Vertigo: The Best Film of the Decade?


Every ten years the film magazine Sight and Sound askes critics to nominate the ten greatest films ever made, from which they publish a list. This year 846 critics did just that. But if like me, and Hannah McGill, you watch an extraordinary large amount of differing films your find a list of ten greatest films completely imposable to compile and therefore a meaningless exercise and any way, what constitutes a great film? The Sight and Soundinvitation letter stated: “We leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten best films you feel are most important to film history, or ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema” which really does not help, could it not be just ten films you love watching? Again I repeat a meaningless task, but lets have a look at the top film.

For the past fifty years the number one film has been Orson Welles Citizen Kane (1941) a film that was shown at the RBC Film Club a couple of years ago. Why was this 71-year-old film constantly put up as the best movie ever made. Following the viewing I listed down what I considered to be the reasons:

Welles was only twenty-four when he made what is basically his debut film bringing to it the brashness and confidence of youth.

The film tells a great story, the life of a fictional character, Charles Foster Kane, who was allegedly based on the life of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. In retrospect it could have been Welles own life story?

The narrative structure is an example of screenwriting at its very best.

Gregg Tolland’s cinematography is one of the films real strengths. He developed a technique for deep-focus photography where the extreme foreground, centre middle ground and background were all in focus at the same time allowing the eye to focus on any part of the image.

A brilliant performance from Orson Welles as Kane with supporting roles that are flawless, drawn mainly from Welles own Mercury Theatre group.

Welles once stated in an interview that Hollywood is the enemy of art, a factory, and a machine that sucked in European talent and destroyed it. (Hitchcock was given as an example!) Welles recognised this and demanded freedom to make Citizen Kane the way he wanted to, without interference. This was the first and last time Hollywood allowed Welles this artistic freedom.

Welles masterpiece has been finally knocked off its perch in 2012 by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) but still to my mind remains an example of total cinema.

Waltzes from Vienna.
Let me make it clear right from the start that I am no fan of Mr Hitchcock’s oeuvre with the exception of possibly Rear Window (1954) any film which features Grace Kelly can’t be all bad. Jessie Matthews appeared in the only musical Hitchcock directed, Waltzes from Vienna (1934), and stated that even at this early stage of his career he was one of highest paid directors in British films and was already accustomed to being the ‘star of the show’ and could not stand competition from the films young star who was at that stage ‘Britain’s first film goddess’. He was taken to task at the time by The Times newspaper for treating Jessie as ‘a not too important part of the films design’ She summed him up as a domineering young man who knew nothing about musicals and said that she and her female co-star Fay Compton, were unnerved by him because of his sarcasm and his well known reputation as a practical joker. Due to Hitchcock’s lack lustre direction and his famous distrust of actors the film was a flop, panned by the critics and has since become regarded as the worst film in his career.

The best poster I've seen for Vertigo.
Because of Vertigo’s newly found status I thought I had better have a look at this venerated movie and to be honest I had no idea why it is regarded as Sight and Soundsgreatest film of all time. For some reason it did not appear in the top ten films until 1982, coming in at number seven. Set in San Francisco it involves a detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) who has a fear of heights and has been consequently retired from the police force and is then hired by an old friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). After rescuing her from the San Francisco River Ferguson finds himself becoming obsessed with this beautiful young woman, it’s a story that encompasses mental illness, love and murder. So far so good, perhaps not?

This Sunday afternoon melodrama is overlong, far-fetched and repetitive with a twist that you can see coming blindfolded. Watching this over long ‘psychological thriller’ can be compared with walking through a bog waste deep, slow and plodding, the whole thing would have been better edited for inclusion in one of Alfred Hitchcock Presents shown on the television from 1955 up until 1965. As normal with the Leytonstone born director his over use of Bernard Herrmann’s music to dictate the mood of the film is so obvious it actually nullifies the suspenseful moments. James Stewart, a passed master at the doe eyed school of acting perfected ten years earlier in the syrupy tosh It’s a Wonderful Life, portrays a character that’s far to old for his leading lady, in fact the 25 year difference is embarrassing. The film was not successful on it initial release and even Hitchcock was reported to have had reservations about the film, who am I to disagree, and I still none the wiser why this movie has been voted the best film of the decade? Maybe Hannah McGill article, published in the same edition of Sight and Soundis right and we really should not take a lot of notice of these canons?

Stewart with his much younger co-star.

Kim Novac with the give-away broach!