What was that thud? A falling body smashing the tiles on a terra cotta roof, or the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound decennial poll hitting the World Wide Web?
News that Citizen Kane had been supplanted after 50 years at the top, by Alfred HItchcock's Vertigo rocked the social media-circus to its core, plastering Facebook walls and swimming in Twitter streams with viral ferocity last week. Many greeted this audacious news like an old man throwing a tantrum after being abandoned by his child bride.
But let's consider the decision.
That Citizen Kane is a brilliant film is beyond question.
Based on its technical complexity, alone, the film is a the thing wonder: long takes, deep focus, revolutionary sound design, cutting-edge visual and audio editing techniques. The films profound script is rich in observation, overflowing with profound insights about the human condition, as ambitious and grand as an Opera, and intimate and personal as a love nest tryst, with a time-hopping narrative that folds in on itself, and then expands like a supernova. At once a portrait, a puzzle, a quest, and a riddle, Citizen Kane leverages the complete arsenal of cinematic techniques to ask whether the medium itself, with all its tools, can capture the essence of a man. Citizen Kane is a work of art—an absolute masterpiece.
I've always come away from the film feeling like I've witnessed a magic show. The consummate showman, Orson Welles, in his film debut, set out to make to create....
An. Important. Work. Of. Art!
There's a sense that the film is impressed with itself, and that its grand aspirations are the source of its undoing. The film's biggest failure—is in the reveal—the Rosebud moment. At first, it appears that Thompson's quest ends in futility. In the final scene, when asked if he thinks finding Rosebud would explain everything, he counters with the revelation that, "No, I don't think so; no. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything... I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a... piece in a jigsaw puzzle... a missing piece."
But then, in a montage that echoes the opening shots of the film, the audience IS given the key that (appears to) answer the mystery. "Ahhh," we say, satisfied, (Spoiler Alert) "Rosebud is the sled!" At which point, we extrapolate what this means...the snow globe, the night with the toothache where CFK first meets Susan, his quest for innocence, the day where Mr. Thatcher first takes young Charlie from his mother... With this "ta-da" moment, Welles gives us the very closure Thompson (and the film itself) seems to rebuff.
Is Welles tipping his hand...or is this just another bit of misdirection?
It feels to me like a magician showing off.
Here are the reasons I think Vertigo, after stalling in the stairwell for all these years, finally deserves a spot on top:
1. It gets people talking.
Let's be clear what lists like this are for. By stirring the pot, and unseating the perennial champ, the BFI announcement made waves. Some, like THR's Todd McCarthy believe the fix was in: "Although he obviously couldn’t dictate the results, it was obvious to many of us who have been involved in the process for a decade or more that Sight & Sound editor Nick James was determined to knock Citizen Kane from its throne atop the British magazine’s once-a-decade Best Films of All Time poll, a position the 1941 film had maintained since it first cracked the list in 1962."
That the poll has people discussing the methodology of the poll, or merits of cinema = a good thing.
2. Bernard Herrmann's Score
Among elements shared by both Vertigo and Citizen Kane, the most notable is composer Bernard Herrmann. Wheras the Citizen Kane score embues the film with flourishes and gravitas, it is not especially memorable. In Vertigo, the music becomes a character within the film, fully integrated into the narrative journey of James Stewart and Kim Novak, a ghostly presence that haunts the film. Shades of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde underscore the ill-fated romance between James Stewart and Kim Novak.
3. Saul Bass Credits
An ancillary element of the film, this stand alone credit sequence brilliantly introduces the themes of the film: zooming into an eye (look carefully) we are drawn into the death spiral of the swirling motif. That Vertigo features work by Saul Bass, the greatest designer of motion picture title sequences, adds to the film's distinction.
4. Hitchcock is the Better Director
Whereas Citizen Kane had become the de facto answer for best film, few would immediately list Welles as the cinema's greatest director. His erratic behavior, notorious battles with studios, and financial troubles created a body of work that is maddeningly inconsistent, despite fourishes of brilliance. By unseating Citizen Kanefrom its pedestal, audiences are free to approach the film on its own merits. (When examining Welles' work, one could make a strong case that Kane is not even his best film, see Touch of Evil or The Magnificent Ambersons).
Contrast this with Hitchcock's consistently excellent oeuvre. The auteur's auteur, Hitchcock directed a multitude of amazing works, including masterpieces like Strangers on a Train, The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion, Notorious, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Rebecca, Psycho, and Frenzy.
Within Hitchcock's films, Vertigo stands apart. Most notably, it is the only film where the killer gets away.
Like Hitchcock himself, it is enigmatic and mysterious, unsettling, and brilliant.
The film is also haunting, romantic, magical, emotional, and tragic. Its abrupt conclusion devastates the viewer.
5. Let Us Remember Chris Marker
The brilliant French director died last week at 91. Here is a clip from Sans Soliel that honors Vertigo.
6. On Location
A few years ago, following Chris Marker's example, I was fortunate enough to take a tour of the actual Vertigo locations, an exercise reminiscent of Stewart's soujurn through San Francisco following a "possessed" Kim Novak.
7. Harvey Danger's Carlotta Valdez
The film inspired this great song by Harvey Danger:
8. Now that Vertigo's atop the list, now we get to speculate about what specter will knock it off...
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