Why did “Vertigo” beat out “Citizen Kane” as Greatest Film in the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll?

Quick answer: In 2012, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo displaced Orson Welles’ long-reigning Citizen Kane to top the Sight & Sound list of greatest movies of all time. Poorly received on its initial release and largely unavailable to the public for a time, Vertigo enjoyed a striking comeback. But what do our fascinations with the characters of both Kane and Vertigo say about us and our cinema? How do we define cinematic “greatness” at all?

Every 10 years, Sight & Sound, a British film magazine, releases a list of the ten best films of all time, chosen by film professionals. While the Sight & Sound list is not the only game in town when it comes to “greatest movie” rankings, it uniquely combines longevity (beginning in 1952) with a broad scope among its international voters: filmmakers, critics, academics, distributors and programmers. By contrast, the American Film Institute (AFI) “100 Years… 100 Movies” list, launched in 1998, is still a youngster, limiting itself to American films or films containing significant creative/financial elements supplied by Americans. There’s also the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) Top 250, which is really just a popularity contest (but certainly worth exploring), with its results based entirely on user ratings. The Sight & Sound list, however, has become the litmus test of greatness in the minds of many critics, filmmakers and audiences. Roger Ebert called the list “the most respected of the countless polls of great movies - the only one most serious movie people take seriously.”

The vast number of “Best Of” lists is surpassed only by the multitude of ways in which viewers define greatness. Just how do we define greatness in film? Is a film great because enough critics over a certain amount of time anoint it as great? Or is it a more personal matter based on how we react emotionally to certain films? Is it a combination of both? Certainly the passage of time plays a big role in determining lasting greatness, as evidenced by other films that appear regularly on the Sight & Sound list, such as The Rules of the Game (1939), Battleship Potemkin (1925), 8 1/2 (1963), and The Searchers (1956). Examine a few “greatest movies” lists and you’ll probably come to the conclusion that such lists are just a little absurd; it’s apples and oranges. Yet we still love our lists. Anytime there’s a new champion, we stand up and take notice, wondering, “What happened?”

In Sight & Sound’s inaugural 1952 list, Citizen Kane (1941) (released 11 years previously) was only a runner-up at #13, but in 1962, the Orson Welles masterwork was voted to the top spot where it lived in Xanadu-like opulence for half a century, challenged only by the pesky presence of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, always appearing at either #2 or #3. Other contenders have included L’Avventura (1960), Seven Samurai (1954), Tokyo Story (1953), and, of course, Vertigo (1958). Yet Kane won each and every bout.

Until 2012. After 50 years at the top, Citizen Kane was dethroned by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. No doubt many thought (and hoped) Kane would reign in Camelot forever, while others could finally rejoice in the defrocking of the young upstart Welles (who still manages to convey a smug look even in defeat). But just how did Vertigo accomplish this feat?

First we have to remember that Vertigo wasn’t released until 1958. Upon its initial release, critics gave the film mixed reviews. Vertigo broke even financially, but for a Hitchcock film breaking even was practically a failure. Also, for several years, the film was not in the public eye. In 1968, Hitchcock withdrew Vertigo and four other films - Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), Rope (1948), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) - from circulation in order to secure them as sources of income for his family after his death. From that time, no one legally saw Vertigo until the rights for it (and the other four films) were purchased by Universal fifteen years later in 1983.

The memory of Vertigo no doubt lingered in the minds of many critics and film professionals, since Vertigo began appearing on the Sight & Sound list as a runner-up in 1972 and in a tie for #7 in 1982. As availability increased, so did Vertigo’s ranking, from #4 in 1992 to #2 in 2002, and finally #1 in 2012.

But maybe there’s more to Vertigo’s comeback than simple availability. Is it possible that audiences exchanged the embracing of one man’s obsession (a stolen moment from a childhood he can never recapture) for another (an all-consuming desire to recreate a lost love)? Do we identify more with Scottie Ferguson’s fixation on personal love than with Charles Foster Kane’s rich man’s regret? Has a mistrust in those with enormous wealth and power made us more sympathetic to a (more) regular guy who’s fixated on constructing (or reconstructing) the perfect lover?

Notably, Scottie’s perversion is a journey within one person’s private mind and desires, rather than a journey marked by a man’s external impact on the world (even if Kane’s interior life is one of the film’s driving mysteries). In our age of oversharing, does the resurgence of Vertigo signal a renewed interest in the private and personal over the public? Possibly the answer is a combination of all of these factors, as well as the influence of the enormous number of articles, blogs, and forums available to the world on the Internet, which may have helped swing the pendulum over to Scottie’s side.

Of course the answer could be much simpler: we simply grew tired of endlessly venerating Citizen Kane and wanted to (very slightly) mix it up. After all, fifty years is a long time to give your highest devotion to one film above all others. Who knows how long Vertigo may reign at the top? Perhaps only for a decade or two. (2022 will offer the next Sight & Sound update.) Time will tell whether it stands on solid ground or on the precarious rim of a mission bell tower.