What Makes Vertigo the Best Film of All Time? Four Video Essays (and Martin Scorsese) Explain

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

22 Free Hitch­cock Movies Online

Alfred Hitchcock’s Sev­en-Minute Edit­ing Mas­ter Class

The Eyes of Hitch­cock: A Mes­mer­iz­ing Video Essay on the Expres­sive Pow­er of Eyes in Hitchcock’s Films

5 Hours of Free Alfred Hitch­cock Inter­views: Dis­cov­er His The­o­ries of Film Edit­ing, Cre­at­ing Sus­pense & More

Aban­doned Alter­nate Titles for Two Great Films: Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Hitchcock’s Ver­ti­go

Watch 25 Alfred Hitch­cock Trail­ers, Excit­ing Films in Their Own Right

Mar­tin Scors­ese Reveals His 12 Favorite Movies (and Writes a New Essay on Film Preser­va­tion)

The 10 Great­est Films of All Time Accord­ing to 846 Film Crit­ics

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.

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