From time to time this year, I have been writing about films that appear on the 2012 every-ten-years Sight and Sound poll of world film critics’ favorite films. The seismic shift that occurred this year signals that the United States no longer dominates the world stage as it once did.
That, at any rate, is what I infer from the displacement of Citizen Kane by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo.
I make my claim not because Vertigo is directed by a British director. Vertigo is no less a Hollywood film than is Citizen Kane. Rather, I believe that Citizen Kane held sway for 40 years—it has occupied the top spot in the poll since 1962–because Europeans regarded it as the ultimate film about the ugly American. As Kane raked in “the loot of the world,” he struck leftist European critics as everything about America that they resented, secret admired, and felt superior to: he was rich, arrogant, cocky, smug and empty. The film, meanwhile, is a virtuoso masterpiece that shoves itself in your face. “Look at how amazing I am,” it trumpets.
Now that America no longer seems as big, hating it has lost some of its juice. And no, Mitt Romney is not going to take America back to its old status, thereby making it fashionable for us to become unpopular again. (He may make us more unpopular, but it still won’t have the same ring.). For a whole range of reasons, those days are over.
So instead we now have an allegory of desire as our top movie. While Vertigo is not as popular as Psycho or North by Northwest, critics like it because it shows how the movies take our desires and project them upon the screen. For the world’s film critics, this is a compelling drama.
Just to remind you of the plot, Vertigo is about a man (Scottie, played by Jimmy Stewart) who falls in love with the woman of his dreams (Madeleine, played by Kim Novak), only to see her fall to her death in an apparent fit of madness that he is unable to prevent. He suffers a breakdown, partly because he has lost her, partly because he was not man enough to protect her. When he encounters Judy, who reminds him of Madeleine, he becomes obsessed with turning her into Madeleine. As it transpires in the elaborate and rather implausible plot (plots for Hitchcock are essentially irrelevant vehicles for setting his themes in motion), Judy really is Madeleine. As a disillusioned Scottie takes her back to the scene of the original fake fall, she loses her balance (she is startled by a dark nun) and this time really does fall to her death.
In the early part of the film, Scottie catches glimpses of Madeleine and obsessively follows her in hallucinatory shots through the winding streets of San Francisco. This is the artist attempting to capture and pin down the object of his desire. Although he succeeds in catching her, there is something unstable in the relationship and he loses her in a fashion that causes him to doubt himself.
From then on, he seeks to remake the lost desire. In one painful scene, he takes Judy to a dress store and insists that she try on outfit after outfit until he finds one that turns her into Madeleine. (“Well, the gentleman certain knows what he wants!” remarks the store clerk.) It is a particularly autobiographic scene since Hitchcock himself was obsessed with the ways his female stars dressed. Once the transformation is achieved and Judy appears a perfect replica of Madeleine, Scottie sweeps her up and there is a famous 360 degree camera shot. It is as though he has been swept up in the vertiginous realm of his desire. But even as he is enveloped, he realizes that there will always be a distance, as the picture above indicates.
For the moment can never last. When we achieve our desire, we kill it because no person can live up to the image we carry in our heads. The same goes for the movies: I believe it was Godard who once said that the movies are always, in the end, a disappointment—they spur our desires but can never fully live up to them. Through compelling images, Vertigo explains to film critics their own longings and frustrations. The film names their love affair with cinema and then reveals that no movie will ever live up to the movie in their heads. They have responded by placing Vertigo atop the Sight and Sound poll.