Alfred Hitchcock would have found something suitably dry to say about Vertigo making its way up to the top. “Greatest film ever made” sounds too much like promotional hype to be taken seriously. But, in these times of instantly broadcast links and rankings, it is easy to magic a category into existence — and there it shines among the stars. So, what does it mean for a late-Fifties classic about the terror and allure of heights to displace, from a steady position at the top of a renowned poll, another early-Forties classic about a larger-than-life newspaper magnate dying with the word, rosebud, on his lips? Citizen Kane was at the top of the Sight and Sound list for the last fifty years. But, perhaps the dreamlike quality and sinister compulsions of desire fascinate 21st-century viewers more than the rise and fall of Olympian public figures.
Like an old nanny who knows the strangeness of nurseries only too well, Hitchcock understood how people make and watch films because, somewhere deep within, human beings are made or marred by what they cannot help but dream. So, his most enduring films are about the mingling of fear and desire in making people do what they cannot stop themselves from doing, the language for which he found readymade in a sort of popular Freudianism hovering in the air. There is something timelessly riveting about the wish to steal, stalk or startle, the addictiveness of guilt and the irreversibility of loss, about birds that kill and mothers who refuse to die. These things swirl about in that ‘sea of stories’ from which the best films are washed up on the shores of consciousness. They are the stuff of which the grey zone between everyday life and the life of dreams are made. Hitchcock was able to make this world of fantasy-shading-into-nightmare eternally modern and perennially stylish — with a little help from Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren, women he built up and broke down in equal measures.
Vertigo is about the return of the dead. As he explains to François Truffaut in a famous series of conversations, Hitchcock was intrigued “by the hero’s attempt to recreate the image of a dead woman through another one who’s alive”. This doubling of the woman begins to embody the mystery and illusion of cinema itself, and the oppressive magic of how the director brings his heroine into existence — “as if she just stepped out of the San Francisco fog”. That hotel room in Vertigo, lit by a green neon sign flashing outside the window, becomes the scene of both enchantment and treachery. It is only through confronting the facts of deception and of loss that the hero is brought to the brink of conquering his deepest vulnerabilities: his desire to have what he knows he cannot have again, and his fear of having to make his way up to the top.