We continue our survey of the twenty greatest movies of the 1950s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For a listing of the greatest movies of the 20s and 30s click here.
18. Vertigo, 1958
In 1962, Sight & Sound magazine, a British publication, launched a ten-yearly poll to evaluate the top ten films of all time among critics. Every year the top film of all time has been Citizen Kane, 1941.
Which tells you more about the film elites than about Orson Welles’ technically marvelous, if shallow and boring movie.
This year, the Sight & Sound poll came in with a new winner: Vertigo.
This is a refreshing development. And though Seraphic Secret does not believe Hitchcock’s 1958 tale of doomed love is the greatest movie of all time—that slot goes to Seven Samurai—Vertigo is an extraordinary film.
Let’s back up briefly to discuss a fundamental of the movie-going experience: the Virgin Viewer.
You take out your wallet, pay your money, sink into the darkness, and gaze up at the silver screen. A story unfolds, characters blossom. You have no idea what happens next. Best of all, you have no idea how the story ends. You, the audience, are willing captives, being led through a glass darkly by an invisible army of movie craftsmen: producer, screenwriter, director, director of photography, actors, composer, costume designer, set designer, prop men, special effects people, editors, etc.
Try and remember the last time you saw a movie in which you had no idea what was going to happen next, the last time you were a virgin viewer.
I’ll wager it’s been a long time. If ever.
The modern world pelts us with so much information about the movies—including entire plots—that rarely do any of us really see a movie as it is intended to be seen.
Which brings me to my very first viewing of Vertigo.
I did not see it in 1958, when it was first released. My first viewing was at some point in my dismal high school career when I cut more classes than I attended, and secretly went to the movies for my education. I saw Vertigo in a revival house in Manhattan. Probably the Thalia.
I watched in absolute fascination as Jimmy Stewart, the haunted detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, falls in love with the mysterious and refined Madeleine Elster, Kim Novak in her greatest performance, and then lose her, only to stay in love with the dead woman and then obsessively, perversely, remake her in the body of the vulgar Judy Barton, again Kim Novak.
After the movie, as I stepped out of the theater, emotionally and intellectually exhausted. I replayed the film in my mind’s eye, trying to make sense of the plot puzzle, trying to comprehend the tragic love story between Scottie and Madeleine, Scottie and Judy, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) and Scottie.
Bernard Hermann’s haunting score echoed in my head.
I had never seen anything like it. And, in truth, I have still never seen anything like Vertigo.
Years later, when Brian De Palma asked me to write the screenplay for Body Double, he and I sat down and screened Vertigo several times, discussed it at length, and then paid tribute to Hitch’s masterpiece in our movie.
Hitchcock told François Truffaut that Vertigo was a movie about a man who was in love with a dead woman.
Of course, we are all in love with the dead.
We watch old movies because we love the old actors. We love the way they move and speak and the manner in which their celluloid presence summon emotions that are too long dormant. The truth is, the dead we love are never really dead for as long as we are alive to remember them.
Vertigo takes this universal feeling to its ultimate narrative destination in a carefully layered tale of mystery, a story of endless love that makes the audience dizzy with emotion.