The list is out. For a certain brand of cinephile, yours truly very much included, that can only mean one thing. Once a decade the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine polls the world’s leading film critics and directors, and compiles their list of the “Greatest Films of All Time.” This tradition started back in 1952, and has continued apace since then. Sight & Sound takes the measure of the cinematic canon every ten years so as to avoid momentary effusions and measure long-term trends. Other groups, most notably the American Film Institute, have crafted rival lists that hope to match the original for prestige and influence. The explosion of the internet has also created a surge of lists, from the venerable like They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They, to the ridiculous, such as the IMDb Top 250. But the Sight & Sound list rises above them all, and today it unleashed something of a sea-change.
For the first time since the inaugural list in 1952 (which crowned Bicycle Thieves), Orson Welles’ landmark debut feature Citizen Kane has not been voted into the top spot. Instead, Alfred Hitchcock’s lurid and mysterious Vertigo has ascended to the pinnacle, rising from a second place finish a decade ago. I’ll get to the importance of all this in just a moment, along with the myriad other interesting tidbits raised by the new Top Ten, but first the list. (Please note, I will be referring to the Critics’ List unless I note otherwise. I like and respect the Directors’ lists, but I tend to think of it as being akin to the Coaches’ Poll in college football: interesting but perhaps not as well informed.)
1. Vertigo (1958, USA, Dir: Alfred Hitchcock)
2. Citizen Kane (1941, USA, Dir: Orson Welles)
3. Tokyo Story (1953, Japan, Dir: Ozu Yasujiro)
4. La Règle du jeu (1939, France, Dir: Jean Renoir)
5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, USA, Dir: F.W. Murnau)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, USA/UK, Dir: Stanley Kubrick)
7. The Searchers (1956, USA, Dir: John Ford)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, USSR, Dir: Dziga Vetov)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, France, Dir: Carl Theodore Dreyer)
10. 8 1/2 (1963, Italy, Dir: Federico Fellini)
So, Andrew, what are your thoughts on Kane being dethroned by Vertigo? Or is that not even where your thoughts landed when you saw the list?
Well, Alex, this is interesting. Seeing numbers one and two led me down a mental path which recalled our last Recorder conversation piece on which graphic novel we would teach in college. You picked Ghost World as yours in part because for all its uniqueness, it “depicts universal emotions in such a specific manner that…it would resonate strongly despite any initial skepticism towards the form or its content.” I picked Asterios Polyp not only because it is an emotional, gripping story, but also because it reimagines a graphic novel can do by playing with and breaking all of the medium’s rules.
I feel the same remarks apply to Vertigo and Citizen Kane.
This is not to deny the greatness of Citizen Kane and its incomparable influence. It needs to be watched, year after year, as required viewing for anyone who loves film and especially those who want to build a career in the movies. Orson Welles, with Gregg Toland, Herman Mankiewicz, and company, redefined what was considered to be possible in the cinema as no one has done before or since. (As well as giving us the indelible moment when Everett Sloane tells the story about the girl with the parasol.) But beyond us bowing down and worshiping at what the movie achieved in terms of technique and innovation…well, just as Asterios Polyp is not my favorite graphic novel, I think that Citizen Kane is not Orson Welles’s best movie and I KNOW it isn’t even my favorite of his movies, let alone my favorite movie of them all.
Welles’s best movie is probably one of those magnificent long cuts which were only seen by a few executives and preview audiences before getting sliced up. (Or Chimes at Midnight, which I have often heard is close to perfect.)But Kane, the one film which allowed him to get away with all of his tricks, is a bit lacking for me compared to his other work because I never FEEL as much as I want to. Despite scenes like the parasol monologue, the tone is cold and distant because the literally faceless Thompson is pursuing a cold, distant man with few redeeming qualities, surrounded by people whose fascination with him is hard to understand. A work of art is supposed to be more than technically accomplished…it needs to stir something in the heart as well. The suspense and philosophical clash of Touch of Evil, the romantic nightmare of The Lady From Shanghai, and above all the warmth, passion, and aching desire for existence which runs through the mutilated but glorious The Magnificent Ambersons are overpowering, and wedded to the sure hand of a master director. Kane, I have to say, not so much.
So we come to “Vertigo”: a dark, complex tale full of stylization to the point of the surreal despite the hard-boiled mystery plot…which itself is fully resolved long before the film is over. But we don’t watch Vertigo for the story so much as the effect it produces. Because unless you’re a sociopath, you have been in love. You have had dreams, sometimes crazy ones, and tried to make reality embrace your dreams even just a little. And you have struggled with the dark side of your nature from time to time. These are the basic emotions and desires of mankind, and in Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock calls them forth and confronts we the audience with them. And by placing these emotions in a very specific story which takes them on a journey from their conception to their final, obsessive breaking point, we recognize them all the more and see them in ourselves.
Everything in Vertigo works. Just as emotions play with our memory and our perception, so Hitchcock filled the movie with shots, angles, colors which do not draw attention to themselves but create a dreamlike air of unreality…this is the inner, perceived world of our minds, not the physical world, and thus becomes a world we can easily inhabit. Bernard Herrmann’s score conjures up sex one moment and high-level stress the next. And casting the great everyman James Stewart as our protagonist/identifier opposite the so-beautiful-she-doesn’t-seem-real Kim Novak caps it all off.
There is probably no degree of difference in the greatness of Citizen Kane versus Vertigo, but while both use the cinematic tools of the trade with a special and incomparable excellence, the latter film taps into our psyche far more than the former…which may have pushed it to the number-one spot.
Would you say this is a fair assessment, Alex, or is there something more to it that I’m missing?
Three last observations.
With the new ban on counting multi-part films as one movie, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic fell out of the top ten completely after coming in fourth in 2002. This confirms what I have long suspected…The Godfather is the more memorable film, The Godfather, Part II is the superior film, and it’s impossible now to look at one without thinking of the other. As it probably should be.
When my father was a high school principal, his school’s library had a giant reference book about movies from 1979 which I took a long look at. It listed many polls similar to Sight & Sound, and the frequent battler with Citizen Kane for the top spot was La Dolce Vita. I am proud to see 8 ½ recognized as a near-perennial top ten while La Dolce Vita has never made the list. I still hold (and I know you’ll mentally kick my ass for this, Alex) that Vita is an overrated, boring film while 8 ½ is as emotionally resonant and technically superior as “Vertigo” while also being a lot more fun.
And on the most personal of notes…I only wish British cinema had gotten its due. The closest thing to a British film here is 2001: A Space Odyssey. If I had my way I would have found room for one of the following: A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven, The Red Shoes, Brief Encounter, Lawrence of Arabia, or The Third Man. Is this just a bias on my part, or doesn’t the work of Powell, Reed, and especially Lean at their best rank with Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, and Ford?
Very clever using my own words against me, Andrew. But I should point out that my words in support of Ghost World were based on the idea of using it as a teaching tool. J. did not ask us what we thought the best graphic novel of all time was, and truth be told, I have no idea what graphic novel is best. I am quite certain that Citizen Kane is the best film of all time, though, even if it is not necessarily my favorite movie.
It may sound rather reductive, but I think the reason Kane has persisted at the top, and will continue to do so despite this aberration, is that it so perfectly fits the narrative of “Greatest Film of All Time.” It’s a wildly entertaining narrative that is always enthralling even when you’ve seen it dozens of times. In addition, the film is deeply insightful about the characters and their place in history. Charles Foster Kane may not be as sympathetic a man as Scottie from Vertigo, but he is an essential American type: the blustering tycoon who tries to buy all the success and love in the world, but only on his own terms. That depth of characterization is even more impressive when you consider the enthralling, cyclical narrative, which keeps me engaged no matter how many times I have seen the film. Really, if Kane had been a novel and not a film it would rival to Moby-Dick or Huck Finn when literary critics debated the “Great American Novel.” As you briefly touched on, it’s a technical marvel that pushed cinema’s boundaries in a bevy of new ways. More effectively than any other director to that point, Welles melded the stylized mise-en-scene and cinematography of German Expressionism with the clear narrative goals and character arcs of Hollywood. In addition to all that, it’s release was at the peak of the Hollywood Golden Age. which guaranteed that its influence was felt for decades. It’s just the best. Period.
That’s not to say that Vertigo isn’t an all-time masterpiece in its own right. You laid out a lot of what makes it not only Hitch’s best, but one of the pinnacles of cinema. Obviously, I think that it doesn’t match Kane when it comes to pedigree, but that may just be the film history professor in me speaking. One thing that you did not touch on specifically, which I thought was worth mentioning is how much its creepy power grows upon re-watching. [SPOILERS, though if you haven’t seen Vertigo this is your own fault] Upon first viewing, the relationship between Scottie and Madeleine seems like a strange, but straightforward relationship. His obsession with her is obviously unhealthy, and she is rather lightly sketched, but it works. It is only upon viewing it again, and knowing that Madeleine is a woman named Judy who is pretending to be a tragically disturbed rich woman as part of a murder plot, that their scenes together take on a nauseating uneasiness. Think of the scene where “Madeleine” has fallen into San Francisco Bay in an apparent suicide attempt. Scottie takes her home, undresses her (!), lays her in bed, and fastidiously dries her clothes. Knowing what’s up, the viewer realizes that Judy has faked a suicide attempt and allowed a complete stranger to strip her down to nothing. Then she falls in love with the guy! It’s as dark, mysterious, and compelling as Hollywood cinema gets, no doubt.
As to your observations, I agree with Sight & Sound (this decade) that the first two Godfather films should be separated. I haven’t seen Part II recently enough to pass judgment on which is better, but saying that the two films are not one clearly hurt Coppola’s magnum opus in this poll. Honestly, I think that’s probably for the best. The Godfather and its first sequel are among the great American films, but they are not in the rarified air of the all-time top ten.
Secondly, you and I both deserve shame. You should be ashamed for thinking that La Dolce Vita, one of the most seductive and shattering films ever put on celluloid is boring and overrated. Marcello’s story is that of every youthful dreamer who saw his ideals get shattered on the shoals of the real world’s cruelties, and it is filled to the brim with iconic moments. Who can watch La Dolce Vita and not forever remember Anita Ekberg dancing in the Trevi Fountain, or Marcello Mastroianni’s devastating shrug on the beach at dawn at the film’s end. I think it’s the greatest Italian film, and I adore Italian cinema. That being said, my shame comes from the fact that I have an enormous blindspot in my Italian cinema education: I have never seen 8 1/2. I know. Such shame. I think I’m afraid that I will like it more than La Dolce Vita, as crazy as that sounds.
As to your final point, and I know this will get your goat, but I don’t think there’s any British cinema that deserves to be ranked in the All-Time Top Ten. Admittedly, I need to see a lot more of Powell and Pressburger, but Reed and Lean do not stand above names like Capra, Sturges, Bresson, Bergman, DeSica, Kurosawa, Malick, Scorsese, Peckinpah, Chaplin, Keaton, Bertolucci, Hawks, or the Coens in my mind. None of the directors I named made the top ten, so the exclusion of British cinema does not break my heart.
I do want to make mention of three things, and I will hand this back to you. First, I cannot express how happy I am that John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers is back in the top ten. It’s a messy, strange, and archaic film in many ways, but I think it’s one of my two or three favorites in all of cinema. Part of that is my inherent love for the Western, of course, but I think that The Searchers is bigger than that genre. It is perhaps the most American of films, a grand epic of the screen that speaks to all of the hopes and fears of life in these United States while drilling deeply into the psychoses of one particular man. Unspeakably great.
Secondly, what did you think of the resurgence of silent cinema in this edition of the poll? Sight & Sound made a big deal out of expanding the number of critics field about four-fold, and the result was not a wave of newer films, but the promotion of silent classics like Sunrise, Man with a Movie Camera, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. Should we still be canonizing these relatively ancient films, or should something from the past 45 years start making the list?
Finally, I think there’s one question underlying all of this. What does you top ten list look like? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.