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Hitchcock dethrones Welles as 'Vertigo' tops 'Kane'

Friday - 8/3/2012, 8:29pm  ET

Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic

WASHINGTON - Love it or hate it, "Citizen Kane" (1941) has long been the gold standard for film academics. In the 50 years that Sight and Sound magazine has polled international critics for their list of history's best films, Orson Welles' masterpiece has ranked No. 1 every time.

Now, the king has fallen.

There's a new movie that will be scoured over and taught to every film student on the planet, if it's not already. And I'm thrilled to say it's my favorite movie of all time.

Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) just topped Sight and Sound's latest international critics poll, to be officially published in the September issue. The poll is its most extensive yet, surveying 846 critics and experts from around the world, which explains the historical and academic slant to the choices. Both "Vertigo" and "Citizen Kane" require repeat viewings to truly grasp their brilliance, and if you're one who doesn't get the hype, I've constructed my best case for each:

Together, Hitchcock and Welles will teach you an entirely new way of viewing movies: through the cinematic eye. That is, if you're willing to learn.

Cream of the crop slowly rises

Upon the film's release, "Vertigo" was overlooked at the box office and shunned by the experts. Like Vincent Van Gogh's paintings or Johann Sebastian Bach's music, Hitchcock's masterpiece was not appreciated in its time. For decades, it was unavailable as one of the "Five Lost Hitchcocks," as Hitchcock held the rights until his death in 1980. This absence left scholars little chance to reconsider, so when it finally resurfaced in the early '80s, it was a critic's dream 30 years in the making.

After decades of oversight, "Vertigo" came out of nowhere to place No. 7 on the 1982 Sight and Sound critics poll. However, it remained down at No. 61 on the American Film Institute's first-ever Top 100 in 1997. I had just taken copious notes on the film as a labor of love, and as I uncovered the film's layers upon layers of genius, I was appalled that it could place so low.

At the turn of the millennium, the "Hitchcock Masterpiece DVD Collection" began taking note, making "Vertigo" the only film with the word "masterpiece" on the cover. That's saying a lot amidst "Psycho," "Rear Window," "The Birds," "North by Northwest," "Notorious," "Rebecca" and "Shadow of a Doubt."

AFI started coming to its senses in 2007, when "Vertigo" lept 52 spots ahead to No. 9 on the 10th anniversary list. Meanwhile, Sight and Sound bumped the film up to No. 2, just ahead of "Rules of the Game" (1939) and just behind "Citizen Kane." Finally, this week Hitchcock's cream officially rose to the top, as "Vertigo" topped the Sight and Sound 2012 list.

What's "Vertigo" about?

Adapted from the French novel "D'Entre les morts" ("The Living and the Dead"), Vertigo begins with Det. John Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) watching his partner fall to his death from a San Francisco rooftop. The event traumatizes him with acrophobia (a fear of heights), which gives him vertigo (an extremely disorienting dizziness). He recovers in the company of long-time friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who is hopelessly in love with him, until Scottie receives a random invitation to meet with an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore).

Elster offers the oddest proposal: "Do you believe that someone out of the past — someone dead — can enter and take possession of a living being?" It seems that Elster's wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), has been taking unconscious trips around the city like a sleepwalker, and remembers nothing of it after the fact. Elster suspects she is possessed by her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdez, who committed suicide decades ago. As a trusted friend, retired detective and someone Madeline won't recognize, Scottie is the perfect man to do some recon, so Elster asks his old buddy to follow Madeline around and see where she goes throughout the day.

Scottie initially resists until he gets a glimpse of Madeline. She is a drop dead icy blond, made all the more appealing by the danger and mystery of her suicidal tendencies. Scottie can't help but be intrigued as he follows her around San Francisco, from flower shops to art museums to cemeteries, trying to piece together this beyond-the-grave puzzle.

What makes "Vertigo" so great?

Most movies, if they're lucky, are remembered for making a historical or cultural contribution in one specific area. "Vertigo" made contributions across the board:

  • Saul Bass' groundbreaking graphics inspired opening credit sequences for years to come, particularly his falling paper cutouts, which directly inspired the opening of TV's "Mad Men."
  • Cinematographer Robert Burks created a popular camera technique known as "The Vertigo Effect," combining a dolly and a zoom ("zolly"). It's achieved by moving the camera away from a subject, while simultaneously zooming the camera lens in (or vice versa). The opposing pulls create a psychedelic effect on viewers, almost like the image is detaching from itself. You can find "Vertigo" shots in "Jaws" as Chief Brody sees his first shark attack, and in "The Lion King," as Simba realizes he's about to be stampeded.
  • The film's visuals are unforgettable, from Edith Head's red and green costumes, to Novak's spiral hairstyle, to the San Francisco landscape in gorgeous Technicolor.
  • The acting is the most complex in both Stewart and Novak's careers. Stewart's performance is what Peter Bogdanovich called the greatest portrayal of lost love in the history of movies. As Stewart deals with the death of his soulmate, he yearns to recreate her through his new girlfriend, transforming her into his ex, clothes, hair and all.
  • The moment this transformation is complete and Novak emerges into a neon green light, Bernard Herrmann's music steals the show. AFI voted it No. 12 on its Top 25 Movie Scores, but to me, it's easily the most hypnotic, haunting, beautiful score ever written. Its impact continues to be felt today, as it was used during the climax of this year's Best Picture, "The Artist." When Novak saw the film and heard the music, she compared it to being raped.
  • The script asks us to do something groundbreaking: it offers a twist not at the end of the movie (i.e. "The Sixth Sense"), but rather two-thirds the way through. This shifts our sympathies from one main character (Scotty) to another (Judy).

  • Still, of all these areas of contribution, the biggest comes in the realm of directing, as Hitchcock layers his vision with symbolism (see below).

Exactly what makes Hitchcock such a master in this film?

Directorial vision can be so abstract and subjective, but here's a quick guide of what to look for:

  • "Vertigo" features one of the best examples of visual storytelling, where camera movements connect clues instead of dialogue. Hitchcock features an entire 30 minute segment where it might as well be a silent film, allowing his images and Herrmann's score to carry us through the mystery. This is pure cinema.
  • The blocking of the characters and their position in the frame is also important. Watch how Gavin Elster walks up onto the second level of his office as he tells the tale of Carlotta. It's like he's walking up onto a stage and putting on a performance.
  • Notice the repeated use of tilts as Stewart travels the city tailing Novak. As the camera tilts up, we constantly see Stewart standing in front of towering church bell towers, foreshadowing what's to come.
  • Hitchcock uses shadows and mirrors to hint at the dual personae of characters. He dares us to pick up on the clues of silhouette outlines, half-lit faces and double image reflections.
  • During the Madeline-Judy transformation, the neon green light not only makes Novak appears ghostly/angelic, it echoes her line in Sequoia forest: ever-green means ever-living.
  • Pay close attention to the background during the famous 360-degree dolly shot around Stewart and Novak as they kiss. The background shifts from a hotel room to a horse stable and back again, as Stewart realizes he's been through this all before. It may be something you miss the first time.
  • Hitchcock also seems to use fire as a symbol for danger. As Novak sits in Scottie's apartment, she is always shown with the fireplace behind her. Later, Hitch places a "fire escape" sign behind them in Judy's hallway. They, of course, don't follow it.
  • Note also the parallelism of repeating images and sounds. Everything is circular.
  • Finally, one construction always perplexed me: Hitchcock's use of oddly-angled ceiling shots. Rather than show a room at a normal angle, he would make sure to include the ceiling. This puzzled me for years, but I think I have a theory. After you see the entire film and know its twists, you'll realize that "what lies above" is the key to the mystery.

On with the rest of the list.

The Sight and Sound Top 50

    1. "Vertigo"

    Alfred Hitchcock, 1958 (191 votes)

    2. "Citizen Kane"

    Orson Welles, 1941 (157 votes)

    3. "Tokyo Story"

    Ozu Yasujiro, 1953 (107 votes)

    4. "La Règle du jeu"

    Jean Renoir, 1939 (100 votes)

    5. "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

    FW Murnau, 1927 (93 votes)

    6. "2001: A Space Odyssey"

    Stanley Kubrick, 1968 (90 votes)

    7. "The Searchers"

    John Ford, 1956 (78 votes)

    8. "Man with a Movie Camera"

    Dziga Vertov, 1929 (68 votes)

    9. "The Passion of Joan of Arc"

    Carl Dreyer, 1927 (65 votes)

    10. "8½"

    Federico Fellini, 1963 (64 votes)

    11. "Battleship Potemkin"

    Sergei Eisenstein, 1925 (63 votes)

    12. "L'Atalante"

    Jean Vigo, 1934 (58 votes)

    13. "Breathless"

    Jean-Luc Godard, 1960 (57 votes)

    14. "Apocalypse Now"

    Francis Ford Coppola, 1979 (53 votes)

    15. "Late Spring"

    Ozu Yasujiro, 1949 (50 votes)

    16. "Au hasard Balthazar"

    Robert Bresson, 1966 (49 votes)

    17. "Seven Samurai"

    Kurosawa Akira, 1954 (48 votes)

    17. "Persona"

    Ingmar Bergman, 1966 (48 votes)

    19. "Mirror"

    Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974 (47 votes)

    20. "Singin' in the Rain"

    Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1951 (46 votes)

    21. "L'avventura"

    Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 (43 votes)

    21. "Le Mépris"

    Jean-Luc Godard, 1963 (43 votes)

    21. "The Godfather"

    Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 (43 votes)

    24. "Ordet"

    Carl Dreyer, 1955 (42 votes)

    24. "In the Mood for Love"

    Wong Kar-Wai, 2000 (42 votes)

    26. "Rashomon"

    Kurosawa Akira, 1950 (41 votes)

    26. "Andrei Rublev"

    Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966 (41 votes)

    28. "Mulholland Dr."

    David Lynch, 2001 (40 votes)

    29. "Stalker"

    Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979 (39 votes)

    29. "Shoah"

    Claude Lanzmann, 1985 (39 votes)

    31. "The Godfather Part II"

    Francis Ford Coppola, 1974 (38 votes)

    31. "Taxi Driver"

    Martin Scorsese, 1976 (38 votes)

    33. "Bicycle Thieves"

    Vittoria De Sica, 1948 (37 votes)

    34. "The General"

    Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1926 (35 votes)

    35. "Metropolis"

    Fritz Lang, 1927 (34 votes)

    35. "Psycho"

    Alfred Hitchcock, 1960 (34 votes)

    35. "Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles"

    Chantal Akerman, 1975 (34 votes)

    35. "Sátántangó"

    Béla Tarr, 1994 (34 votes)

    39. "The 400 Blows"

    François Truffaut, 1959 (33 votes)

    39. "La dolce vita"

    Federico Fellini, 1960 (33 votes)

    41. "Journey to Italy"

    Roberto Rossellini, 1954 (32 votes)

    42. "Pather Panchali"

    Satyajit Ray, 1955 (31 votes)

    42. "Some Like It Hot"

    Billy Wilder, 1959 (31 votes)

    42. "Gertrud"

    Carl Dreyer, 1964 (31 votes)

    42. "Pierrot le fou"

    Jean-Luc Godard, 1965 (31 votes)

    42. "Play Time"

    Jacques Tati, 1967 (31 votes)

    42. "Close-Up"

    Abbas Kiarostami, 1990 (31 votes)

    48. "The Battle of Algiers"

    Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966 (30 votes)

    48. "Histoire(s) du cinéma"

    Jean-Luc Godard, 1998 (30 votes)

    50. "City Lights"

    Charlie Chaplin, 1931 (29 votes)

    50. "Ugetsu monogatari"

    Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953 (29 votes)

    50. "La Jetée"

    Chris Marker, 1962 (29 votes)

Reactions to the list

It's great to see John Ford's "The Searchers" enter the Top 10. This was my epiphany movie that taught me the meaning of film theory. Need a lesson? Go back and watch the first 20 minutes and note how Ford visually expresses an undercurrent of passion between John Wayne and his sister-in-law. They're both "In the Mood for Love," which I was also glad to see made the list.

Renoir's "The Rules of the Game," Fellini's "8 1/2," Ozu's "Tokyo Story" and Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" are pretty much givens when it comes to academic love, though I am pleasantly surprised to see Dziga Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera." Talk about a movie well ahead of its time.

As for the cons, it's a joke that "The Godfather" is not in the Top 10, let alone the Top 5, as it was the last time around. The reason may be that the last time this poll was taken, "Part 1" and "Part 2" were grouped together as one entry, whereas this time, they were separated. You could easily make an argument for "The Godfather" saga as the greatest films ever made. As the late Sidney Lumet said, "They are as close to perfect movies as I think exists."

I'm also saddened to see "The Seven Samurai" and "Singin' in the Rain" drop out of the Top 10, and I'm baffled how "Mulholland Drive" made the list over "Blue Velvet," David Lynch's true masterwork.

The biggest omission is the lack of mainstream Hollywood favorites, from "Jaws" to "Star Wars," "Casablanca" to "The Wizard of Oz," "Titanic" to "The Shawshank Redemption." When average folks read these lists, they're instantly turned off by such glaring omissions, and it leads them to think these listmakers are out of touch with the public. I personally think best lists should cover both ends of the spectrum, both art and entertainment, forcing academics to admit the worth of pop culture smash hits, and forcing laymen to challenge themselves to understand film theory.

Clearly, that's not what Sight and Sound is going for, and in a way, it's good to have this list as the champion of academic theory on one extreme, to counter the IMDB fan poll on the other end. Somewhere between lies the AFI Top 100, mixing pop culture and art classics, albeit restricted to American films. In this light, Sight and Sound can be a very useful guide for what else is out there.

This is exactly why I'm thrilled to have Hitchcock finally atop the list. He made films that could easily top lists of academic cornerstones ("Vertigo," "Rear Window," and "Notorious") and mainstream favorites ("Psycho," "The Birds" and "North By Northwest"). The rotund man nimbly walked the tightrope between the academic and the mainstream better than anyone — while so many others looked down and got the spins. He was both a showman and a visionary, making films that celebrate the nail-biting entertainment we love about the movies, yet ones that, upon closer inspection, reveal a deeper understanding of how cinesthetic techniques work wonders on the subconscious.

Here's to you, Hitch. It was a long time coming.

Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking "Fraley on Film" under the "Living" tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)