The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!
4) Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles.
Deep focus! There, I said it. Let’s move on.
Whenever people talk about The Beatles from beginning to end, there’s always a special place in the conversation for Hamburg, where they were given practically unlimited time to perform live and whet their talent. Orson Welles was twenty-six when Citizen Kane debuted, a little factoid that makes me wish I were dead, but by then he had spent the past four years or so as the driving force of the Mercury Theatre, which, aside from putting on a half-dozen plays or so had also been involved in radio drama. People like Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, and Joseph Cotten were involved throughout, and each of them would play major roles in Kane as well as The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles got experience doing everything, and although the Mercury Theatre’s success faded significantly as they got less commercially appealing – a Julius Caesar adaptation with fascism in ’37 played a lot better than Welles’ Chimes at Midnight forerunner, Five Kings – it paid off handsomely in the long term. He immersed himself in performance and drama, which gives his first movie a special pathos. There had been innovative movies before Citizen Kane in cinematography and camerawork and plot structure, but none before – and few since – have penetrated so deeply into our national subconscious. Charles Foster Kane, like any fabulously wealthy man running for elected office, decides that he’s the man of the people and the people agree with him…until someone gives them a reason to turn on him. He lives out a make-believe about his generosity, about his popularity, about his value, until no one will prop up the make-believe any longer. He loses his wife, then his best friend, and then another wife. Jed Leland makes a comment to Jerry Alland that the only person Kane ever loved was “Charlie Kane.” He’s not quite wrong although, in the spirit of the movie, he’s not totally right either. Rosebud is a symbol of a happier Kane, one with significantly more warmth and far less standing. It’s hard to feel bad for Charles Foster Kane. For one thing, it’s indecent, maybe even unethical, to pity the rich. For another, whatever sadness he brought into his life is sadness that he imported himself and signed off on. Perhaps no example is more vivid than Susan Alexander, not even because of the “love nest” he finds himself caught in, but because of her opera career that follows. Is it punishment? It certainly seems like it must be punishment, but he seems too genuinely invested in her for it to be punishment. If it’s not punishment for losing the governorship which he probably would have won, then it’s cluelessness, the old Charlie Kane narcissism that Jed Leland saw so clearly.
In his review of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in his Great Movies series, Roger Ebert notes that both Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were relatively young men, both around forty, when the film premiered. He marvels at the empathy they have not just for the young or the middle-aged versions of Candy, but especially for the old man who everyone believes to be past his prime. Citizen Kane has that empathy with andro in its locker; Kane is the story of a man at dawn, at noon, and at dusk, conceived of by a man in his mid-twenties. Kane is less favorably treated than Candy, and deservedly so, but I think the film is fair to the old Kane in that it does not chastise him for regretting. If he destroys Susan’s room when she leaves him after her practical imprisonment at Xanadu, then it’s the physical manifestation of his pain that, if we’re honest, leaves no lasting imprint. The man is rich enough to replace the trinkets; the servants get paid one way or another. What counts for Welles is not the man at the nadir of his despair, but a man who can still wonder a little at the joy of a simpler time and place.
Citizen Kane is still, I think, the consensus greatest film of all time. (It’s worth noting that the most recent Sight and Sound poll saw Vertigo overtake it in the critics’ poll in 2012, and that 2001 has met it and Tokyo Story overtaken it in the directors’ poll. It’s also worth noting that Citizen Kane had a stranglehold on the top spot from 1962 on in the critics’ poll, and when the directors’ poll was instituted in ’92, Citizen Kane had a stranglehold there too.) Much of it, maybe even most of it, is in the perfection of its technical innovation. Welles referred to moviemaking as “the biggest train set any boy ever had,” and the movie bears the marks of that point of view. But I don’t think it’s trite to remember that the best movies do photography and emotional investment in the same way that Yeats thought of the dancer and the dance. As much as any movie ever has, I think Citizen Kane recognizes that togetherness.
3) Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The male gaze! There, I said it. (Heck, I said a lot about it in that link above.) Let’s move on.
Contributors to the decennial Sight and Sound poll named Vertigo the greatest movie of all time in 2012; contributors to the AFI 100 Years…100 Movies project ranked it sixty-first in 1997, but in 2007 ranked it ninth. In a funny way, I think it’s fair to say that no movie is trendier among the smart set than Vertigo. Like Citizen Kane, Vertigo is a technical marvel, not only beautifully made but innovative, too. Vertigo uses the dolly zoom to effect and for the first time to boot. Like Citizen Kane, Vertigo draws us into the mind of a difficult, perhaps even disturbed, white American man. Like Citizen Kane, people in the time of its original release realized that Vertigo was very good but were hesitant to heap too much praise on it. It’s beautiful, people said, and it’s a corking good mystery, but it’s a little too much, right? Unlike Citizen Kane, Vertigo is the work of a director far nearer the end of his career than the beginning; Hitchcock had directed more than forty features in nearly thirty-five years when he made this movie. I wonder if Citizen Kane had been in color, would it surpass Vertigo on this list? Probably. Hitchcock isn’t even the first ’50s director I would name with a special talent for using special color palettes in his movie – I would jump to Douglas Sirk first – but Vertigo uses color as well as any other movie in history. In that third picture above, the red and green that Hitchcock has alternated to depict Madeleine and Judy unite as Judy walks out, slowly and painfully, to Scottie in the form of Madeleine. In elementary art class, one learns that red and green are complementary colors; I think it’s worth remembering that red has no part of green, just as Madeleine has no part of Judy. What Scottie asks for, progressively and insistently and devastatingly, is for Judy to become a different woman that he knows she used to be but who has no relationship to herself. Vertigo is a perfectly good name for the movie, but it could just as easily be Possession or Dominance. Psycho has more moments to make your pupils dilate, and I’ve related my feelings about Rear Window already, but conceptually, no Hitchcock concept gets under your skin and suppurates quite like the plot Vertigo. Similarly, few movies are as willing to turn their heroes into heels so rapidly as this one; it’s not a question here of “kill your darlings,” but “make your darlings insufferable little so-and-sos.”
Shadow of a Doubt is technically the Hitchcock movie about vampires. (I guess this isn’t literally true, but I believe it the way I believe that Ferris Bueller is a figment of Cameron’s imagination.) Yet Vertigo is the movie which features a man sucking the life out of a woman in order to bring vitality back into his life. Scottie is fascinated by Madeleine, who really does appear to be following the mind of Carlotta Valdes with amazing fidelity, but it’s not until she throws herself into the water underneath the Golden Gate and he takes her home with him…and gets her into a bathrobe without help, presumably…that he becomes as fixated on her as she’s pretending to be on Carlotta. From then on, she becomes the reason for his living, and he derives all of his feeling from his interactions, real or imagined, good or bad, from her. He is mostly catatonic with Midge, in a nearly literal way, once he believes that Madeleine is dead and that his vertigo stopped him from saving her. The sudden reappearance of a young brunette with eye makeup daubed on by some Midtown Cleopatra and a green sweater that has a frostier neon cousin in the wings enlivens him. He is cautious at first until all of a sudden he isn’t. And when he finally climbs all the way up the stairs of the mission, the symbolic moment of his triumph over his failing body, the counterweight is Judy’s body falling from the tower. That bell tolling…I get cold just thinking about it. Scottie’s actions – his inability to unravel Gavin Elster’s plot in time, and his fervor in making Judy into a personalized doll for his pleasure down to the dress-up – are saddening ones, but he is unable to prevent them once he has chosen Charybdis rather than Scylla. That spiral pattern, especially in Madeleine’s hairdo, is a repeated image in the film. I think the image of an intractable whirlpool sucking Scottie and Madeleine down is effective, but – maybe this is a happy accident, or maybe everyone really knew what they were doing – our balance, what keeps us from toppling, is in our ears, around our cochleas. The cochlea is a tiny little organ which allows us to hear; it has a spiral shape not unlike the one we see so frequently in Vertigo.
2) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Unprecedented beautiful technical achievement! There, I said it. Let’s move on.
2001 has a reputation for coldness, for machinistic progression; there’s a perception of the film that seems to think it denies or sneers at feeling. And while the characters in the movie don’t, for the most part, crack jokes or smile at their families or have sex or anything like that, that doesn’t mean that the audience doesn’t have its own mind. I run through a gamut of emotions watching 2001, partly because of the stoicism of Keir Dullea or Gary Lockwood or William Sylvester. Dave and Frank’s coolness about shutting down a computer which seems to have not merely a mind of his own but a sense of himself always fills me with a little indignation; the seemingly unfeeling eye of Hal’s console after we see Frank’s body float away through space, at first tugging and waving and then slowly but surely fading into the slow push of the laws of physics, is chilling. Heywood Floyd calls his daughter up on the 2001 version of Skype and, even though he is missing her birthday party, even though she is just a little girl, never says “I love you,” and it always hurts me a little. Floyd and his fellows en route to the Moon and then on the surface of it never look out the window, which is either a familiarity or a callousness which stuns me. And so on and so forth. The phlegmatic characters might have cold hands, but there are certainly elements of 2001 which suggest that a viewer should react warmheartedly, open to the vast possibilities that the movie opens to us. The Stargate is wondrous, and so is the moment when Moonwatcher, just idly fooling with a shinbone, discovers that it has utility.
Just as there is the great public perception of 2001 as a little unfeeling, there are hundreds of interpretations, thinkpieces, and critical essays written about 2001. Most of them think about Moonwatcher and his pack, or the mission of Discovery One with an emphasis on HAL’s self-interest, or the Stargate and beyond. Relatively few articles about the movie feature Dr. Heywood Floyd and the Clavius situation, and when they do they typically discuss the incredibly realistic special effects. Sometimes the use of the “Blue Danube Waltz” to back the similarly ordered, precise, and beautiful dance of spacecraft guided by orbital mechanics is featured, for good reason. A writer with a sense of humor won’t fail to bring up the rules for using the toilet in space. Much of 2001 pivots on arrogance, at least from a plot perspective. In the first act, Moonwatcher’s rival at the water hole is arrogant enough to ignore the bone Moonwatcher holds, and he is struck down by it believing that he can drive off the upstart and his community. HAL’s arrogance is the root of his drive for self-preservation; that he may have made a miscalculation is a colossal embarrassment which leads to multiple deaths at his…hands, I guess. But the Clavius act, as much buried in the middle of the film as the Monolith was buried in the Moon, is the only one to me which seems securely to reflect this idea of human arrogance. Think of the way the Americans, still cordially distrustful of the Russkies, then proceed to line up in front of the Monolith and take a photograph of it, as if they were somebody’s Large Sons and the Monolith was some great African mammal they had shot and killed. They are rebuffed (which always makes me laugh, despite the noise that goes with it), but the point is much the same. The people overstep themselves here, as technologically advanced as they’ve ever been but still not understanding the Monolith itself. Even worse, they seem unwilling to extend themselves much further, to really indulge themselves in the advances that the Monolith is able to make them capable of. While 2001 may not be a warning in the same urgent sense that we might conceive of Dr. Strangelove as a warning, it certainly does have a message for its Cold War audience all the same. 2001 is fundamentally optimistic; it believes that improvement, even if it’s preceded by semidivine intervention first, is possible. It changes the message of our cruel Darwinism from “Adapt or die” to “Evolve and prosper.”