Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 09/01/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Last year, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was voted by British Film Institute magazine, Sight and Sound, the “greatest film of all time”, ousting long-standing “greatest film of all time” Citizen Kane (1941) from the top spot for the first time in 50 years.  While anybody’s list is just a list, a collective opinion, it made headlines.

Citizen Kane since almost the birth of film criticism has held that place as the critics’ favorite greatest film.  And that has always been one of those weird things because I would certainly say that a casual film viewer would have a harder time appreciating Orson Welles’ masterpiece in part because of context.  His innovations and audacious work happen in the context of the time the film was made and his own age and experience.  I remember first seeing Citizen Kane as a teen and wondering what all the hubbub was about.  It’s taken more years and knowledge for me to appreciate it.  And while I respect it, I certainly wouldn’t vote it the greatest film of all time.

Actually, given the way that things work, with modern audiences much more familiar with modern films, one day, The Dark Knight (2008) might top those lists.  Not because it’s a great film, just because of myopia.  The #1 film on IMDb.com is The Shawshank Redemption (1994) (!?!)  Of course, those aren’t just critics, those are regular people voting.  RottenTomatoes.com, which aggregates critics’ ratings, has Toy Story 2 (1999) as the greatest film of all time (!!??!!)  The American Film Institute still sticks with Citizen Kane.  Vertigo  is #9 there.

Vertigo is often cited as Hitchcock’s best.  And maybe it is.  It’s certainly a great film.

The last time I saw Vertigo was at the Castro Theatre in 1996 when a major restoration of the film was unveiled, and what with this being one of the greatest San Francisco movies of all time, it was quite the splash to see it on the big screen in the same city where much of it was shot.  People oohed, aahed, and cheered at seeing familiar sites or sites long gone, images of the city from forty years before.

I was familiar with Vertigo because it was one of the films that were re-released in 1983, one of five films that I think the family had owned the rights to and had sat on for a while.  And Vertigo was my favorite of those films.

It’s a truly clever conceit.  The woman who is obsessed with a “ghost” and then perishes (though not really) leads to a man who was obsessed with the “ghost” of that woman.  Ultimately, the woman, re-made into the “ghost” is frightened of what she thinks is a ghost and falls to her death.  These are all metaphorical interpretations, but a cycle of obsession and death play out in a fascinating way.  Kim Novak is lovely (except those eyebrows!) and Jimmy Stewart is always good, though he becomes creepy and weird by the end of the film.

I agree that it’s great.  It’s not flawless.  But it’s great.  And as a 20 year plus San Franciscan, I do love the glimpse into the past that the location shots offer.  It was truly another world back then.

I took the kids, knowing that it’s not such a kid film, but intriguing them by telling them about the voting of the film as the greatest of all time (my own internal parental marketing).  I was surprised that they both got into it pretty quick.  The opening sequence with the police chasing the guy across the rooftops and then the cop falling to his death actually worked to hook them right away.

They both liked the film quite well.  Even surprisingly well.

Though when I asked them if they thought it was the best movie ever made they shook their heads.  Felix said his vote would go to A Town Called Panic (2009).  So, there you go.

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