Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #001 on the list, Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.
*** SPOILER WARNING! Yes, this movie is more than 50 years old, but I know there are still a lot of people out there who have never seen it, and at the same time, there’s no way to talk about some of the points I want to hit without giving away some of the twists and plot details that really should be a surprise for the first time viewer, so I’m going to go ahead and throw up the old spoiler flag just in case. Proceed, therefore, at your own risk. END WARNING***
That’s right, it’s elephant in the room time as today we take a look at what the list names the #1 all-time best movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Vertigo.
As was widely reported when the 2012 version of the list came out, Vertigo replaced Orson Well’s Citizen Kane, which had held the top spot for decades prior, thereby bumping Kane to number 2.
There are likely a number of reasons this occurred, including, one would suspect, a number of the respondents simply wanting to “shake things up a bit” or “do something different”, and therefore voting for this film over the perennial Kane. In truth, though, the reasoning doesn’t really matter. Hitchcock’s film now owns the top spot.
But does it deserve it?
Well, I’ll begin by saying this: personally, Vertigo is not my favorite Hitchcock movie. That spot belongs to Rear Window. As a matter of fact, that particular movie has become my go-to answer whenever anyone asks me what my favorite all-time movie is. But, of course, there’s a difference between “favorite” movies and those one perceives as “the best”. There are a number of movies that I can objectively state are better films than Rear Window, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like them more or that I even have to like them at all. And in all honesty, when I say that Rear Window is my all time favorite movie, that’s really simply a way of providing an answer that doesn’t require a lot of thought to an all too simplistic question, and can be used to either curtail or open up further discussion depending upon my mood and that of the questioner.
Anyway, this is supposed to be about Vertigo, not Rear Window, so I suppose I should turn my focus to that.
One of the first things that I absolutely have to give credit to Hitchcock for in this movie is the fact that, much like in Psycho, he manages to keep the true protagonist of the movie (if there even is one) hidden for a very large part of this film. As a matter of fact, in a lot of ways, he manages to spend m0st of the movie getting us to root for one of the most obsessive and villainous characters in cinematic history, because let’s be honest, in his obsession with another man’s wife and his compulsion to remake Judy Barton into Madeline after the latter’s death, James Stewart‘s character of John “Scottie” Ferguson is certainly no hero, even though he may at first be presented that way to the audience.
When it comes to it, “Obsession” might even be a better title for this film than “Vertigo”, because it’s Scottie’s obsession with Madeline that allows him to be set up as the unwitting witness to her “suicide”, and then later also leads to Judy’s own death. Even if he weren’t suffering from acrophobia and the accompanying vertigo, an honest assessment shows that John is not, to put it lightly, the most mentally fit character.
Even early on, after he has, he thinks, saved Madeline from drowning, he shows absolutely no compunction or shame in taking the unconscious Madeline back to his apartment and completely stripping this woman who he already has clearly become enamored of simply because of her beauty of all of her clothes before tucking her into his bed. Yes, he gives her the excuse of not wanting to take her back home to have to explain things to her husband, but even that, with Stewart’s delivery of the lines, seems rather flimsy and more of a rationalization for his actions.
Which is not to say that Judy is a paragon of virtue, either. Yes, she may spend the latter part of the movie in the inescapable clutches of a man who will never love her for who she actually is, but rather for who he wants to (re-)make her into, thus garnering the audience’s sympathy and, as noted above, becoming the sort-of protagonist of the film, but let’s not forget that until Madeline’s death (in which she was a quite willing participant), she was perfectly happy in carrying out exactly the same charade, and never backs down from continuing with it, even though she has, by that point, purportedly completely fallen in love with Ferguson.
It could even be argued that there is no clear-cut protagonist in the movie at all. Gavin Elster, the conniving ship builder who conceives and executes the entire plan to murder his wife and make it seem like suicide certainly doesn’t count as one, and since we never even actually meet the real Madeline Elster, well…
Even Barbara Bel Geddes’s seemingly too-sweet-for-words Midge becomes so swept up in her jealousy over the attention that “Johnnie” is paying to Madeline/Judy, that she allows it to overcome her and, with the painting that she makes as a “joke”, she shows her own obsession and takes herself out of the action at a time when she really could provide him with some needed help and perspective.
Hmm… it almost seems as though the only truly heroic figure in the entire movie may be the police officer who, at the very beginning of the movie, gives his life trying to save Scottie’s.
Moving away from the actual plot of the movie, one does have to admit that Hitchcock’s technical ability as a director is firmly on display here. Much has been made of the since-become-cliche “Vertigo effect” created with a “dolly-out/zoom-in” method which involves the camera physically moving away from a subject whilst simultaneously zooming in. Or vice versa. The effect can actually be created either way.
Then there is the “special sequence” which is used to depict the disorientation of Scottie’s dream, which is definitely a breathtaking experience, especially on the big screen.
And, of course, there are the bravura performances of both Stewart and Kim Novak (who does, for the most part, manage to create in the viewer the belief for a time that Judy and Madeline are two separate characters quite well), but really that comes as no surprise, since Hitch both before and after this film proved himself a virtuoso at pulling from and capturing with his camera exactly the performance that he desires, no matter the cost.
Still, despite all of this, Vertigo commits one of the cardinal sins that in my mind disqualifies it from thee top spot not only of all films, but even when only set against Hitchcock’s other films.
Yes, the film does have its great moments, and it does have its exemplary scenes and shots, but the problem is that they are just that – moments, scenes, shots. Overall, however, this is a 128 minute film which doesn’t, as many great movies do, hide its length or feel shorter than its actual running time, but instead lets the viewer feel almost every minutes that passes, and not in a good way. There comes a point where, perhaps because there is no real character to root for, because there is no hero to cheer on, because we, as an audience get the idea that Scottie’s obsession with Maddy has gone to far, that we simply want the film to move on, to get to the climax, and it takes far too long to do that, which is unfortunate, because it does allow the viewer’s mind to wander and that is something that Hitchcock rarely can be said to do.
So, in the end, we have to go back to the question I asked at the beginning: Does Vertigo really deserve the #1 spot in a list of the “Greatest Movies of All Time”? My answer has to be no. Yes, it unquestionably belongs on the list, there’s no denying that, but as number one, I have to say it’s out of place.
Then again, I can’t say that I’d put Citizen Kane there, either.
Here’s the trailer: