When Vertigo topped 2012’s Sight & Sound’s The Greatest Film’s of All Time, it’s decennially poll of eminent critics, it didn’t only knock Citizen Kane off the top spot after fifty years, but did it by an extreme margin. 864 critics were canvassed and it managed a total of 191 mentions; 34 more than Kane in 2nd place, double that of Sunrise in 5th and almost treble of 8½ in 10th place. It’s hard not to raise an eyebrow when any film, no matter the quality, wins by such an amount.
After a lukewarm reaction upon release in 1958, Vertigo first appeared on the list at 11th in 1972, and slowly climbed up the top ten in the following polls. Did it become a better film, or more relevant, as time went on? Or did it become more acceptable in critic circles to like the film? The rise of Vertigo to its current astronomical level is a product of the way critics, particularly those in high regard, act in a group.
When it premiered in Cannes, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was met with boos and remarkably mixed reviews. It then won the Palme D’or, the festival’s highest accolade, and suddenly reviews shifted almost entirely into the positive. No one questioned the lengthy creation segments, or the incomprehensible narrative; it was all intentional and incredibly meaningful. While it’s certain many critics did truly appreciate it, plenty will have erred on the side of caution, giving exaggerated praise because they felt it was expected of them. Critics, failing to be critical. But how does this relate to Vertigo’s dominance?
Every critic has their top ten published on the BFI website, meaning their contemporaries can easily see what choices they made. This creates a larger version of The Tree of Life situation. Whereas armchair reviewers are more than happy to go against the popular consensus on classics, for a seasoned reviewer in this situation, it can to be a dangerous move. Not appreciating any classic is a showing of your uncultured nature. Vertigo went from being a movie it was fine to not enjoy to a film that must be adored. The film was mentioned on so many lists because people were afraid not to.
As well as fearful praise of classics, the list highlights another element of critical peer pressure – the trepidation of championing modern cinema. The most recent film to appear is David Lynch’s 2001 head scratcher Mulholland Drive (a Cannes success that had a similar critical rise to The Tree of Life). It’s ridiculous to say that in recent years no deserving films have been made. Instead, it’s more likely to say there is a fear of giving a modern film a mention; name something unproven by time and you could be naming something inferior.
The Tree of Life missed out on the Top 100 on the list by one mention. This was the only film from the last decade to come close. Where are the other films already regarded as modern classics; The Tree of Life stands out as a anomaly? Look at There Will Be Blood, adored on release for its classical approach got placed in 202nd place with a meagre amount of mentions. In an exact opposite of what happens to classics, a film can’t be stated until it has had time to become acceptable to like. This has been taken to ridiculous lengths with the new list; the newest film in the top twenty is Kubrick’s sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. It came out in 1968.
Anyone looking for any concrete examples of this peer pressure could do much worse than the words of Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert. Ebert’s entry for the poll is typical – full of classics and the only film from the last thirty years in none other than The Tree of Life. When defending the victory of Vertigo, he stated if you don’t see it as a great film then ‘You’re insufficiently evolved as a moviegoer’. A sickening statement, but also one that emphasises how this situation reaches out beyond the critical world.
Vertigo’s legacy is now the same as Citizen Kane’s – it will forever have its reputation preceding it. No one will be able to go into without massive preconceptions, spurring a generation of film fans to disappointment. Which is a real shame, as Vertigo is a great thriller that cements Hitchcock’s self-proclaimed title as the ‘Master of Suspense’. But with all the furore about its new title, a simple fact has been forgotten – technically faultless and more succinct, Psycho is better.
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