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For His Birthday, Let's Settle This: What Was Alfred Hitchcock's Greatest Film?

Posted: 08/15/2012 5:41 am

A couple of weeks back I noted an interesting item in The Hollywood Reporter stating that in the latest Sight and Sound poll conducted among 846 "movie experts," Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo had displaced Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time.

I confess I was stunned that this august group had picked a movie that, in my humble opinion, is not even Hitchcock's best film, much less the best film ever made.

These "experts" are in fact critics, and critics -- myself included -- are not always right. That's the fun of it, of course -- taking a position and then debating the merits.

However, in a separate, smaller survey done among prominent movie directors (including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola), again Vertigo was the only Hitchcock film singled out for the top ten list.

Vertigo? I wonder if the Master himself would have been surprised.

After all, when originally released, the film was a box office disappointment, garnering only mixed reviews.

In retrospect, Hitch himself felt the then-50-year-old James Stewart was simply too old for the part of Scottie Ferguson, and lacking in the sexual dynamism that would have heightened the impact of that character's intense erotic obsession.

Partly as a result of this, Hitch and Stewart never collaborated again.

Though Stewart coveted the starring role in Hitch's follow-up, North By Northwest, the director chose Cary Grant instead -- ironically, four years older than Stewart, but still, in Hitch's view, more credible as a romantic lead.

While recognizing Vertigo as a brilliant film that deserves its place among the first rank of classic American movies, I agree with Hitchcock's own assessment -- Stewart was indeed a trifle old to play opposite the voluptuous Kim Novak, just half his age.

Though James Stewart was an immensely talented and popular star, he simply did not age as gracefully as did contemporary Grant.

(In fairness, who did?)

This minor criticism aside, the film's reputation has steadily grown over the years. Re-released in 1983 after languishing on the shelf for nearly a quarter century due to rights issues, Vertigo found new and more receptive audiences.

I recall going to see a newly restored, re-mastered version of the film in the mid-nineties. My impression, then and now, is that above all, the movie is a triumph of technical achievement, brilliantly composed and shot, and benefiting immeasurably from that indelible Bernard Herrmann score. (re-produced last year in The Artist)

And even if you acknowledge that Stewart was slightly miscast, he was a skilled enough actor to compensate so that ultimately, the film achieves the desired mood of trippy paranoia and dread.

In sum, Vertigo is unmissable. It is certainly Hitchcock's most ambitious movie. If not a masterpiece, it's most certainly a near-masterpiece.

But is it indeed the Master's very best film?

The American Film Institute, for one, thinks not.

On its list of top 100 American Films, selected by a "...blue ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community", Vertigo ranks 61st, well behind three other Hitchcock entries:
Psycho (#18), North By Northwest (#40), and Rear Window (#42).

I decided to do my own private poll among the roughly 7,500 Best Movies By Farr fans currently on Facebook .

Among this group, Psycho again received the most votes, tied with a film that did not even make the AFI list: 1964's The Birds. Vertigo came in third, followed by Rear Window and North By Northwest.

My own Hitchcock favorite, Notorious, came in a distant seventh, just behind Strangers On A Train. The classic Rebecca received surprisingly few mentions, given the fact it was Hitch's only film to win Best Picture at the Oscars (for producer David O. Selznick). Incredibly, Hitch himself never won an Oscar in competition.

And so the debate on the finest Hitchcock movie continues. What we can all agree on is that there are plenty of sterling candidates to choose from.

Thanks for that, Sir Alfred, wherever you are -- and Happy Birthday.


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