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Opinion: Is Vertigo really the greatest ever film? | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: Is Vertigo really the greatest ever film?

Opinion: Is Vertigo really the greatest ever film?

It doesn't say much for cinema if Hitchcock's classic is the best film of them all

Best ever? James Stewart and Kim Novak

The recent speculation as to whether Michael Phelps can be regarded as "the greatest Olympian" leads one to ponder the very notion of judging "greatness" hierarchically. If the only criterion for claiming Phelps as the "greatest" is based on his winning the most medals then it would be equivalent to judging the best film ever made on the amount of Oscars it had won. Step up Ben Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings, each of which gained 11 Academy Awards.

Yet none of these three films featured prominently, or at all, in the decennial Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films ever made. 

The greatest film ever made? It is neither Vertigo, Citizen Kane nor Tokyo Story, in that order (as the Sight and Sound poll of 846 critics indicates). Any answer is as preposterous as the question. Whichever film is judged the greatest is irrelevant. 

As Sight and Sound editor Nick James admits, it is merely a game, but one which is taken very seriously by film buffs, critics and filmmakers. It would be fine if it were only a party game, but lists seem to have become substitutes for serious discourse on films. No need to bother too much with the reasoning behind the choice. In what way is Vertigo superior to Citizen Kane or vice versa? In the arts, the only useful lists, as I see it, are the lists of bestselling books and top box-office films as a guide to what to avoid.

From my own experience, I find these lists totally pointless. A couple of years ago, I wrote The Eyewitness Companion to Film, which included a section on the top 100 movies for which I had to lay down the criteria for my eclectic selection. Naturally I had to include those films that are perceived as in "the canon" - films that appear predictably on film historians' - and critics' - all-time best lists and form an essential part of any film studies course: films, regardless of personal likes and dislikes, that have had a seminal effect on film history for both technical and aesthetic reasons such as The Birth of a Nation, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nanook of the North, The Battleship Potemkin (pictured above right), Bicycle Thieves, L'Avventura and Breathless

The list had to be limited to one film per director, mainly because it would be easy to come up with 100 films that included only works by great directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini, John Ford, Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa and Billy Wilder. Any of the films chosen to represent the directors above could have been replaced by another title. North by Northwest, Psycho or Rear Window instead of Vertigo? Wild Strawberries, Persona or Fanny and Alexander in place of The Seventh Seal

Greatness has no hierarchy. It is as if one were to ask who is the greatest composer among Bach, Beethoven, Mozart or Wagner; or to put Giotto, Rembrandt, Goya or Picasso in order of quality. If Giorgio Vasari were writing today, he would have to list his 10 favourite painters in order of preference. The star system is even more reductionist. Imagine Ernest Newman or James Agate putting stars over their reviews of concerts and plays respectively. How does a critic's mixed reactions to a film translate into one, two or three stars? How does one rate a flawed masterpiece? To what paradigmatic ideal do the critics subscribe? In fact, we no longer need film critics. All that's required is to give a film a star rating and then put it on a list. A far more interesting poll would be if critics were not allowed to select films from the canon or from any respectable "100 Best Film list".

However, if one accepts the fact that the majority of film critics in the world think that Vertigo is the best film ever made, it raises the question of whether film as an art form is perhaps inferior to the other, older, arts. As someone who has made a living of sorts for over 30 years writing about film and teaching film history and film theory, that may seem like sacrilege. But if one were to assess the greatest works in each art in categories like at Crufts, then bring the winner of each category together for the Best in Show, then I’m afraid Vertigo, whatever its many virtues, wouldn’t stand a chance against, say, Don Giovanni, The Divine Comedy, Ulysses, Hamlet or the Ninth Symphony. That may sound like a film critic complaining that The Night Watch wasn’t any good because it didn’t move, or an opera critic attacking ballet dancers for not singing – but is there really a film that can match any of the genuine masterpieces in the other arts?


While I agree with your general thesis - in answer to your last question - the first two that spring to mind - Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (and others from that directors work aplenty), and Kurosawa's Ikiru

There are several films that could test my theory. Rublev and Ikiru are good enough to begin with.

So is Vertigo. You said it can't match up against the Ninth Symphony but you didn't even hint at why not.

I posed it as a question. Perhaps my argument was flawed in that it was unfair to compare the great monuments of western culture in the other arts over the centuries to an art form that has not yet accrued that kind of reputation. It would be more apt, as film was born at the same time as modernism, to compare some films with modern classics in the other arts. I would certainly put Eisenstein, Renoir, Bunuel, Bergman, Fellini and others on a par with Stravinsky, Picasso, Brecht and Le Corbusier. This is only of interest to those, like me, who often approach the arts intertextually.

A very valid point. Surely something similar could be said for photography, which even though older than film by half a century or so, is now admitted on equal status as visual art to (at least some) National Portrait Galleries. As well as to dedicated venues. - I wonder too if early attitudes to both cinema and photography were coloured by a distinction between 'entertainment', with commercial origins in picture houses or newspapers, and mass culture relevance, and 'art', which belonged in museums, concert halls etc. - Perhaps proof of that comes in all those missing early silents, which were clearly viewed in their time as ephemeral?

Just out of interest in terms of your dicussion, where would Mingus, Monk, Coltrane, Davis et al fit into the picture?

When I was a kid, film was not considered a serious artform. It's a bit surprising to find someone putting forward this argument again by utterly pointless comparisons with other arts. As if comparing the Mona Lisa with Beethoven's Ninth would have any validity! (The writer doesn't appear to be one of the critics polled which I suspect is at the root of this complaint.) What the writer misses is that film remains a vibrant artform constantly improving and coming up with new ideas. Most other artforms have become out of touch or increasingly irrelevant. What was the last play that caused any interest or scandal in the UK? Roman's in Britain? Anyone starting to seriously look at films would find this list a good starting point. Trying to get younger people to even watch a black and white film is becoming very difficult. Without such lists at least 50 years of film would be in danger of being forgotten.

JAH, actually I was one of the many critics polled and, despite my doubts about its value, I decided to take part in the game. You may dispute my reasoning, but it doesn't derive from sour grapes. Yes, intertextuality does cause problems for many people. As I hinted in my piece, it is simpler to compare like with like.

Just read this piece now. The analogy to Phelps doesn't work, because Phelps doesn't win his medals by ballot. I think cultural hierarchies are at work, though, and that the poll inevitably expresses class-defined tastes: http://idfilm.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-greatest-films-of-all-time-bran...

Some people seem to be misunderstanding the author's point. I don't think Ronald Bergan is slamming cinema as an inferior art form. He's simply proposing that if Vertigo truly were the greatest film of them all, then the medium probably wouldn't have much to offer relative to painting, literature, or music. If cinema is to make its case as a legitimate art form, there are superior works it can use (i.e. L'Atalante, L'Avventura, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour just to name a few).

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