Yesterday saw the release of the once-a-decade BFI Sight & Sound poll of nearly 1,000 film critics, distributors, academics, and others. For the first time in five decades, Citizen Kane did not top the list. Instead, my favorite movie, the movie that made me want to make movies, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, claimed the top spot. I’ve done a number of “Great Album Reviews” posts on this blog, but haven’t done one for a movie. But me and Vertigo go way back at this point, so I decided to write it a letter, kind of saying congrats on your achievement, and recapping where we’ve been.
Dear Vertigo —
So, here we are again. Remember the last time we talked? When I drove to San Francisco to track down your filming locations for a short documentary, and found myself in the middle of an appropriately Vertigian tug-of-war between the past and present? Good times.
I have to admit I feel a little vindicated, and you should, too. When we met, I was a kid and you were already kinda creaky in the knees, resting in 7th place on the Sight & Sound list. I have to think your massive restoration and subsequent theatrical run in 1996 — the first time we met in a theater — had a lot to do with your ascendancy over the last two lists. I have to admit, though, looking at it now, the restoration kinda stinks. The scenes in the Mission Dolores graveyard are really gauzy for some reason, and the re-recorded music and effects track is glaringly un-grounded in the physical spaces of the movie, full of startlingly crisp suitcase latches and doorknobs that clash with the period-specific Technicolor texture and grain of your images.
But that’s ok. Maybe part of the reason you’re such a stunning accomplishment is because you are, in fact, a flawed movie. Just like your characters. Your story weaves a tapestry of desperation: every character is at once relatable in their striving for something beyond each of their respective grasps, and detestable, for how clingy and humiliating their behavior. From Elster, desperate for a way out of his loveless marriage, to Judy, a small-town girl with California dreams who makes a devil’s bargain to try to get them, to Midge, mothering a man she loves, nursing him back to health, despite her invisibility to him, and finally to Scottie. What a mass of neuroses that guy is!
So I can forgive your clunky lighting cues in the Argosy Book Shop, the bizarre court hearing that really doesn’t make any sense at all, and your other flaws, because they remain of a piece with the story itself. The only thing that I can point to that is truly, utterly flawless is Jimmy Stewart. That guy — especially in his run up the belfry — is a force of nature. Until I first saw you, Vertigo, I didn’t know actors could do that. Jimmy Stewart — likable, dependable, aw shucks Jimmy Stewart — is in his own way as ferocious and as damaged in this mainstream Hollywood thriller as Toshiro Mifune in The Seven Samurai. And that, Vertigo, is saying something.
Anyway, I’m glad to see you’re doing well. For my part, I’m not sure I’d put you at the top of the Greatest Movies of All Time list. I’d be happy to see a Top 10, in no particular order, or all tied for #1 with you, of Citizen Kane, Fanny and Alexander, The Seven Samurai, The Searchers, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Third Man, Once Upon a Time in the West, M, and maybe The Bicycle Thieves or Ikiru, which I think is totally underrated and always destroys me when I watch it.
But I’m happy for you. I hope in ten years, when the next poll comes out, you’re still at the top of the heap. You’ll always be my sentimental favorite.