How Did Vertigo Come to Unseat Citizen Kane for "Greatest Film of All Time"?

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 2 2012 11:48 AM

Three Theories for How Vertigo Dethroned Kane

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Orson Welles plays Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane.

Warner Bros. Pictures.

Every ten years since 1952, the British Film Institute’s publication Sight & Sound releases the results of its Greatest Films of All Time poll. Yesterday, it released the 2012 edition, and for the first time since 1962, Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, is no longer at the top of the heap, dethroned by Alfred Hitchcock’s dizzying thriller Vertigo. Citizen Kane has become the quintessential film school example of cinematic technique and mastery and has long been awarded such top accolades. So what changed? Below, a few theories about Vertigo’s assent to the top:

Changing Views on Femininity and Changing Voting Demographics

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Vertigo has divided feminist film theorists, with scholars such as Laura Mulvey criticizing it for “producing an illusion cut to the measure of [male] desire,” while others, like Tania Modleski, see a more balanced interpretation of women than Hollywood often concedes. But whichever side you take, with its central female character and its focus on the male obsession over the female body, Vertigo can be seen as more closely aligned with today’s cultural climate than Citizen Kane’s largely male-centric realm. However, because Sight & Sound has not yet made its panel of voters public for this year, we can only speculate about whether an increased number of female voters have been included in this year’s list. (Or perhaps male voters have become more inclined to identify with feminist positions on the film?) Then again, the Sight & Sound list includes only one film directed by a woman in its top 50, which suggests that the feminist factor may not have weighed so heavily on the final outcome.

Citizen Kane Fatigue

Any overwhelmingly lauded figure or work of art is going to eventually face backlash. Citizen Kane’s position at the top has been threatened since 2002, when Vertigo was only a mere five votes behind it. As many critics have noted, there have been “rumblings of dissent” and “rumors” of this happening for quite some time.

Technical Firsts vs. “Best”
The reason many of Citizen Kane’s detractors give for not thinking the film deserves the top slot is that while Welles’ classic is technically innovative, it rings hollow emotionally. Kane is a staple of film school, with many of its technical firsts and perfections of pre-existing cinema techniques (deep-focus, low-angle shots) carrying the weight of its praise. Yet, to Matt Brennan of Indiewire, “The themes lack enough nuance (“Rosebud…”) to be easy targets of parody, and the film's sheer size is unwieldy.” Perhaps Vertigo voters were no longer content to reward Kane for its legacy as a groundbreaking film and instead looked to a work that offers a more cohesive combination of style and substance.

Previously
Vertigo Is the New "Greatest Film of All Time"
Classic Cinema in 3 GIFs: Citizen Kane

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.