Vertigo is the greatest motion picture of all time. Or so say the results of the latest round of respected film magazine Sight & Sound‘s long-running critics poll, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s James Stewart- and Kim Novak- (and San Francisco-) starring psychological thriller unseated Citizen Kane from the top spot. For half a century, Orson Welles’ directorial debut seemed like it would forever occupy the head of the cinematic table, its status disputed only by the unimpressed modern viewers who, having attended a revival screening or happened across it on television, complain that they don’t understand all the critical fuss. The new champion has given them a different question to ask: what makes Vertigo so great, anyway?
Like Citizen Kane in 1941, Vertigo flopped at the box office in 1958, but Hitchcock’s film drew more negative reviews, its critics sounding baffled, dismissive, or both. Even Welles reportedly disliked it, and Hitchcock kept it out of circulation himself between 1973 and his death in 1980, a period when cinephiles — and cinephile-filmmakers, such as a certain well-known Vertigo enthusiast called Martin Scorsese — regarded it as a sacred document. Only in 1984 did Vertigo re-emerge, by which point it badly needed an extensive audiovisual restoration. It received just that in 1996, speeding up its ascent to acclaim, in progress at least since it first appeared on the Sight & Sound poll, in eighth place, in 1982.
“Why, after watching Vertigo more than, say, 30 times, are we confident that there are things to discover in it — that some aspects remain ambiguous and uncertain, unfathomably complex, even if we scrutinize every look, every cut, every movement of the camera?” asks critic Miguel Marías in an essay on the film at Sight & Sound. He lists many reasons, and many more exist than that. But nobody can appreciate a work with so many purely cinematic strengths without actually watching it, which perhaps makes the video essay a better form for examining the power of what we have come to recognize as Hitchcock’s masterpiece.
“Only one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory — insane memory,” says the narrator of Chris Marker’s essay film Sans Soleil: “Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.” B. Kite and Alexander Points-Zollo’s three-part “Vertigo Variations” at the Museum of the Moving Image uses Marker’s interpretation, as well as many others, to see from as many angles as possible Hitchcock’s “impossible object: a gimcrack plot studded with strange gaps that nonetheless rides a pulse of peculiar necessity, a field of association that simultaneously expands and contracts like its famous trick shot, a ghost story whose spirits linger even after having been apparently explained away, and a study of obsession that becomes an obsessive object in its own right.”
The popular explainer known as the Nerdwriter looks at how Hitchcock blocks a scene by breaking down the visit by Stewart’s traumatized, retired police detective protagonist to the office of a former college classmate turned shipbuilding magnate. The conversation they have sets the story in motion, and Hitchcock took the placement of his actors and his camera in each and every shot as seriously as he took every other aspect of the film. Color, for instance: another video essayist, working under the banner of Society of Geeks, identifies Hitchcock’s use of rich Technicolor as a mechanism to heighten the emotions, with, as critic Jim Emerson writes it, “red suggesting Scottie’s fear/caution/hesitancy when it comes to romance, and its opposite green, suggesting the Edenic bliss (and/or watery oblivion) of his infatuation.” Ava Burke isolates another of Hitchcock’s visual devices in use: the mirroring that fills the viewing experience with visual echoes both faint and loud.
When he got to work on Vertigo, Hitchcock had already made more than forty films in just over three decades as a filmmaker. Though often labeled a “master of suspense” during his lifetime, he instinctively learned and deeply internalized a vast range of filmmaking techniques that film scholars, as well as his successors in filmmaking, continue to take apart, scrutinize, and put back together again. This most re-watchable of his pictures (and one that, according to several of the critics and video essayists here, transforms utterly upon the second viewing) makes use of the full spectrum of Hitchcock’s mastery as well as the full spectrum of his fixations. Whether or not you consider it the greatest motion picture of all time, if you love the art of cinema, you by definition love Vertigo.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.