Jonathan Romney: Better have a head for heights - 'Vertigo' is back

'Citizen Kane' has been displaced by Hitchcock's thriller as Sight and Sound's all-time best movie. But did it fall, or was it pushed?

Jonathan Romney
Sunday 05 August 2012 00:36 BST
Kim Novak and James Stewart hold on tight in Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece
Kim Novak and James Stewart hold on tight in Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece

So it's official (after a fashion): Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is the greatest film ever made. And Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, which for five decades was generally held to be the greatest, is now only number two. That, at least, is the big news to emerge from the latest of the polls held every 10 years by the British film magazine Sight & Sound, which this year invited votes from more than a thousand critics, programmers and other cinephiles. Hitchcock's 1958 thriller has figured in the poll's Top 10 since 1982, and last time came second, with Kane beating it by five votes. This time, however, Vertigo led the field by a hefty 34 votes.

But the interesting question here isn't so much why Vertigo has beaten Kane, but rather why it has lasted – why Hitchcock's tall tale continues to fascinate. If there's a distinction between the reputations of Kane and Vertigo, I think it's this: Citizen Kane clearly belongs to Orson Welles, and to witness its mastery and exuberance is to be awed by the bombastic magnificence of the monument that the precocious Welles built himself in 1941.

With Vertigo, conversely, we may be manipulated by Hitchcock's wizardry, yet we never feel in thrall to his presence; instead of dominating the film, the director is a genial if devious host, inviting us to join in the game. Watching Vertigo, unpicking its complexity, we effectively have to make the film for ourselves, and that's why this movie is so popular – it belongs to everyone. A labyrinth designed to intrigue and perplex, Vertigo is any number of different films, depending who watches it. It has been variously hailed by the French critics who became the New Wave directors (Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard et al), and analysed by different generations of psychoanalytical and feminist theoreticians.

Hugely influential, Vertigo's tale of obsessive passion has meant that love on screen (at least in thrillers) could never be the same again. In Hollywood, Brian De Palma modelled his Obsession on it, and you can find Vertigo's traces in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. The great French director and thinker on the moving image Chris Marker, who died last week, wrote persuasively about the film, and mused on it in his 1983 documentary Sans Soleil. Directors who included it in their Sight & Sound Top 10s include Martin Scorsese, Atom Egoyan, Miranda July and Sam Mendes.

What's irreducibly true about Vertigo is that it is an extremely strange film. Based on a novel by the French duo Boileau and Narcejac, its San Francisco-set plot can roughly be summed up thus (although if you've seen the film, you know that this storyline isn't to be taken at face value). Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), a detective suffering from fear of heights, is traumatised by his failure to stop a policeman falling to his death. He's later persuaded by an old friend to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who's acting strangely, and who may be possessed by the spirit of a long-dead woman, Carlotta Valdes. Scottie tracks Madeleine, saves her from drowning, and falls in love with her – but can't stop her from being killed herself. Doubly traumatised, Ferguson becomes obsessed by another woman, Judy Barton (also played by Novak), whom he's convinced is Madeleine's double.

Now, if you've seen Vertigo even once, you'll know that the above isn't a strictly accurate account of what happens – for we, and Scottie, have been taken for a ride. That makes subsequent viewings all the more fascinating, as you have to rethink the film afresh every time.

Hence a multiplicity of theoretical takes on the film. Some critics have read it as an essay on the impossible nature of desire, the object of which slips away every time we seem to possess it (Vertigo is big with Lacanian psychoanalysts); feminists have seen it as a demonstration of the male gaze that objectifies and attempts to dominate female sexuality; while cinephiles have regarded the "Judy" section, in which Scottie tries to remould her into Madeleine, as Hitchcock confessing his own tendency to force actresses into the mould of his female ideal. Chris Marker saw the film as a Proustian essay on time and memory.

Classified by genre, Vertigo proves surprisingly slippery. First, it's a thriller, or rather two thrillers: on the one hand, a hard-boiled yarn about a tough guy getting into as much murky trouble as Philip Marlowe ever did; on the other, a classic mystery story, but one in which the investigator finally solves the riddle of the crime that's been committed against him. It's also a ghost story, about people haunted by the spirits of the dead: Scottie by Madeleine, Madeleine by Carlotta. Then it's a scam story, the tale of a confidence trick, precursor to The Sting and David Mamet's House of Games. It's a psychological case history too, the story of a disturbed mind and the attempt at a cure – though Scottie's determination to overcome his fear of heights only gets him deeper into trauma. And it's a love story, albeit a singularly morbid and perverse one: amour fou at its most extreme. Finally – and this is central to Vertigo's special magic – it's a city film, almost a documentary about San Francisco and its environs. Its various locations – the Golden Gate Bridge, Mission Dolores, the sequoia forest, rugged shorelines, and so on – form a sort of symbolic map of the psyche.

Vertigo isn't the only Hitchcock film rich in cinematic beauty, but it's a remarkably dense one: it offers Saul Bass's hallucinogenic opening titles; Bernard Herrmann's Wagnerian score, underlining the film's obsessive repetitions; a deliriously heightened use of colour; the famous camera effect that warps perspective to evoke Scottie's dizziness.

Then there are the stars: James Stewart, Hollywood's perennial nice guy, had already revealed troubling new dimensions in Hitchcock's 1954 Rear Window, and here he unpeels several dark layers of Scottie, who becomes downright brutish in the final act. Visually, Kim Novak may come across as harsh and wooden, but her real appeal is in the voice she adopts as Madeleine – smoky, sultry, and unnervingly alluring.

Vertigo was sure of its moment now, given our current fascination for the late Fifties and early Sixties: Mad Men has reminded us how hard fought was the American war of sexual liberation, and Vertigo (along with Hitchcock's Marnie) tests to their extreme the old Hollywood certainties about male dominance. And, in a time obsessed with the nature of image, with identities adopted and cast away on a whim – the age of the makeover – Vertigo speaks afresh to us as a film about identity and artifice.

But it hasn't always been appreciated; on its release, Variety said: "It's questionable whether that much time should be devoted to what is basically only a psychological murder mystery." Even now, Vertigo's primacy isn't unchallenged: some would argue that Psycho was Hitchcock's most radically innovative and influential film; others see Rear Window as a purer, more controlled achievement. To set the record straight, it should be noted that in Sight & Sound's separate 2012 poll of directors, Citizen Kane (third equal with 2001: A Space Odyssey) still beats Vertigo (seventh equal with The Godfather), Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story coming top.

For the record, I voted in the critics' poll, and not for Vertigo, or any other Hitchcock film. I did vote for Welles – not Kane but Touch of Evil. And my favourite film ever is the 1941 Hollywood comedy Hellzapoppin', I suspect it'll never make the Sight & Sound Top 100, but it gives me vertigo, of an entirely different kind.

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