Once a decade, Sight & Sound magazine from the British Film Institute polls an international group of film professionals and ranks the greatest films of all time. For five straight decades (1962–2002), Citizen Kane (a 1941 drama starring Orson Welles) occupied the highest spot. But in the 2012 poll, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, Vertigo, supplanted Kane as the Sight & Sound pick for the greatest film.
Recently released on Blu-ray after undergoing an extensive digital restoration, Vertigo tells the story of a police detective from San Francisco, John Ferguson (James Stewart), who is forced into early retirement because of severe acrophobia (fear of heights). An old college friend asks him to trail his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), a young woman on the verge of a mental breakdown.
It is difficult to determine what part of Vertigo’s allure is most crucial to its critical acclaim. The cinematography is outstanding, offering an array of San Francisco sights and sounds. Bernard Herrmann’s score is eerily beautiful; the horns and strings create a quiet sense of dread before swelling into madness. The costumes and colors are vibrant, purposefully chosen to parallel themes throughout the film. As a forerunner to movies like The Sixth Sense, the plot includes a twist so surprising one can never watch the film the same way again, a turn that immediately suffuses Stewart’s and Novak’s performances with layers of complexity.
Meanwhile, the story touches on several big ideas: the loss of dignity from unemployment, the craftiness of the human heart in devising murderous schemes, the frailty of the human psyche, the exploitation of women, and the toll that forbidden love takes on a person. Vertigo is a deeply psychological film that ends with a tortured cry for justice amid a palpable sense of romantic longing and loss. Viewers today may find the first hour to be too slow and plodding, but Vertigo is the kind of film that rewards patience and careful attention.