Cinephiles have been in a tizzy for the last day or so, engaging in fierce and opinionated discussions on Twitter and blogs and message boards, debating the merits of something you may or may not have heard of: the Sight & Sound poll. For those unaware, Sight & Sound is the magazine of the British Film Institute, and yesterday they put out their lists of the greatest films ever made. Big deal, you’d be forgiven for thinking, there’s like a new greatest films list every other day. And while that’s true, Sight & Sound polls hundreds of critics and filmmakers to make their lists (one for each group), and only puts out an updated list every ten years. “It is by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies,” Roger Ebert wrote in 2002, “the only one most serious movie people take seriously.” And the reason this year’s list is a big deal is because, for the first time since 1962, the list was not topped by Citizen Kane, but by Hitchcock’s Vertigo. For movie lovers and film historians, that’s a very big deal. Too bad it’s wrong.
But that, of course, is merely my opinion — which is why these lists, even a seemingly important one like Sight & Sound’s, are kind of silly. “[L]et’s remember that all movie lists, even this most-respected one, are ultimately meaningless,” Ebert wrote yesterday. “Their tangible value is to provide movie lovers with viewing ideas.” But it’s still newsworthy when the poll’s longtime favorite (Bicycle Thieves was the only other film to top it, just once, in the first poll back in 1952) appears to fall out of favor, particularly since the Sight & Sound poll was such a factor in the conventional wisdom taking hold that Citizen Kane is, in fact, the greatest film ever made. Back in 1962, there weren’t a lot of “greatest movies ever made” lists being made; Andrew Sarris had just published “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” and serious consideration of film was still in its infancy (here in the States, anyway). Kane was seen as achieving a kind of perfection, a film that combined startling technique and a clear directorial voice with snappy, fast-paced fun.
Vertigo didn’t show up on the list until 1982 (shortly before its high-profile re-release to theaters after years out of circulation), but by the 2002 poll, it was merely five votes out of first place on the critic’s list. It is — and I want to make this abundantly clear — a great film, compelling and haunting and heartbroken and good god, just gorgeous to look at. But it’s not the greatest movie ever made. It topped the critics list, and critics love Vertigo, for all of the reasons above, but for one other reason vital to this discussion: because they love analyzing it. Hitchcock was never the most personal of filmmakers, but it’s fairly easy to close-read Vertigo’s protagonist “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) as a stand-in for his director, carefully and painstakingly making over poor Judy Barton (Kim Novak) into the icy blonde of his dreams — just as Hitchcock would personally cultivate the clothes and style of the series of “Hitchcock blondes” that he put in his films (and, later, kept under contract).
That analysis makes Vertigo a very interesting film, and thus fodder for books and articles galore. It doesn’t make it the greatest movie ever made — or even the best film of its talented director. Many would place Notorious higher, or North by Northwest, or Psycho; I’d argue that Rear Window is a sharper, better picture, and with its own meta-movie subtext (of the relationship between Stewart’s voyeurism and the act of watching film — and, when he sends Grace Kelly into one of his frames, directing it) to boot.
Of course, I realize this is heresy, especially now. But — aha — that’s just one man’s opinion. What’s yours? Is Vertigo the greatest movie ever made? Is it Hitch’s best? Is it better than Citizen Kane? And what other inclusions and exclusions on the Sight & Sound lists (no Kurosawa, no Bergman, no Chaplin, no Keaton, no Hawks, no Godard) got your attention? Let us know in the comments.