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Vertigo reaches dizzying heights as Greatest Movie of All Time

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Sight & Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, recently announced that Citizen Kane, the undisputed king of its Ten Best list since 1962, had been dethroned by Vertigo.

The positional shift says something about the wonderfully arbitrary nature of lists. (Over at the American Film Institute's 100 Years 100 Films list, Dr. Zhivago is out, Titanic is in, Vertigo is climbing steadily but top-rated Kane has not yet budged.)

It might reflect demographic trends: The BFI's expanded voting pool could include younger commentators who prefer Vertigo's scrappy-underdog status to the long dynastic rule of Citizen Kane.

It might also come down to mood. Vertigo is a nervous film. Introverted, melancholy and conflicted, Hitchcock's 1958 psychological thriller feels like an apt choice for our current age of anxiety. We're living in vertiginous times.

But what's really interesting about Vertigo in its new, super-important status as "The Greatest Movie of All Time," is that it's not a perfect film. The story, which centres on Jimmy Stewart's damaged detective as he follows and then falls in love with Kim Novak, is oddly structured. Some critics complain about the "premature revelation" at the two-thirds mark, followed by an abrupt change of tone and an almost deranged final scene. One critic called the film "all loose ends and lopsided angles."

But Vertigo proves that perfection is overrated. Any film this obsessive -- and really, at times it seems as if half the movie consists of Jimmy Stewart tailing Kim Novak's car with weird voyeuristic intensity -- couldn't possibly be perfect. It lacks the moderating virtues of perspective and common sense.

Vertigo has something better than perfection -- compulsive need and fevered erotic energy. It seems to illustrate Hitchcock's own pronouncement that "everything's perverted in a different way." While the action never moves beyond the lip-mashing, neck-cricking kisses of 1950s Hollywood, Vertigo is deeply kinky.

Maybe because it mixes Hitchcock's precise, exquisitely controlled style with a detective story that's really about half-mad sexual obsession, Vertigo originally opened to mediocre box office and mixed reviews. The film was "admirably photographed" and "handsomely furnished," said the damning-with-faint-praise school. Others suggested that it was "far-fetched nonsense." Many viewers were disappointed or just plain confused.

Maybe a film this odd needed some distance. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese talks about Vertigo's singularity, suggesting that it can't really be compared to anything else, not even Hitch's other films. "Any film as great as Vertigo demands more than just a sense of admiration," Scorsese says. "It demands a personal response."

Let's hope that personal response won't be blunted by Vertigo's new official status. Being No. 1 can be hard on a movie. Wearing that heavy 50-year mantle of mandated greatness, Kane had become too confident and complete, too robust. It was difficult to remember that it was revolutionary: Some of the really exciting cinematic techniques the film helped to develop -- the looping, non-linear timeline, the prowling camera -- seemed more like illustrations in a dutiful film-studies lesson. "Citizen Kane fatigue" had set in.

Brilliant, beautiful, strange and unsettling, Hitchcock's perfectly imperfect masterwork should have a good run as The Greatest Movie Of All Time. Whatever film fans end up thinking about it, Vertigo is very hard to take for granted.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 E3

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