Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ Tops Sight and Sound Poll
Published: October 25, 2012
Since 1952, Sight and Sound magazine, a venerable publication of the British Film Institute, has published a once-a-decade list of the greatest films ever made. For many years, the poll was determined by a panel of esteemed film critics, but beginning in 1992, renowned directors have also been allowed to cast votes. It is no exaggeration to say that the results of the poll are highly anticipated; for film buffs, the publication of the Sight and Sound poll is one of the highlights of each decade. Remarkably, even in the digital age, the poll results are a carefully guarded secret. No one knows the results of the poll until the day it is published.
This summer, then, the Internet was abuzz with rumors, conjectures and predictions as to whether or not Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” would retain its number one spot, or lose the position it had held since 1962 to another film. My money was on Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” a film which has risen in stature—and in the poll rankings—over the past 20 years. I was wrong—very wrong—and I’ve been eating humble pie since August. “Citizen Kane” relinquished the top spot, but in its place came not “The Godfather,” but Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece “Vertigo.”
Several months after the poll’s release, people are still passionately debating the results. Of course, that’s one object of the Sight and Sound list—to stimulate discussion and interest in classic cinema. The Sight and Sound poll is controversial, perhaps elitist, and often provocative, but it also represents a valid indicator of changing tastes and trends in film studies. In short, it is a film canon in miniature.
Consider the full results of this decade’s poll: following “Vertigo” at number one comes “Citizen Kane,” having slipped only to number two. The other eight films in the top ten, in order, include Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game,” Murnau’s “Sunrise,” Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Ford’s “The Searchers,” Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera,” Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” and Fellini’s “8½.”
What strikes me about this decade’s list is just how many of the films deal with spirituality and religion, and many of the films approach these themes from a Catholic perspective or are made by Catholic filmmakers. Of all of them, Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is the most rooted in Catholic spirituality, but this is not immediately apparent unless the viewer is familiar with Hitchcock’s faith.
I’ll not fully summarize Hitchcock’s Catholicism here, as I’ve written about Hitchcock as a Catholic artist before (The Georgia Bulletin, Oct. 28, 2010), and that essay is available on the newspaper’s website archives (www.georgiabulletin.org/local/2010/10/28/hitchcockfaithinfilms). Suffice it to say that Hitchcock quietly and privately practiced his Catholic faith; he supported the Church, and he was aware, though reluctant at times to discuss it, that his religion had shaped his attitudes about morality, justice and the possibility for redemption. At times, Hitchcock’s Catholicism is obvious; consider for example films such as “I Confess” and “The Wrong Man.” But more often, as is the case with his most profoundly Catholic works, the religious subtext is more complex. It is present, but its presence is contained within a mysterious sense of absence.
This is why “Vertigo” is such a compelling film, and why so many aficionados of the movie refer to it as haunting. Something profound is in the film, and wanting to discover it is what heightens the experience of watching Hitchcock’s most personal and atmospheric film.
The film takes place in San Francisco and opens with a police chase across the rooftops of that beguiling city. The chase ends in the death of a policeman; the detective who could not save him turns out to be John “Scottie” Ferguson, played by James Stewart in his fourth and final role for Hitchcock. Scottie contracts acrophobia, the fear of heights, as a result of the accident, and the phobia manifests itself in fits of vertigo that prohibit him from scaling heights. Following his retirement from the police force, Scottie is contacted by an old friend, Gavin Elster, who asks him to investigate the strange behavior of his wife Madeleine, played brilliantly, though against Hitchcock’s wishes, by Kim Novak. Scottie agrees to take the case, and he follows Madeleine—who appears to be in the grip of suicidal madness—all over the city. In the first part of the film, Madeleine jumps into San Francisco Bay. Scottie rescues her, and afterward the two fall in love. While they are at the Mission of San Juan Bautista seeking to make amends with Madeleine’s imagined past, she flees to the top of the church’s bell tower, from which she falls to her death. Scottie, who experiences vertigo as he attempts to follow Madeleine up the tower, is helpless to prevent the fall. He blames himself for her death and goes into a long convalescence in a mental hospital.
When Scottie returns from the hospital to an empty and aimless life, devoid even of his former best friend Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, he wanders the city without purpose. Then one afternoon, outside the dreary Empire Hotel, he sees a girl who instantly reminds him of Madeleine. He follows the girl to her room, and learns that she is Judy Barton, a working girl from Kansas. He asks her to dinner because as he says, she reminds him of someone special, and she accepts. In the interlude before the date, Judy reveals to the audience, in a letter she writes to Scottie, the film’s twist: she was Madeleine in disguise, part of an elaborate plot to allow Elster to kill his wife; she was the woman with whom Scottie fell in love. Judy throws away the letter and begins a courtship with the unsuspecting Scottie, who finally discovers the truth that leads to the film’s tragic ending.
That is the essential plot of the film. But to focus solely upon the “suspense,” as Hitchcock’s contemporaries did when they panned the film, means to miss the larger aims of the movie. “Vertigo” is in essence a film about the Communion of Saints. It echoes the prayer of St. Raphael, “Lead us to those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us.” It closely reflects T. S. Eliot’s lines from “Four Quartets”: We die with the dying:/See, they depart, and we go with them. / We are born with the dead:/See, they return, and bring us with them.”
The movie expresses the fundamental longing we all have to see again those we have lost; it proclaims the joy Catholics harbor at the prospect of the resurrection of the body, yet it confesses as well, with open honesty, the dark night of the soul that so often leads even people of faith into doubt and uncertainty. In many ways, the movie is about the fine line between belief and doubt, faith and despair.
Furthermore, the film addresses the sad paradox of romantic love; that even in proclaiming love for another we seek to change them to fit our ideal of what love should be. In our idealism, we can actually succumb to solipsism, self-absorption so profound that we actually destroy the thing we love. In this respect, Hitchcock is working in the territory of artists and thinkers as brilliant and diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sigmund Freud. And the film is a conversation with Hitchcock himself; the movie lays bare his simultaneous love and suspicion of cinema, his own life, and his own faith.
Finally, “Vertigo” is simply a gorgeous film, one of the most evocative and atmospheric color films ever made. Every element of the film, from Saul Bass’s opening credits to Bernard Hermann’s brilliant score, creates a unified effect. “Give me your hand,” is the first line in the film; “God have mercy” its last, and at the conclusion of the film, one feels indeed as though he has moved, like James Joyce’s Gabriel, among all the living and the dead.
Like all great films, “Vertigo” is best appreciated on the big screen. Revival screenings typically follow the publication of the Sight and Sound poll, and “Vertigo” is no exception. Locally, the historic Strand Theater in Marietta will screen “Vertigo” at 9 p.m. on Oct. 31; the Plaza Theater in Atlanta will screen “Vertigo” for three days Nov. 23-25.
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta, where he teaches graduate courses on Christianity, film and Flannery O’Connor. He has also published and presented widely on Thomas Merton. He is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, where he is active in the adult education program.