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High on Hitchcock: is Vertigo the best film of all time?

By Katie Sinclair

The Master of Suspense has taken over the BFI. Since June, the British Film Institute has been screening every film of the late, great Alfred Hitchcock. Coincidentally, yet perfectly, itsSight and Sound magazine poll, which features critics from around the world, this month crowned Vertigo its best film of all time. This 1958 classic topples Orson Welles’ much-reveredCitizen Kane, which has won the poll every decade since 1962. Until now.

Polls such as this one are susceptible to error. The critics have no guidelines to follow. Each has vastly different life experience, and some chose films that have extremely personal significance. However, it is such depth of feeling and emotion that, unsurprisingly, saw Vertigo resonate with so many.

In San Francisco, detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) quits the force after he is left hanging from a rooftop mid-chase and watches his comrade fall to his death. The acrophobia, or fear of heights, he develops means that even climbing high stairs proves impossible. But Scottie isn’t unemployed for long. Businessman Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) asks Ferguson to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak) who is behaving strangely. It appears as though she is haunted by a figure from her past, a figure who ultimately went mad and took her own life. Obsession, danger and, yes you’ve guessed it, vertigo ensues.

In textbook Hitchcock style, nothing is as it seems, and each black screen preludes a new twist in the tale. Historically, the film arguably marked the beginning of Hitchcock’s greatness, and his trademark style is obvious. The camera acts as eye, drawing in and out upon the characters as Hitchcock’s vision of his actors. Furthermore, his filming represents the male gaze. As Scottie stalks Madeleine from afar, the male eye observes the female; the bewitching woman captivates the affable male. Up close, Kim Novak’s face is pale and blank. She can’t be read, which only augments Hitchcock’s suspense.

San Francisco is a cast member, as the city heights increase the vertigo. More than a fear of heights, its falling Scottie fears most, and yet he falls wholeheartedly in love with Madeleine. As the film draws to a close, the drama closes in. But as the tension rises, the narrative unravels. As they are exposed, plots grow unrealistic and reality wanes, moments of tension become laughable. Does this matter?

Image, not plot, is indeed the crowning jewel of Vertigo. The film says more about life and art through its looks than with its words. The tears of passion, the eye of fear, the curdling scream of upmost despair – the human condition is here in all its forms. Colour and smoke panels reflect intense emotion. As a local historian relates Madeleine’s family past, the screen darkens with the tale. As Madeliene emerges, the mist surrounding her only intensifies her mystery. The tower where Scottie’s vertigo must be tested holds more horror than any modern horror monster or alien.

Defining best is so subjective that a ‘best film’ seems impossible. Peter Matthews defends Vertigo in Sight and Sound. ‘Never has a work of ostensible light entertainment been this dark’, he writes. Indeed, Hitchcock made films for the masses. Vertigo is a quintessential, early exemplar of the kind of film that makes art make money, the ‘thinking blockbuster’ of the fifties.

Whilst flawed, the film represents the imperfect but impassioned art of cinema. With his camerawork, Hitchcock makes the audience aware of the director’s role in bending and blurring perceptions. With its plot, Vertigo reminds us of the suspension of disbelief that is cinema. With its emotion, the film ignites the feelings of its audience in the way only cinema can.

In the poll of worldwide film directors, Vertigo ranked eighth. Michel Hazanavicius, this year’s Oscar winning director of The Artist, put Citizen Kane on top. It is, for him, ‘the foundation, the Bible, the ABC of cinema.’ But if Welles’ masterpiece is the guide to cinema, Vertigo is cinema in peculiar, profound practice.




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