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Hitchapalooza, Special French Critics Edition: Is Vertigo The Best Film Ever? August 3, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
Tags: , , , ,


See? Wasn’t that easy? Despite all the recent kerfuffle in film critic land over the recent Sight & Sound poll where Vertigo topped Citizen Kane for the first time as best picture EVAH, my opinion of both films remains unchanged.

I like Vertigo just fine, but I’ve never thought it was one of Hitchcock’s best, let alone one of the best films ever. I think I’m more interested in analyzing why critics have exulted it over the years and gone so ga-ga for it than in analyzing the film itself. I think the ever-growing hard on that the self-anointed snooty critics have for this thing says a lot more about them than the merits of the film.

As a suspense movie, it’s very entertaining. I think Hitchcock was correct in thinking Stewart was too old for the part, but Stewart is such a great actor that he uses his middle aged identity to his advantage in playing a man obsessed with a young suicidal blonde babe. Kim Novak makes a good ice queen, but again, I think Vera Miles, Hitchcock’s original choice until she got preggers,  would have brought more to that role, especially as the mystery unfolds and she has to deal with her own guilt and doppelgangerness.

The music is good, the photography of San Francisco is wonderful, Barbara Bel Geddes plays the hapless attainable nerdgirl well – but somehow the story and the way it all plays out doesn’t reach the same levels of suspense & payoff that films like Strangers On A Train or Rear Window do. I’m with James Lileks on this one although I think The Godfather edges out Casablanca & Citizen Kane for the number one spot, at least for me. And let’s put aside an entirely different valid argument that comparing Vertigo to Citizen Kane (or to Casablanca, or to The Godfather, or to Robot Monster, for that matter) is comparing apples and oranges. Different kinds of movies wind up on different kinds of scales, even the scale of “how entertaining is it?”

These lists are much more about critics’ egos, telling you what you ought to watch, than they are about film.

So what’s with the critics? I think they loooove to respond more to psychoanalyzing directors than they do in merely evaluating the entertainment value of what is produced by those directors, and more importantly, by the group process around them that far too many auteur-worshipping critics willfully ignore since they’re more comfortable with single-person Freudian examination than they are in group therapy. Vertigo pushes all the right buttons in this regard: we have the signature icy blonde, we have obsession, we have sexualized makeover, we have sexual guilt, we have a visual symbol of male impotence in Scotty’s fear of heights and falling, we have a rather silly dream sequence where Jimmy Stewart becomes the Great & Powerful OZ (admittedly with great Bernard Hermann music, tho)… in short, the film gives critics more ways to become amateur shrinks of both the characters & filmmakers than it gives them ways to remain mere film critics. And to further justify that avenue of analysis, the value of all the psychobabble needs to be elevated to monumental importance, especially in relation to other films.

Hence, over time, Vertigo gets taught in film classes and is presented as great-film-canon, students are bombarded with boatloads of articles featuring  incomprehensible French semiotic Freudian claptrap, and each successive generation of film critics builds on it. But wait for it… wait for later critics to rebel and go too far the other way, overcriticizing what is a decent, good Hitchcock film, one certainly worth seeing.

But the best film ever? Spare me.



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