Culture

Why Vertigo Beat Citizen Kane to Become Top-Rated Film

The online dating site Ashley Madison has some 15,200,000 members and a catchy slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair.” Don’t tell that to John “Scottie” Ferguson. He’s the protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which as of last week ranks number one among the Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time, the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound critics’ film poll (“the only one serious movie people take seriously,” according to Roger Ebert).


The BFI re-ranking bumped Citizen Kane into second place after decades in the top spot — and everyone has something to say about it. On the Sight & Sound Directors’ Top 10 list, Vertigo ranks number 7, although its worshipful fans include Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin. So why is Hichcock’s magnum opus suddenly so popular that it displaced the m.o. of Orson Welles?

Vertigo is a trivia treasure trove with infinite appeal to film geeks; there’s even a fascinating back story to the captivating portrait of Carlotta (the first version was painted by Italian abstract artist Manlio Sarra, but the one used in the movie is the work of John Ferren). Still, despite the legions of film geeks out there, that’s not the most compelling reason for its recent dramatic rise in acclaim. Just as the internet has become, as cinema scholar Ian Christie writes in his intro to the Sight & Sound poll, “almost certainly the main channel of communication about films,” the ‘net is also now the worldwide relationship hub. And Vertigo is the saddest, most stunning and true-to-life love dramatization of a fear that resonates with us all, especially if we’ve taken a dip in the online-dating sea: fear of falling in love.



With so many cinephile love-seekers online,
Vertigo was bound to make it to number one. It touches a universal nerve, for the mania so artfully depicted by Hitch’s dolly zoom isn’t acrophobia, but commitment-phobia. Just think of Scottie’s nightmare, in which a gaping grave waits to swallow him whole. To some of us, that’s not a special effect; it’s cinema verite.

James Stewart was 50 when he played Scottie Ferguson. For those of us whose love lives were interrupted by divorce or a spouse’s death, looking for love in midlife is terrifying. Forty- and 50-something people who give online dating a shot are seeking a second chance. But most of us have already experienced — and been thoroughly drained by — our “great love.” You know, the bloodletting, soul-killing one that took us to the edge of the cliff and left us hanging there by our fraying fingernails, trying like hell not to look down, as Scottie does in the unforgettable sequence that opens Vertigo.

Scottie, no youngster but as yet untouched, a sort of 50-year-old virgin, takes the plunge, literally diving into the San Francisco Bay after his love. With Madeleine (Kim Novak), he gets to experience that crazy-making feeling the French call amour fou for the first time. Vertigo captures perfectly the way one person can swiftly dominate your every waking and sleeping moment, whether s/he’s alive, dead, or otherwise inappropriate. Scottie’s first chance is also his second (and, tragically, his last).

He’s doomed because he cannot stop at scoring an eerily familiar redhead named Judy and making her over in the image of Madeleine, his beautiful blonde beloved. Despite Judy’s willingness to embody his fantasy, Scottie is driven to get to the bottom of who she is and exactly where she came from. She’s no angel, obviously; she was an accessory to a murder and to the cruel deception of our anti-hero. But hey, nobody’s perfect (as Jack Lemmon would later learn in Some Like it Hot) and she does love Scottie, as the letter-writing scene reveals.

She’s also a vision of grace under pressure in the harrowing, heartbreaking scene where, outraged that Judy hasn’t done up her newly platinum hair exactly the way he’d asked her to, Scottie says, “I need you to be Madeleine for a while!” Her compliance ought to be enough. But, as is so often the case in relationships, it’s not. In relentlessly questioning and analyzing his second chance, Scottie loses it — the chance, plus what was left of his mind.

Vertigo offers a valuable lesson for mavens of modern midlife romance — and it’s not “Don’t get attached.” Here’s the real moral of this ageless cautionary tale: If you’re lucky enough to find love, don’t interrogate it to death. Enjoy it unconditionally, because it might be gone in an instant. That message is especially timely today, in the age of the popular video game called online dating.

So, what if you actually find your Kim Novak, their face a CGI-composite Mt. Rushmore of all the mugs you knew and loved, up close or at a distance? The online user (yep, they’re called users) that deletes all others in your mental database, the one whose gorgeous image no hookup, however hot and mindless, can blot out?  If your crush is “not that into you,” from his/her POV, you’re Barbara Bel Geddes (Scottie’s long-suffering girlfriend). Sweetly stroking your face and hair one night, Kim might ask, “Why do you like me?” Because, of course, you’d have to be nuttier than Scottie Ferguson. You take a deep breath and neglect your online dating account until, in disgust, you disable it — Kim stays on there indefinitely, continuing to cast lines while you turn to work for solace, nibbling away at your own heart. Or, you and Kim disable simultaneously (isn’t it romantic?), then, after seven months of exclusive dating, Kim takes you for drinks at the venue of your first date — and casually dumps you. Don’t worry — it’s not you, it’s them! Ouch.

Vertigo opened on May 9, 1958, and wasn’t terribly well received. But for the moviegoers whose hearts it succeeded in ripping out, that same year, Hollywood offered a palliative. Re-teaming for a Christmastime fantasy vehicle called Bell, Book and Candle, Stewart and Novak made it all the way to happy-ending onscreen couplehood. The movie is cute, and it even features a very charismatic cat, yet it’s not strong enough celluloid medicine. Not even close.

Take it from Scottie Ferguson: If you’re not careful, an affair can make life shorter still. Need a painkiller? See Vertigo again.