Hitchcock’s clumsy thriller is the greatest film of all, according to a critics’ poll, but the public never liked it
WHAT’S ALL this about Vertigo being the greatest film of all time? It has come top of Sight & Sound’s poll of critical favourites and there are only a couple of billion of us who want to know why. It’s not even Alfred Hitchcock’s best film, not by a long way. Yet here we have Vertigo, overtaking Citizen Kane on the inside on the most influential list in film. It’s outrageous really.
But hold on there a minute, as James Stewart quite often said. Let’s examine the evidence. Rushed down to the video shop to put my name on the waiting list to get out Vertigo. Oh, they had it right behind the counter, ready to go.
There had been no extra demand for it since the publication of the Sight Sound poll, as far as the man behind the counter knew. In fact, ever since it was released to empty cinemas in 1958 the general public has always stayed away in droves from the long, slow Vertigo. It says right here on this DVD that its running time is two hours and four minutes.
The key point about the Sight Sound poll is that it is a critics’ choice, and the term critics’ choice usually denotes something the general public wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. This is not to say the general public is always right – what with Nazism and persisting in nominating The Shawshank Redemption as the greatest film of all time when given half a chance. Yet when it comes to a grudge match between the general public and the film critics, we all know whose side we’re on.
With the greatest respect, particularly to Donald Clarke and Tara Brady of this newspaper – who contributed to the Sight Sound list, which comes out once a decade; there’s posh – film critics are people who are paid to go to the cinema. I was once a film critic myself; it is a great job. But it does tend to alter your world view.
It is quite an epic cinematic struggle to maintain your link to people who have to hire baby-sitters, find parking and shell out post-tax money in order to attend a cinema. Or, in modern terms, who see most films when they settle down in front of the DVD player after a bad day.
No one is going to settle down in front of Vertigo after a bad day. This is not to say anyone wants it to be a comfort film, but Vertigo is actually a discomfort film, and not for the usual spooky reasons. There is a single word that sums up Vertigo, and that word is . . . clunky. It feels as if it has been nailed together, and in an embarrassing way.
This happens a lot with critics’ choice of films. Try sitting down in front of John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, another critics’ favourite, without your toes curling to the ceiling. Clunky is the word. I blame those French Cahiers du Cinéma guys: they watched everything in translation.
In Vertigo even the pain of James Stewart’s growing obsession and perversion – and it is always particularly upsetting to see Stewart in anguish – and the honesty of Kim Novak’s performance in the second part, where she is a poor girl in love and out of her depth, cannot pull together a film that is itself a Frankenstein’s monster.
We all know that Hitchcock’s usual obsessions are in Vertigo – mad blondes; sensible girls in glasses; crippled James Stewarts; hotels/motels; voyeurism; dreams; women’s eyes turning into spiralling vortices; wide mahogany staircases you might get murdered on if you were Martin Balsam; and so on.
In mitigation, there are the cars in Vertigo – huge great rooms on wheels that make you wonder why anyone in a Hitchcock film bothers with hotels at all. And in further mitigation there are the clothes in Vertigo – clothes were always of prime importance to Hitchcock. Here is Novak, another overdressed Hitchcock heroine, weighed down by opera coats and having to kick her way through a floor-length gown even when her husband is only taking her out to dinner. (No wonder these women didn’t have jobs: it took them all day to get ready.) And, later, here is Stewart, supervising and ordering Novak’s clothes.
And here is Barbara Bel Geddes as the plucky, independent, specky blonde, whose name is Midge, dressed in sensible, sporty American fashion – now looking much more attractive to modern eyes than the burdened Novak – who has to get through the whole film on just three cardigans.
Midge herself has a mysterious twin, who exists in another Hitchcock film, and that is the younger, brighter, specky sister in Strangers on a Train; another yearning girl ignored by the hero. In Strangers on a Train she was played by Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia (actually five years older than Novak). These lively, specky women were a strange and probably secret channel from Hitchcock films to the modern world.
Meanwhile, back in Vertigo, a woman does not attempt suicide unless she is wearing her gloves. Even in the 1950s that had to be strange. And clunky.
Nobody objects to the fact that Hitchcock was a misogynistic weirdo – dear, dear, there would be nothing on our cinema screens at all – it’s just that he’s been a misogynistic weirdo so much better elsewhere.