Beautiful but parochial: Kim Novak and James Stewart in "Vertigo"
While Britain was busy monitoring its position on the gold medal table last month, lists of a less athletic nature were being made elsewhere. As Olympic fever emptied the cinemas, a minor revolution occurred in the film world, one that was considered important enough to make it on to the BBC's main news bulletin: Orson Welles's Citizen Kane was toppled from the position it had held for 50 years as the "Greatest Film of all Time", to be replaced by Vertigo, Hitchcock's 1958 suspense thriller about psychological dysfunction and sexual obsession.
Although Vertigo had been bubbling under for years, this unexpected elevation to the top spot in Sight & Sound magazine's poll of critics and academic cineastes would seem to be the result simply of a slight realignment in what you might call the critical mass index. Good timing though, what with the massive Hitchcock retrospective now under way and continuing until October at London's National Film Theatre.
I've seen Vertigo numerous times, though not so numerous that I can (as with other favourites) quote whole tranches of dialogue. It is a great exercise in stylised storytelling and, despite actually being based on a French novel, manages to convey a sense of being completely and unapologetically cinematic, a product purely of film's own cultural and technical history and development.
It is lovely to look at, and in Bernard Herrmann's rich, almost epic score features some of the greatest music ever written for the screen. As we watch James Stewart's retired cop becoming increasingly fixated on Kim Novak's apparently disturbed, wandering and possibly possessed beauty, we are offered a picture of an elegant, hazy, besuited San Francisco in the years just before that city became Counter-Culture Central. Just as well that it was made then, for the tailored perfection and the sense of buttoned-up, correct everyday behaviour which features so much in Hitchcock, and on which much of his suspense actually relies, would have been hopelessly out of date only a couple of years later. Stewart's bullying sartorial remodelling of Novak to suit his own desires wouldn't have gone down too well with the flower power children.
But is it the greatest film ever? Not even close, I'm afraid, and I say that as one who will be a regular throughout the Hitchcock season, having especially loved the general ambience of his '50s and '60s "Hollywood" period for as long as I can remember. This is not just because the film has its fair share of longeurs, is highly far-fetched even on its own terms and leaves loose ends untied. Nor is it necessarily that the central love affair — between the somewhat sexless, fatherly Stewart and a woman barely half his age —strikes some audiences as unconvincing (a problem which, apparently, worried Hitchcock at the time).