One of the joys of the new Criticwire blog is Matt Singer's weekly email to critics. In addition to asking us to name the best movie currently in theaters, Matt also includes a new hypothetical question each week. The last one was tied to Sight & Sound's annual poll of the best movies ever made, and -- oh, shoot! -- I still need to submit mine. (Thankfully, taxes aren't the only thing with extended deadlines.)
The poll contained a two-part question: Firstly, which film not listed in Sight & Sound's current top 10 would you add? And because you're adding a film, you have to drop one. So which film gets the cut?
I acted on instict and chose two Chaplin films, "City Lights" and "The Gold Rush." I doubt anyone would mount a major argument against the notion of these films as monumental cinematic achievements. But when it came to give one movie the ax, I struck a sensitive nerve:
"I'd take out 'Vertigo.' It's a wonderful thriller viewed on its own terms but does not command the same aesthetic or cultural importance of the other films on this list -- nor is it Hitchcock's best movie."
Notice that I did not say "Vertigo" lacks aesthetic or cultural importance. For god's sake, it's one of the most important American movies of the 20th century, full stop. Still, the other day, one of the canny cineastes at Reverse Shot came across my brief statement and called me out on Twitter:
Don't do it, Reverse Shot! This film thing needs you!
And...for the record, it needs "Vertigo," too. But look: To my mind, the chief strengths of "Vertigo" are its refined camerawork, its swooning romanticism and a narrative drenched with intriguing Easter Eggs that mold the character's confused subjectivity into the ultimate anti-hero. Yep, it's a masterpiece, but I could apply that same basic description to "Citizen Kane," also on the Sight & Sound list. So if we're dropping one, why not "Vertigo"? I put "Kane" first because "Kane" came first.
List-making invites a simplistic thought process no matter how hard one tries to deflect it. By virtue of thinking in list-making terms, I knew I was stepping into a trap. So, again, I am very much a fan of "Vertigo."
However, I would also like to note that the final moments of "The Birds" and "Psycho" (meaning the final shot, not the preceding psycho-babble with Norman Bates in a straightjacket) are just as powerful, and those movies also contain a visceral punch that "Vertigo" never aims for. Over the decades, they have received somewhat less serious consideration than "Vertigo" -- partly, I think, because of a prevalent hesitation to take horror movies as seriously as movies that reach beyond the constraints of the genre. The moments of terror in both "Psycho" and "The Birds" are so terrifically ingrained in cultural memory that people tend to forget both movies spend about an hour getting to the scary stuff. These are human stories invaded by monsters rather than monster movies sprinkled with humanity. I find that balance to be a tremendously affecting reflection of life's undulating moods, and Hitchcock renders them in ways that (gulp) "Vertigo" delivers in much quieter doses.
Still, the director's brilliant navigation of moods, seamlessly shifting his focus from detective story to ghost story to something far more abstract than either, has no real parallel anywhere else. As that equally iconic swirling poster art implies, "Vertigo" is a superb search for meaning that underscores the thematic fixations of every great Hitchcockian achievement.
So yes: "Vertigo" rocks. To suggest otherwise would, in fact, imply a fundamental disdain for film as art.
In short, I'll eat my words. And then write my list.