Every ten years, the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight & Sound releases its critics’ poll on the best films of all time. For five uninterrupted decades, Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles’s controversial portrait of a media tycoon, held the top position. Until yesterday, that is, when it was overtaken by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
The poll may be a democracy of experts, but it is still a democracy, nonetheless. In fact, the editorial team at Sight & Sound decided to counter accusations of elitism this time around by not only including more critics in the poll (a total of 846), but also by acknowledging the Internet’s newly central role in movie criticism.
Apparently the new, more inclusive, selection method was a good decision. If democracies tend to yield poor results in general, this was far from the case with the 2012 list. In choosing Vertigo, which beat Kane by 191 votes to 157, the critics honored not only an undeniable masterpiece — better than its overrated predecessor at the top — but arguably Hitchcock’s greatest work.
If the legendary director were alive, he might appreciate the irony. Hitchcock’s troubles with Vertigo started when Vera Miles, his first choice for the female lead, had to leave the project after getting pregnant. A controlling man, Hitchcock did not like when he had to settle for Kim Novak instead. There are those who claim he made her suffer more than necessary in the famous drowning scene.
After the film’s box-office and critical failure, Hitchcock placed the blame on James Stewart’s age and instead selected Cary Grant for his next production, North by Northwest (1959), the curious thing being that Grant was four years older than Stewart. More than that, Grant’s mother in the film was played by Jessie Royce Landis, who was a mere eight years older than him. Hitchcock did not care of course, as long as Grant projected the right image. And he certainly did.
But like the moviegoers at the time, Hitchcock was definitely wrong about Vertigo. I don’t know anyone in his right mind who would like to see James Stewart or Kim Novak replaced by somebody else. And if Hitchcock always confessed to prefer suspense to mystery, which he found boring, it is Vertigo’s mysterious mood, traced in part to its original source, a French novel written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, that accounts for its ultimate greatness.
What he failed to see at the time was something that was always present in his plots, especially in North by Northwest: Sometimes the best things in life happen exactly when things do not go according to plan. As Edgar Watson Howe put it, “a good scare is worth more to a man than good advice.” It is up to the man to realize this and make the best of it.