Vertigo

Film Criticism, Movies

I recognize that creating an ordered list of my own based on the BFI’s Greatest Films of All Time is pretty pointless. Mainly, I am doing this just to have the opportunity to watch all of the films in chronological order and compare my tastes and opinions to that of the BFI list makers.

I mention this now because the big news from the latest BFI list is that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo displaced Citizen Kane as the top film in their ranking. I had seen Vertigo a few times in the past (most recently on the big screen last summer). When I heard that this film ousted Citizen Kane as the Greatest Film of All Time on the BFI’s list, I was a little surprised. I recognized it as a great film but was uncertain of a claim that it THE greatest film of all time. However, after another viewing and, more importantly, after viewing it in chronological order as part of the list, I feel that claim is warranted.

Vertigo is the most modern, psychological, and challenging of the films so far. Jimmy Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson who recently left the police force after discovering his fear of heights in rather dramatic fashion. Now in retirement, he takes a private investigation job offered by an old friend who has concerns about the psychological well-being of his wife. Scottie trails Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) trying to discover how she spends her day. His fear of heights plays a tragic role at the halfway point of the film when Madeleine seemingly kills herself by jumping off a high church tower. Seemingly is the key word. What “happens” in Vertigo is slippery at best. It is an enigmatic film that challenges the viewer to piece together not only the plot but also Scottie’s shaky psychology. As the key figure of the film, he is a relentlessly unreliable narrator. An argument could be made that the entire second part of the film could just be in his imagination.

Vertigo is ambiguous in ways that previous films have not been. There is something new and exciting not only about the narrative but also in the way Hitchcock, along with cinematographer, Robert Burks, tell the story. The use of colors and other visual symbols are important in a challenging new way.

All the performances are spot on. Kim Novak excels playing essentially two different parts. Jimmy Stewart is downright creepy in his stalkerish obsession. And Barbara Bel Geddes is wonderful as Scottie’s confidant, Midge, who is mysteriously absent the second half of the film.

I am certain I am being swayed a bit by BFI’s placement of Vertigo in the number one spot. I may not have watched Vertigo as critically otherwise, but I am inclined to place this in my number one slot as well.

  1. Vertigo (1958)
  2. Metropolis (1927)
  3. Ordet (1955)
  4. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  5. Citizen Kane (1941)
  6. Rashomon (1950)
  7. Tokyo Story (1953)
  8. The Rules of the Game (1939)
  9. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
  10. City Lights (1931)
  11. Seven Samurai (1954)
  12. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
  13. Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
  14. The General (1926)
  15. Journey to Italy (1954)
  16. The Man with the Movie Camera (1929)
  17. Late Spring (1949)
  18. L’Atalante (1934)
  19. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
  20. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
  21. The Searchers (1956)

Next Up: The 400 Blows