Citizen Kane and Vertigo: The Problematic Nature of “Greatest Film of All Time”

Kane Vertigo

If you were to poll the average person and asked what he or she heard the greatest film of all time was, the response would likely be Citizen Kane. If you noted news headlines in 2012, one would discover that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo dethroned Citizen Kane as the greatest movie of all time, according to the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Poll. This was quite the feat, considering that Citizen Kane held the top spot on the list since 1962, with the poll conducted only every ten years. Vertigo rose in the rankings decade after decade, finishing in second place in 2002 before finally dethroning Citizen Kane in 2012.

Should one consider a similar poll, the American Film Institute’s Top 100, one would discover a similar story. Actually, the story is even more astounding for Vertigo than the BFI’s rankings. On the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies listing, Vertigo climbed FIFTY-TWO (52) spots, from #61 to #9, in 9 short years (the 1998 poll versus the 2007 poll). As of 2008, Vertigo holds the top spot in the Mystery category.

I am compelled to ask myself, and you the reader, what to make of this, or perhaps more importantly, what accounts for such a dramatic rise in the interest and appreciation of Vertigo. One possible explanation in my opinion is the resurgence of popularity of Vertigo is partially driven by the extensive restoration of the film in 1996. I will contemplate this question and address it shortly.

So now, according to the BFI, Vertigo is the greatest film of all time. Great! What do we do with that? Herein is the issue of such rankings and the purpose of this post. I want to make a few assertions and argue my case, at the end of which I hope to make compelling reasons of why such rankings are completely immaterial and detrimental for audiences. First, a quick disclaimer: I love both Citizen Kane and Vertigo. This is not some sad attempt to nitpick two films to appear edgy or counter-culture. They are great movies, and I love them. Rather, this is an examination of the issues surrounding these films.

The first issue pertains more to Citizen Kane. If your average person is able to answer the trivia question of “What is considered the greatest film of all time?” they likely cannot answer why Citizen Kane holds this honor. For some people, even some I know personally, they were let down by the film upon first viewing because they expected the greatest film to completely mesmerize. A large part of Citizen Kane’s innovation and greatness comes from the usage of deep focus, scene composition, lighting techniques, and story structure. However, the average movie goer will likely only consider the plot, using the story of a film alone to judge the criteria of greatest film of all time.

One should consider the collaborative nature of film making as a counter-point to considering something the greatest film of all time. Again, we turn to Vertigo as an example. Although I love Alfred Hitchcock and think he was a film making genius, he was not alone in his creative effort. Despite so much of Vertigo’s success stemming from his own mind, one cannot forget other elements such as Saul Bass’ iconic title sequence, Robert Burks’ amazing cinematography, and Bernard Herrmann’s haunting musical score.

It is also difficult to label Vertigo as the greatest movie of all time even compared to Hitchcock’s own body of work. In my opinion, it is one of his best films for sure, but I ask you to consider the following elements. Vertigo is amazing, but it does not have the great action of North by Northwest, the humor of The Problem with Harry, or the suspense of Rope. The cinematography is breathtaking, but just as the use of color is fantastic in Vertigo, the black and white photography of Psycho is equally topnotch.

What is clear is the fact that the title of “Greatest Film of All Time,” is just like anything else in the popular conscience: the title moves in a fluid motion with culture. AFI’s and BFI’s greatest film will always be an incredible movie, but some aspect of that film will resonate more profoundly with these groups at a given time, leading to new “Greatest Film Ever Made.” Whether it is some aspect of the story that recalls modern cultural or political trends, or simply a great film of the past that receives new life thanks to restoration, it is that intangible quality that has lead Vertigo to this top spot.

If you are a film lover or just a casual reader of this article, let me leave you with my own personal conclusions. The title of greatest film will always be subjective, just as film itself is subjective. Lists complied by organizations dedicated to quality cinema will include quality films, so you cannot  go wrong (usually, but there are exceptions). My advice is to check them out, ESPECIALLY Vertigo and Citizen Kane. In the case of the latter, remember that it is due largely to the technical achievements as well as story that this film attained its status, but that certainly does not take away from an enjoyable viewing experience. Thanks for reading.

-Andrew

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