What makes Vertigo the greatest movie of all time?
Every decade, The British Film Institute conducts a massive poll of critics and film industry experts, asking them to vote for the greatest film of all time. For 50 years, Citizen Kane was secure in the #1 spot on the poll. But in the most recent poll, conducted in 2012, Kane was finally dethroned by Alfred Hitchcock’s masterwork, Vertigo.
It’s an unlikely shift. Citizen Kane has long been perceived as film critics’ favorite movie (and, fascinatingly, is President Trump’s favorite movie). The classic tale of American greed and loneliness did not need the number one spot on the BFI poll; its placement at the top was more of a coronation. Moreover, Vertigo, released 60 years ago this week, isn’t even Hitchcock’s most culturally familiar; that would be Psycho, which sits at #35 on the poll.
Compared to some of the other suspenseful works in Hitchcock’s filmography, the stakes in Vertigo are relatively low. Jimmy Stewart stars as John Ferguson, a retired detective who had to leave the force due to a crippling fear of heights. He soon gets back into detective work, though, when an old friend ask John to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), whom he claims has been acting very strangely.
The film moves slowly as John follows Madeleine during her daily routine: trips to a graveyard, an art museum, an old hotel. John eventually fishes Madeleine out of San Francisco Bay after a suicide attempt, and the two develop a relationship of their own.
What separates Vertigo, then, from any other Hitchcock mystery, let alone every other movie of all time? There is no rousing, standout action scene like there is in North by Northwest. There are twists, but the twists in other Hitchcock films (i.e., Psycho) are more shocking. There is no prominent thematic element or social commentary; it’s not about anything in the sense that we’d say Get Out is about race, for example, or even how Citizen Kane is about the personal cost of ambition. Obsession and paranoia are aspects of Vertigo, but Hitchcock isn’t saying anything particular about them.
Somehow, I think that lack of meaning is what elevates Vertigo as one of the great films of all time. Our culture is one of constant, and instant, analysis, interpretation, and quantification. The arts are no exception: films are not just assessed for their aesthetic qualities; they are measured. The way we talk about movies is shifting: relevant film criticism cannot just be about how beautiful something looks, or how it makes you feel. It must also be about box office numbers, and the film’s impact on the movie industry, and what the themes or representation in the film mean for our culture. When the Oscars Best Picture race was in full swing, the conversation was much less about the which film was the most visually magnificent, affective film than which (i.e., Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) meant the most to our current political climate.
Vertigo is unburdened by the weight of cultural or thematic import, nor is it interested in such ideas. Vertigo is a purely sensory experience, and more than almost any film evokes a sense of implacable wonder and the mysteriousness of the human condition (the closest cinematic comparison to this feeling that I can recall is Donnie Darko). The whole movie is dreamlike, and it’s bright for a dour mystery, tinged with luscious San Francisco sunlight. Key to the film’s aura is Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score, which punctuates these glistening scenes with a feeling of despair. The scene in Muir Woods is exemplary of the indefinable sensation this all adds up to:
Nothing in this moment at the tree ring display has any impact on the plot, and it doesn’t teach us much about the characters. But the shadowy forest, eery score, and Kim Novak’s airy voice all add up to something enchanting. The magic of Vertigo, and what puts it in the running for greatest film of all time, is that it is essentially about the feelings that films have the capacity to give us. No, scratch that. That's the sort of impact statement I might make about another movie. It's not about that feeling; it just is that feeling.
There’s a moment in Vertigo in which John is walking around with Madeleine, trying to piece together a reason for her strange, out-of-body behavior. Upon noticing a real-life object that Madeleine previously described in a dream, John proclaims, “You see, there’s an answer for everything.” Of course, it turns out to be farthest possible thing from the truth. Sometimes, there’s isn’t an answer, or an explanation, or a meaning. Sometimes, a glorious experience is that.