Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my general thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. This week’s film is #9 on the list: Vertigo (1958).
I’ve always found it baffling that so many people consider Vertigo one of Hitchcock’s best films, let alone one of the greatest films of all time. Nearly all of my reservations lie in the narrative, which I find completely unbalanced and muddled, but even from a technical standpoint, apart from a few undoubtedly stunning shots and sequences, I can’t say even the filmmaking ranks high in Hitchcock’s filmography. It’s honestly frustrating, because, as a fan of inventively structured screenplays, I love the concept of a film in which the second half echoes/mirrors the first half, but the pacing and specific narrative choices rob the film of any tension. I’m historically not the biggest fan of most film noir, so maybe a good portion of the film is lost on me, but the plot of Vertigo—especially when considered in retrospect—is particularly convoluted. It’s essentially a subtext delivery service, but subtext alone can’t override a lackluster narrative.
To avoid running down a laundry list of gripes and nitpicks, I’ll just hit the broad strokes that, even after three viewings, still bother me. My primary complaint is the pacing, most notably the bloated first act which includes so many scenes of John (James Stewart) aimlessly following Madeleine (Kim Novak) and the final 30 minutes which I think contain the film’s most interesting psychological ideas (finally dropping the ludicrous supernatural angle) but are so rushed that the jarring character turn has no time to develop naturally. As great as he is, it would take an actor with immense range to pull off the psychotic shift in the third act, and Professional Nice Guy Jimmy Stewart isn’t up to the challenge. By the end, I have no stake in the characters or the contrived plot, and the final sequence is the nail in the coffin, ending with a diabolus ex machina that’s so shallow, I have no idea how audiences didn’t howl when the lights went up.
Does It Belong on the List?
Obviously, I’m not a fan, so I’d definitely kick it off the list. It’s astounding that North by Northwest dropped on the revised 2007 list, whereas this one shot up over 50 places to rank among the top 10.