952 (City Lights and The Gold Rush) are way back at numbers 50 and 154. So it goes.

Now that Sight & Sound has put all its 2012 voting data online – link here – you can play endless film-nerd games with it, to complement the spin-off lists already in the magazine. Best film of the 1920s from the vantage point of 2012? That would be Murnau’s Sunrise. Best post-2000 film? In the Mood for Love, then Mulholland Drive. The Searchers is the highest-polling western. (Best horror: Psycho; best sci-fi: 2001: A Space Odyssey). Film critics love their lists, perhaps even more than rock critics do, and that’s saying something. But this 2012 list must be the first time that Sight & Sound’s poll results have gone wider, even making TV One’s 6pm news. And that’s because of the earth-shattering development that saw Citizen Kane pushed into second place. For a couple of generations of critics and film students, that’s like the pyramids or the Mona Lisa being knocked off their perches. Hitchcock’s Vertigo is now number one. It only entered the top ten in 1982.

With the data, you can track the rehabilitation of films and directorial reputations over decades, and note that it took, for example, more than 70 years for a Murnau film to reach the top ten or that no Hitchcock film was in the Sight & Sound top ten in his lifetime. In the case of Murnau, DVD reissues have much to do with it; in the second, it is about the general transformation of Hitchcock’s reputation from brazen showman to film artist, alongside the restoration and reissue of Vertigo and Rear Window in the 1990s. You can also see that, in the 1970s and 1980s, Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons was in the top ten with Citizen Kane – but in 2012, it’s at number 81 with the critics and way down at 174 with the directors. What happened?

Taste changes over time and “the best” is impossible to determine. That’s obvious. It’s easy to compile a list of the most commercially successful films or the films that are the most popular with the public – which, mystifyingly, always seems to include The Shawshank Redemption. But best? In a blog at Indiewire, director and critic Peter Bogdanovich explained why he tried and failed to come up with a ten best list for Sight & Sound:

After struggling with a ten best list for quite a while, I have decided that for me it is an impossible task. I could maybe – at gunpoint – narrow down a list of directors to ten absolute ultra-greats, but then to name each of their best works becomes daunting. Take Jean Renoir, for my money the best director of all time in the West: How to choose between Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, La Bete Humaine, or even French CanCan, The River, or Le Crime de M. Lange? I’d have to put at least three Renoir pictures on the ten best list, and then where are we?

Or take John Ford, arguably the best American director: Do we honour his Westerns, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, Stagecoach, or his memorable family sagas, How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, or his most personal film, The Quiet Man, or his essential war drama, They Were Expendable?

The Observer’s Philip French made a similar comment: “I find it much easier to list my 100 favourite westerns or 10 best films featuring dogs than to pick the 10 all-time best pictures.”

Like Bogdanovich, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody noted the lack of comedy in the critics’ poll, and like the New Statesman’s Ryan Gilbey, the relative lack of new films, as though we can only keep voting for the same established, agreed-upon classics. “There’s something about the top-ten list that invites a whiff of the sanctimonious, and I’m not immune from it myself,” Brody wrote.

As for Vertigo, Bogdanovich wrote:

Personally, it has never been my favourite Hitchcock, nor was it a popular success in its initial release. I think Jimmy Stewart’s performance is quite extraordinary, and his final moments are among the finest of movie acting, but I prefer other films by Hitch much more: Notorious, for instance, or Rear Window or North by Northwest are pictures I return to with much more enjoyment than Vertigo, which is profoundly depressing. Maybe that’s why it’s suddenly so popular among tastemakers: it fits our depressing times; happy endings are out, miserable conclusions are in. Citizen Kane is no more cheerful, certainly, though there are at least a few laughs in it, but perhaps things have to be bleak to get on the critical radar these days.

That comment connects you to the greater dilemma. Do you list the films you enjoy or the films that are important? Citizen Kane was a historically important film. So was Battleship Potemkin, Man with a Movie Camera, Metropolis, Breathless, The Godfather, Shoah and so on and so on. But are these your favourites? It’s a lot easier when the public gets to vote for The Shawshank Redemption because the only criterion is that the public likes it. If I was voting for Hitchcock films I enjoy watching the most, I’d pick Psycho.

So let’s imagine that many or at least some of the votes for Vertigo are really votes for Hitchcock and that if you want your man to win, you must back the film that has been moving up the polls since the 1980s (there isn’t another Hitchcock on the 2012 critics list until you get to Psycho at number 35 and Rear Window and North by Northwest tied for 53rd). Why has Vertigo become the anointed Hitchcock film? Is Bogdanovich right to say that it suits a depressing age?

Certainly, Vertigo feels enervated and European against the American scale, invention and ambition of Citizen Kane. There are beautiful, dreamlike stretches – the best parts of the film are the early, dialogue-free scenes as Scottie trails Madeleine around San Francisco sites (florist, cemetery, old house, art gallery) and Bernard Herrmann’s dazzling romantic score does so much work. There is some terribly clunky storytelling too and the eventual thriller plot is almost impossible to remember. But, in a way, that helps: each time I watch Vertigo, I feel I’m back at the start, believing the Madeleine story as it unfolds and forgetting just how the set-up works. In its best moments, we are fooled, just as Scottie is, as though Vertigo is the cinema experience in microcosm. In his entry on Kim Novak in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson gets deeper into this idea and the ways in which one of the big themes of Vertigo is acting: “Vertigo contains a very subtle analysis of the ordeal and the self-obliteration in acting, and it works all the better because Novak was so direct, unschooled and slave-like.”

Famously, Kim Novak wasn’t Hitchcock’s first choice. Vera Miles was originally cast as Madeleine/Judy but when she became pregnant, Hitchcock had to replace her. But the roughness of Novak’s performance is a poignant part of the greater theme of a man desperately trying to capture or recreate an ideal. The wrong blonde becomes the right one but still shows signs of her wrongness.

Vertigo’s reputation is only partly about what’s on screen. What happened to the film matters almost as much. It was poorly received by critics at the time and, as Bogdanovich says, was not a box-office success. Its gradual rehabilitation began in the 1960s when critic Robin Wood reappraised it but it was out of circulation for years. In his classic essay “A free replay (notes on Vertigo)”, the late Chris Marker talks about “a screening at Berkeley in the early 1980s, when everyone had forgotten the movie”. It was re-released in cinemas and on video at that time and, by the late 1990s, Universal was spending more than US$1 million on a major sound and picture restoration. On that reissue, it was regularly referred to as Hitchcock’s masterpiece. The journey that Vertigo took is the story that every film critic loves and wants to participate in. Who wouldn’t want to play a part in rescuing a masterpiece from oblivion?


How do you do a list? As Richard Brody says, avoid being sanctimonious. After the Sight & Sound results appeared, Brody wrote that he would like to see everyone’s second ten – the films ranked from 11 to 20, “where their personal obsessions and irrepressible joys crop up with a double dose of guilt—one dose for nudging them so close to the incontrovertible masterworks of the first ten, another for not having put them in the top slots to begin with”. Or you could be Slavoj Zizek, and avoid both good and bad taste altogether. Zizek “opted for pure madness” and picked guilty pleasures for his top ten, from The Sound of Music to Dune to two screen adaptations of Ayn Rand.

Thanks to the searchable database, you can also snoop on people you know. Five New Zealand critics/programmers and one New Zealand film-maker took part in the 2012 poll. The critics and programmers were the Film Festival’s Bill Gosden, the Incredibly Strange Festival’s Ant Timpson, Lumiere Reader editor Tim Wong, London-based New Zealand-born critic Carmen Gray and former Film Commission boss Ruth Harley. The local film-maker was Niki Caro. Trivia bonus: Hartley’s list included An Angel at My Table and Caro’s included The Piano – the only New Zealand films that New Zealanders voted for; Gosden picked North by Northwest as his Hitchcock (no one else from here picked Hitchcock) ; Timpson was the only person in the world to vote for the 1970s porn film, Behind the Green Door.

What would I have gone for? While I’m firmly of the ten-is-not-enough school, a list would look like this:

Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955)

La Jetee (Chris Marker, 1962)

Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)

Fata Morgana (Werner Herzog, 1971)

Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)

Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)

Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2010)

In putting ten together, some other films were considered. There had to be a David Lynch but it could as easily have been Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive – I went back and forth on that for about a week. There should be a Kubrick and there should be a Hitchcock. But which films? The same problem with Antonioni, Godard, Hitchcock and Bresson: you want to name the director, but for which movie? I decided you couldn’t put Bela Tarr and Andrei Tarkovksy in the same list although some other people did. I wanted to put The Big Lebowski in but it didn’t look right (in other words, I was being sanctimonious). A top 20 would probably have The Night of the Hunter in it, and The Godfather Part II. And maybe In a Lonely Place and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. And The Gospel According to St Matthew and Man with a Movie Camera. There still isn’t a New Zealand movie. Does that matter?

Why this ten? You get one western, two war movies, two family dramas, one thriller, one historical epic, one time-travel film, one movie star vehicle and an exotic travelogue. More seriously, while rewatching Man with a Movie Camera, I came across a statement attributed to its director, Dziga Vertov: “Kino Eye is a victory against time.” Aren’t all the best films victories against time? Isn’t that what we go to movies for? In Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov’s council of three – himself, his cameraman/brother Mikhail Kaufman and his editor/wife Elizaveta Svilova – constructed an idealised city from footage of Moscow, Odessa and Kiev. It was the 1920s. Vertov (real name: David Kaufman) wanted to free film from the language of theatre and literature. An experimental documentary, Man with a Movie Camera is a film about film, a film within film, in which the work of the cameraman is as vital to the machine-like organisation of society as all other kinds of work. But it isn’t a straight record: Vertov and Svilova stop time, they slow it down – they break its rhythm and its tyranny.

Werner Herzog opens Fata Morgana with eight different shots of eight planes landing in shimmering heat in north Africa. His unconventional travelogue, another experimental documentary, was assembled in Germany from footage shot in Africa in 1968 and 1969; it is a Herzog documentary that precedes the well-known Herzog persona (he doesn’t appear on the soundtrack or on screen). Herzog said of the eight plane landings that if an audience was still there by the sixth or seventh, he knew he had them for the rest of the film. I stayed. And apart from the way that Fata Morgana reorganises time – assembling its disparate footage into sections marked “Creation”, “Paradise” and “The Golden Age”, as fake mythology blends with the real stuff – there is a personal dimension for me. Fata Morgana is one of the films that showed me what other things film can do, back in the early 1990s at the Wellington Film Society and Film Festival, alongside Kenneth Anger films, Derek Jarman’s The Last of England and The Garden and Richard Linklater’s Slacker (and others I’ve forgotten). I’m not religious but nor am I worried that some of the films here qualify as religious art – Ordet, The Tree of Life, Andrei Rublev – as the idea of de-experiencing time must be closely related to states of prayer or contemplation. I think Ordet might be the best film ever made about the terrors and comforts of the religious mind. Dead Man feels like Andrei Rublev remade as a counter-cultural western. Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now? Among other things, that’s about the sheer exuberance of the film-making. Shoah is less about re-experiencing time than re-experiencing history: it’s a Holocaust documentary that refuses to depict or represent its central horror.

Maybe, in some ways, Blue Velvet is like a version of Vertigo with a happy ending: its Jeffrey-Dorothy-Sandy triangle corresponds to Vertigo’s Scottie-Madeleine-Midge. La Jetee is here because Vertigo is not. That’s just part of the reason. La Jetee was Chris Marker’s riff on Vertigo; it’s a sci-fi romance essay film that still seems inexhaustible despite being only 28 minutes long. It is a war horror that reminds you how close the early 1960s were to the mid-1940s (“the victors stood guard over a kingdom of rats”). Like both Scottie and Madeleine, the man is attached to an image from the past – Marker takes the nostalgia embedded in Vertigo and multiplies it. The story is told entirely in black and white stills apart from one startling moment in which the woman opens her eyes and smiles and gives you the sensation that she is looking out at you from the layers of time she is trapped within. Of course, she is – all movie actors are. Ultimately, the man – who is both viewer and participant – can’t escape time either. He doesn’t try. The last word on La Jetee should come from the great Amos Vogel, who, like Chris Marker, died this year: “After seeing it, nothing remains what it was before.”