A lot of us have admired Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo ever since it first came out in 1958. Even so, we must confess we were slightly surprised by the movie’s official designation in 2012 as “the greatest film ever made.”
This came about courtesy of the highly respected British movie journal Sight & Sound published by the British Film Institute, which has been polling international critics and directors every 10 years since 1952, asking them to identify the best movies of all time.
This is the gold standard of movie polls, an extensive culling of the views of cineastes all over the world. In 1952, the first-place pick was director Victoria DeSica’s The Bicycle Thief, shot in war-torn Italy four years earlier. It quickly became (and remains) both a neo-realist classic and a genuine tear-jerker.
Orson Welles’s great classic, Citizen Kane, took over as the critics’ No. 1 choice in the five Sight & Sound polls since, from 1962 through 2002. It reigned supreme as “the greatest” for a half century. But the final 2012 vote count read this way:
No. 1 — Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
No. 2 — Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles.
Flash forward to this year’s Telluride Film Festival — the 40th for the event held annually in a small town in the Colorado Mountains — where producer David Selznick’s Portrait of Jennie, costarring Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones was screened.
The 1948 movie is about the obsession of a painter (Cotten) with his dream-like muse, played by Jones (who was at the time a year away from becoming Mrs. David Selznick). Yup, that’s Cotten and Jones pictured at the top of today’s blog.
The Telluride showing was hosted by British-born critic-author David Thomson, a favorite of ours, who proposed, according to Sight & Sound columnist Mark Cousins, that:
‘Portrait of Jennie’ is a premonition of Hitchock’s ‘Vertigo’ — it has an obsession with a perhaps-dead woman, a tower, nuns and a mystical green light. As I watch Jennie, I see Madeleine (unforgettably played by Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’).
We’re not sure we entirely agree. Vertigo was a straight ahead if complicated murder-mystery while Jennie is fulsomely romantic, literate in a safely middle-brow manner. (It is introduced with a quotation from Euripedes, and provides a screen quote from Keats; “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth , and all ye need to know.”)
Cotten’s obsession with Jennie certainly matches James Stewart’s intense absorption with Novak’s Madeleine. (The Vertigo couple is pictured just above.) And Cotten and Stewart provide uncharacteristically driven, perhaps career-best performances. But the romance dominating Jennie is vitiated by the murder-mystery springboard in Vertigo.
Both indeed are excellent pictures, well worth re-examination side by side. The parallels can be appreciated as well as their differences. Writes S&S’s Cousins about Jennie: Thomson had mentioned that the film would go from black and white to the kind of green haze through which Kim Novak walks in the revelatory moment in ‘Vertigo,’ and so it does.
But at the same time, the screen side tabs shoot open, and a 1948 4×3 film suddenly is playing in a much wider frame. It is recomposed, modernized. It seems to jump in time. This takes my breath away.