While Britain was busy monitoring its position on the gold medal table last month, lists of a less athletic nature were being made elsewhere. As Olympic fever emptied the cinemas, a minor revolution occurred in the film world, one that was considered important enough to make it on to the BBC’s main news bulletin: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane was toppled from the position it had held for 50 years as the “Greatest Film of all Time”, to be replaced by Vertigo, Hitchcock’s 1958 suspense thriller about psychological dysfunction and sexual obsession.
Although Vertigo had been bubbling under for years, this unexpected elevation to the top spot in Sight & Sound magazine’s poll of critics and academic cineastes would seem to be the result simply of a slight realignment in what you might call the critical mass index. Good timing though, what with the massive Hitchcock retrospective now under way and continuing until October at London’s National Film Theatre.
I’ve seen Vertigo numerous times, though not so numerous that I can (as with other favourites) quote whole tranches of dialogue. It is a great exercise in stylised storytelling and, despite actually being based on a French novel, manages to convey a sense of being completely and unapologetically cinematic, a product purely of film’s own cultural and technical history and development.
It is lovely to look at, and in Bernard Herrmann’s rich, almost epic score features some of the greatest music ever written for the screen. As we watch James Stewart’s retired cop becoming increasingly fixated on Kim Novak’s apparently disturbed, wandering and possibly possessed beauty, we are offered a picture of an elegant, hazy, besuited San Francisco in the years just before that city became Counter-Culture Central. Just as well that it was made then, for the tailored perfection and the sense of buttoned-up, correct everyday behaviour which features so much in Hitchcock, and on which much of his suspense actually relies, would have been hopelessly out of date only a couple of years later. Stewart’s bullying sartorial remodelling of Novak to suit his own desires wouldn’t have gone down too well with the flower power children.
But is it the greatest film ever? Not even close, I’m afraid, and I say that as one who will be a regular throughout the Hitchcock season, having especially loved the general ambience of his ’50s and ’60s “Hollywood” period for as long as I can remember. This is not just because the film has its fair share of longeurs, is highly far-fetched even on its own terms and leaves loose ends untied. Nor is it necessarily that the central love affair — between the somewhat sexless, fatherly Stewart and a woman barely half his age —strikes some audiences as unconvincing (a problem which, apparently, worried Hitchcock at the time).
Rather, the problem is that in the psychological obsession it depicts it is, by comparison to Citizen Kane, parochial. As an exploration of the mystery of the motivating force in one man’s life, Kane has a universality about it which ensures its continued resonance. By contrast, Vertigo is a depiction of the consequences of a psychological hang-up-one which, furthermore, is finally resolved by the story. Its theme, while obviously intriguing, is less fundamental in our list of priorities, so its hold on us is looser. Both films are, in their different ways, exquisitely made, and full of enjoyable artifice, but Vertigo, despite coming nearly 20 years later, feels much more rooted in its time than Kane. It’s likely that if you sat a group of teenagers down now and made them watch both for the first time, it would be Welles’s movie which might still manage to strike more of a chord, especially with the boys.
Such a group would probably consider all the films on the Sight & Sound list ancient history, if they’d heard of them at all. In fact all of the titles in the top ten would be golden oldies to anybody under 40 — the most recent, 2001: A Space Odyssey, appeared in 1968. The relative obscurity of many of the others reflects a lingering sense, once much stronger than now, of the cinema critic’s inferiority complex, and the need to show that movies were a valid art form, which might also go some way to explaining the absence of any of the great Hollywood musicals from the top ten.
More than this though, lists such as this give credence to the view that they just don’t make ’em like that any more. Whether or not I agree with this is the question I have been asked most frequently (alongside, yes, what is my favourite film of all time) throughout a couple of decades of film reviewing. Once I would have shaken my head, affected a wistful look and said yes, things certainly ain’t what they used to be.
But oddly enough the older I’ve got the less patient I’ve become with this view. Too many of the movies I choose to rewatch, in just the same way that music fans put on favourite albums, are from the past three decades. There are certainly fewer of them, and that’s largely because Hollywood produces roughly half of what it did in its so-called Golden Age, and I’m definitely a Hollywood man. But in their different ways they are just as life-enhancing and life-reflective as anything that has gone before. Watching Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan (both 1998) for the umpteenth time recently, I realised that such films had added immeasurably to my life and that, as Churchill might have said, I had taken much more from the cinema than it had taken from me.
Perhaps fondness takes the place of admiration with the passing years. Like the critics polled for this list, I admire Welles and Hitchcock. But I’m not that sure that I’d want to include their films in the batch I would take to my desert island, and frankly that’s a more honest — and probably more interesting — criterion to use in these matters. Sitting alone on the sand, I would have Cabaret or West Side Story to keep me company, which seems an altogether warmer prospect. What would you take?