Vertigo Is Too Good For This
A year or so ago, AFI updated its 100 Years 100 Movies List. Though personal favorites like Fargo and The Third Man fell off the list, it was a general improvement. The Searchers and City Lights rose into the Top 20. Sunrise and The General made the list. The African Queen and Forrest Gump dropped (though Gump shouldn't be on the damn list). They even put my favorite Hitchcock in the Top 10. I love Vertigo immensely, but should it be in the Top 10? Based on its merits, of course. However, when we consider what this list is meant to do, Vertigo seems much more comfortable in its original place, below Psycho, Rear Window and North By Northwest. Allow me to explain.
This list is a list for beginners. It's for those teenagers who are starting to get into film and want some indication of quality that does not include the Star Wars Trilogy or the LotR Trilogy in their entireties. Any cinephile who knows his/her way around the internet knows that They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? is the ultimate source for generally accepted great movies. But the AFI list wasn't designed by cinephiles for cinephiles. It has decidedly middlebrow tastes (hence the Forrest Gump) with a slight eye for quality (hence the Citizen Kane among others). But if someone with little cinematic experience goes into Vertigo, they may come away with a bad taste in their mouth. After all, Vertigo needs you to understand a few things before you go see it.
As Ed Copeland so eloquently states, a full appreciation of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's films, and particularly Vertigo, depends on a basic understanding of Stewart's collaborations with Frank Capra. Before you watch Vertigo, you should watch either Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or preferably It's a Wonderful Life. Without one or both of these, you can't appreciate just how wonderfully Hitchcock perverts our notions of the Average American Man.
Secondly, Vertigo is often described as Hitchcock's most personal or self-referential film. After all, for the first third of the film, Jimmy Stewart plays a man who stands off in the distance and watches a woman. He, like LB Jeffries before him, is an obvious surrogate as voyeur. However, Vertigo departs from this formula by expanding our knowledge beyond Scottie's and making Judy the audience protagonist. This is utterly shocking, though it takes a better understanding of Hitchcock to understand just why this is so surprising. Hitch's playing with the notion of the Hitchcock Blonde, but that requires knowledge of Hitch and his blonde ambitions. Though any number of Hitchcock films would help satisfy this void, I've always thought Baby's First Hitchcock (TM 2008) should be North By Northwest. It's Hitch's most straightforward thriller, and a good way to introduce a new viewer to some of the usual ideas and techniques Hitch uses in his presentations. Maybe add Rear Window or Notorious, or The Man Who Knew Too Much (either version, really). But a good experience with Vertigo requires much more than just an open mind.
Trust me on this one. I had only one Hitchcock film under my belt the first time (Rear Window, for the record). The experience was not a pleasant one, and I spent a good couple of years convinced that Vertigo was one of the most overrated films I had ever seen. I didn't understand just what Hitch was doing and how carefully he created his world and the overwhelming sense of doom that covers the movie. A second viewing, this time with some Capra and a lot more Hitchcock behind me, it was exceedingly obvious that my first experience was a mistake based on a general lack of knowledge of Hitchcock and understanding of his themes. Vertigo is a film that grows with every viewing, and especially with a greater understanding of what makes a Hitchcock film a Hitchcock Film. Just ask Marianna Martin. She can tell you exactly what comes with a well informed viewing.
Of all the good decisions that the AFI made in their updating, and there were quite a few, this is easily the worst. Someone who approaches this list with a pair of fresh eyes will look for the films at the top of the list, and they will find a deep, complex and challenging film. That film probably won't hit them in the right place, because there is so much more that should be experienced. As much as it hurts me to say it, this is a film that deserves to be much lower on this list. It is too good a film for its position.