‘Vertigo’ dethrones ‘Citizen Kane’ in Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time poll

Well, it had a good run. For half a century, Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” reigned supreme as the default candidate for the Greatest Film of All Time. That, in part, was thanks to its routine dominance of august British film magazine Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade critics’ poll — the largest and most historically embedded survey of such matters, initiated in 1952 and topped by “Kane” for five decades running from 1962 to 2002. (Interestingly, though 11 years old at the time, it didn’t even feature in the inaugural Top 10.)

No more. To everything there is a season — just a very long one, sometimes — and Welles’s groundbreaking 1941 dissection of a Hearst-like media tycoon has finally been supplanted by a younger (well, slightly), more colorful pretender in the form of Alfred Hitchcock’s dreamy 1958 thriller “Vertigo.” “Kane” actually endured a double defeat, also losing the top spot in Sight & Sound’s parallel directors’ poll, — this time to Yasujiro Ozu’s minimal old-age study “Tokyo Story,” which also rose to third place in the critics’ list.

The results of Sight & Sound’s 2012 vote, and further commentary, after the jump.

Critics’ Poll: 2012

1. “Vertigo” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

2. “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941)

3. “Tokyo Story” (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

4. “La Règle du jeu” (Jean Renoir, 1939)

5. “Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans” (F.W. Murnau, 1927)

6. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

7. “The Searchers” (John Ford, 1956)

8. “Man With a Movie Camera” (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

9. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1927)

10. “8½” (Federico Fellini, 1963)

Directors’ Poll: 2012

1. “Tokyo Story” (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

=2. “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941)

=2. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

4. “8½” (Federico Fellini, 1963)

5. “Taxi Driver” (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

6. “Apocalypse Now” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

=7. “The Godfather” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

=7. “Vertigo” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

9. “Mirror” (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974)

10. “Bicycle Thieves” (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

If I’m pleased with the outcome, unveiled tonight at London’s BFI Southbank, it’s not just because I voted for “Vertigo” (and not “Kane”) in my own contribution to the poll. (Incidentally, I’ll reveal the films I voted for in next week’s edition of The Lists — my top 10, along with that of every other contributor, will be posted on the magazine’s website later this month.)

In a game where with criteria are so variable and subjective, it’s hard to make a watertight case for why “Vertigo” deserves the title more than “Citizen Kane,” or indeed anything else. Are we voting for personal favorites or for some academic notion of “best?” Most influential or most impeccable? It’s an entirely elastic conversation, which is why I think it’s important to have a change at the top — no film should have an untouchable claim on All-Time Greatest credentials, but “Citizen Kane” had somehow acquired a default superiority that arguably hasn’t done it many favors. It’s a film of many marvels that many nonetheless regard as a kind of oatmeal text — who knows, a slight desanctification of its status could encourage younger film buffs to engage with it afresh.

How viewers outside the critical enclave will respond to “Vertigo”‘s elevation will be interesting to see. Some might see it as a mildly more populist choice — it’s in color, for starters, with genre trappings, sexy iconography and a director whose name is recognized even by casual movie fans — but it’s arguably Hitchcock’s most opaque and ambiguous film: not for nothing was it regarded as a disappointment on its release 54 years ago.

Sight & Sound editor Nick James makes the argument that it’s a film that resonates particularly powerfully with critics — as opposed to civilians or filmmakers, who only ranked the film seventh in their poll — because it’s “about people who are not sure who they are but who are busy reconstructing themselves and each other to fit a kind of cinema ideal of the ideal soul mate.” 

There may be something to that. Others will argue that the shift in favor of “Vertigo” is the result of Sight & Sound expanding the reach of the poll significantly this year: 846 critics and film experts from around the world were invited to submit lists this time, as opposed to only 144 in 2002. (The directors’ poll, meanwhile, counted the votes of 358 filmmakers, ranging from Woody Allen to Apichatpong Weerasethakul to Martin Scorsese to Mike Leigh.)

That said, “Vertigo” has been climbing steadily through the ranks: absent from the Top 10 until 1982 (an indication of how long it took for consensus to override its initial mixed reception), it entered in seventh place, jumped to fourth in 1992 and 10 years ago, came within just five votes of toppling “Kane.” This time, it leads the runner-up by a margin of 34 votes: still a fine margin, considering the increased scale of the survey.

One presumes the expansion of the voting pool allowed for a younger, more online-based swathe of critics to have their say — certainly, someone in my position wouldn’t have been invited to vote 10 years ago. But while that could have contributed to the demotion of “Citizen Kane,” it isn’t reflected in the Top 10 as a whole: the most recent film, in sixth position, is the 44-year-old “2001: A Space Odyssey,” while an unprecedented three silent films from the 1920s made the cut. (Interestingly, they come at the expense of previous Top 10 mainstay “Battleship Potemkin” — the absence of which perhaps also points to a slight shift away from the academic.)    

Indeed, 2002’s Top 10 featured a more recent presence in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II”: votes for the two films were combined last time round, landing the pair in fourth place. This time, S&S editors decided (rightly, I think) that votes for the films would be counted separately, which presumably split Coppola’s chances of a showing this year — though “The Godfather” does place seventh in the directors’ poll — tied, as it happens, with “Vertigo.”

The magazine has yet to reveal the full Top 100, though the press release reveals that the most recent film to place in the Top 25 is Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 romance “In the Mood for Love” at #24. Should there be a film from the last five decades a list of the 10 greatest films of all time? Certainly, but it’s surely not for lack of votes — doubtless many critics voted for more recent favorites, but this outcome is indicative of how long it takes for consensus to build around canon titles as the critical community grows ever wider and more splintered.

Perhaps even more distressing for the British magazine is the lack of homegrown product on the list. The highest British film in the top 100 is “The Third Man,” in a lowly 73rd place — a slightly dismaying outcome for the home of David Lean and Powell & Pressburger. As for gender parity, forget it: only two female-directed films landed in the Top 100, though I’m delighted to read that Claire Denis’s “Beau Travail” (in 78th place, three rungs above “Lawrence of Arabia”) is one of them. 

In the end, though, it’s unwise to subject these lists to too much scrutiny: the range and mass of contributors in this year’s poll gives it more authority than most, but it still amounts to a bunch of movie lovers naming the films they personally love a little more than the rest. It’s a highly unscientific and changeable process: having been driven to distraction trying to assemble a Top 10 that is still by no means set in stone, I can attest to that. Your life will be a little richer for watching any of the films in Sight & Sound’s list: which one places first or tenth is little more than a highly entertaining bingo game.  

And, just so you can see how things have shifted over the decades, here are the results of all Sight & Sound’s previous polls:

Critics’ Poll: 2002

1. “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941)

2. “Vertigo” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

3. “La Règle du jeu” (Jean Renoir, 1939)

4. “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 and 1974)

5. “Tokyo Story” (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

6. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

=7. “Battleship Potemkin” (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

=7. “Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans” (F.W. Murnau, 1927)

9. “8½” (Federico Fellini, 1963)

10. “Singin’ in the Rain” (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)

Directors’ Poll: 2002 

1. “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941)

2. “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 and 1974)

3. “8½” (Federico Fellini, 1963)

4. “Lawrence of Arabia” (David Lean, 1962)

5. “Dr. Strangelove” (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

=6. “Bicycle Thieves” (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

=6. “Raging Bull” (Martin Scorsese, 1980)

=6. “Vertigo” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

=9. “Rashomon” (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

=9. “La Règle du jeu” (Jean Renoir, 1939)

=9. “Seven Samurai” (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Critics’ Poll: 1992

1. “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941)

2. “La Règle du jeu” (Jean Renoir, 1939) 

3. “Tokyo Story” (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

4. “Vertigo” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) 

5. “The Searchers” (John Ford, 1956)

=6. “L’Atalante” (Jean Vigo, 1934)

=6. “Battleship Potemkin” (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

=6. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1927)

=6. “Pather Panchali” (Satyajit Ray, 1955)

10. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Directors’ Poll: 1992

1. “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941)

=2. “8½” (Federico Fellini, 1963)

=2. “Raging Bull” (Martin Scorsese, 1980)

4. “La strada” (Federico Fellini, 1954)

5. “L’Atalante” (Jean Vigo, 1934)

=6. “The Godfather” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

=6. “Modern Times” (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

=6. “Vertigo” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

=9. “The Godfather Part II” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

=9. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1927)

=9. “Rashomon” (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

=9. “Seven Samurai” (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

1982 poll

1. “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941)

2. “La Règle du jeu” (Jean Renoir, 1939)

=3. “Seven Samurai” (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

=3. “Singin’ in the Rain” (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)

5. “8½” (Federico Fellini, 1963)

6. “Battleship Potemkin” (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

=7. “L’avventura” (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

=7. “The Magnificent Ambersons” (Orson Welles, 1942)

=7. “Vertigo” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

=9. “The General” (Buster Keaton, 1926)

=9. “The Searchers” (John Ford, 1956)

1972 poll

1. “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941)

2. “La Règle du jeu” (Jean Renoir, 1939)

3. “Battleship Potemkin” (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

4. “8½” (Federico Fellini, 1963)

=5. “L’avventura” (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

=5. “Persona” (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

7. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1927)

=8. “The General” (Buster Keaton, 1926)

=8. “The Magnificent Ambersons” (Orson Welles, 1942)

=10. “Ugetsu Monogatari” (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

=10. “Wild Strawberries” (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

1962 poll

1. “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941)

2. “L’avventura” (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

3. “La Règle du jeu” (Jean Renoir, 1939)

=4. “Greed” (Erich von Stroheim, 1924)

=4. “Ugetsu Monogatari” (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

=6. “Battleship Potemkin” (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

=6. “Bicycle Thieves” (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

=6. “Ivan the Terrible” (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944)

9. “La terra trema” (Luchino Visconti, 1948)

10. “L’Atalante” (Jean Vigo, 1934)

1952 poll

1. “Bicycle Thieves” (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

=2. “City Lights” (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)

=2. “The Gold Rush” (Charlie Chaplin, 1925)

4. “Battleship Potemkin” (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

=5. “Intolerance” (D.W. Griffith, 1916)

=5. “Louisiana Story” (Robert Flaherty, 1948)

=7. “Greed” (Erich von Stroheim, 1924)

=7. “Le Jour se leve” (Marcel Carne, 1939) 

=7. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1927)

=10. “Brief Encounter” (David Lean, 1946)

=10. “Le Million” (Rene Clair, 1931)

=10. “La Règle du jeu” (Jean Renoir, 1939)