Fraud at the Polls: The Best Film of All Time Is NOT Citizen Kane!?

Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' replaces the Orson Welles masterpiece at the top of critics' list in the last 'Sight & Sound' survey of the all-time great movies

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Fifty years at the top was long enough. For fully half of the history of feature films, one movie stood atop Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade poll of film critics to determine the greatest films of all time. Imagine music critics proclaiming one song, the same old song, as the best ever over that same span; or 50 years of TV critics’ polls that chose a show from the 1950s over, say, The Sopranos. Wouldn’t happen; popular culture is a fickle muse. Yet Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, made in 1941 when the director was just 25, continued its reign as the indestructible colossus.

Last year the folks at Turner Classic Movies asked me for an essay on why Kane was the greatest. That was easy. “We’re playing a game called The Best Film of All Time,” I wrote. “I get Citizen Kane; you can choose anything else. Make that everything else. Take Gone With the Wind, the first two Godfathers and as many Star Wars episodes as you like, throw in the most exalted foreign films, and set them all against a 25-year-old’s first feature, a box-office flop that won only one Oscar (for screenplay), and starring actors who had never been in a movie. I dare you to prove that the mass of other ‘great’ pictures has the originality, daring, cinematic skill and narrative grandeur of the Orson Welles newspaper movie.”

(SPECIAL: the all-TIME 100 Movies)

I also predicted that Kane would be at the top of the 2012 Sight & Sound list. Well, I was wrong. In the latest poll, made public this week, 846 critics demoted Kane to second place. The new No. 1: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. O.K., Vertigo is terrific: a meditation, in thriller form, of romantic obsession, and of the tricks the eye can play on the mind, or the camera on a viewer. Yet, on reading the news, I felt a lump of disappointment in my gut — the way Charlie Kane, the newspaper publisher at the center of Welles’s bio-pic, reacted when his campaign for governor crashed on news of his extramarital tryst. His paper, the Chronicle, had prepared a banner headline reading “KANE ELECTED.” Instead, the headline read: “Charles Foster Kane Defeated — FRAUD AT POLLS.”

Here’s the top 10, with the title, director, year of release and number of votes:

1. Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock, 1958 (191 votes)

2. Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941 (157 votes)

3. Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu, 1953 (107 votes)

4. The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir, 1939 (100 votes)

5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, F.W. Murnau, 1927 (93 votes)

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968 (90 votes)

7. The Searchers, John Ford, 1956 (78 votes)

8. Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, 1929 (68 votes)

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer, 1927 (65 votes)

10. , Federico Fellini, 1963 (64 votes)

(The full top-50 list is here.)

Many of you are asking: What are some of these films? Some of you are wondering: What are many of these films? One thing you can tell, without having seen all these pictures (and each is a grand monument), is that the critics like old movies. Really old ones: three of the 10 are silent films, produced in a single spurt in the two years when Hollywood had just discovered talkies. Three others are from the 1950s, and the most recent entry, 2001, came out 44 years ago. On the full top-50 list, only two, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (tied for 24th place) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (28th), were made in this millennium.

The voters were also in no mood for fun. Here’s the entire range of comedies: Buster Keaton’s The General (34th), Charles Chaplin’s City Lights (tied for 50th) and Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (tied for 42nd). Add Jacques Tati’s Playtime (also tied for 42nd), if your sense of humor is as dry as Iowa is right now. Since Playtime has little intelligible dialogue, we’re left with exactly one talkie comedy — plus, to be fair, Singin’ in the Rain, which is as much a comedy as it is a musical, and plenty of both. No Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, pull-ease?), no His Girl Friday, or Kind Hearts and Coronets. For that matter, no British films at all, on a list compiled by the editors of this British magazine.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Singin’ in the Rain)

I’m guessing that one important film form — the animated feature — suffered from all manner of prejudices: it’s a “different” medium, its directors aren’t “auteurs,” it’s made mostly for kids and it’s too much fun. So the entire history of animated features went unmentioned. And, beyond Vertigo, the voters anointed few films that could be called romantic dramas. David Lean’s Brief Encounter, which finished above Citizen Kane on the magazine’s first list in 1952, is absent on the current 50, as is Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s Children of Paradise, the sumptuous French epic that many a fogey thinks is the most heartbreaking of all love stories. A skeptic, scanning the list, might ask if the voters had hearts to break.

(SEE: Sight & Sound‘s all-time 10 Best lists from 1952 to today)

But they did love one subgenre: films about filmmaking. In addition to  and Singin’ in the Rain, Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up and Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt made the list. So did Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard’s four-and-a-half-hour, made-for-TV survey of world cinema. A quirky choice, perhaps, but — since it was on my own 10-best list — absolutely unassailable.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma

Of the top 50 films —actually, 52 since three tied for the last spot — all but nine come from five countries: the U.S. (15), France (12), Italy (6), the U.S.S.R. (5) and Japan (5). The Japanese selections are all from three midcentury masters — Ozu, Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi — while Andrei Tarkovsky, who made only six features, accounts for three of the five Soviet entries. Francis Ford Coppola and Carl Theodor Dreyer also placed three films each on the list, behind only Godard with four. No other French director has more than one; Renoir’s other consensus masterpiece, Grand Illusion, didn’t make the top 50. And such French worthies as Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol and Carné-Prévert have none at all. Luis Buñuel, the master iconoclast who made great films in France, Spain and Mexico, is excluded: perhaps the list’s most significant disgrace. But then, whole continents are missing (Africa, South America and Australia), as is the single most teeming film form of the past 80 years, the Indian musical drama.

(READ: Corliss on Bollywood Fever)

But enough of my petty grievances. Where are your favorites on the list? Forget Star Wars and Gone With the Wind and The Shawshank Redemption; they’re no-shows, fan fare only, not for true connoisseurs. What about the first two Godfather films, which finished fourth in 2001? Well, since the magazine’s editors insisted this time that only individual titles were eligible, The Godfather (43 votes, tied for 21st place) and The Godfather Part II (38 votes, tied for 31st) finished in the middle of the pack. If the votes for both films had counted as for one, Coppola’s two-part saga would have been sixth, just ahead of The Searchers.

Scanning the full 50, you’ll fulfill the purpose of lists like this: explode into an are-you-kidding? debate. I’m doing it here, and I was one of the critics polled. For the record, my top 10 were, in alphabetical order: Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, Citizen Kane, The Lady Eve, Histoire(s) du cinéma, Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Hitchcock’s Psycho, Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (my Indian film), The Searchers, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Andrew Stanton’s WALL·E (my animated feature).

(LIST: TIME’s 10 Greatest Movies of the Millennium, Thus Far)

As you noticed, I think Hitchcock’s greatest film is Psycho, not Vertigo. I may not agree with Godard’s derisive-admiring summary, in Histoire(s) du cinéma, of the Vertigo plot — that “It’s a bra-less blond followed by a detective scared of heights who will prove this is all just cinema; which means it’s child’s play” — but I see the two Hitchcock films as variations on the same theme of romantic necrophilia. Both movies are about a psychologically crippled man obsessed with a dead woman: Jimmy Stewart’s Scotty with Kim Novak’s Madeleine, and Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates with his mother. Scotty tries to make another woman (Novak’s Judy) into Madeleine, outfitting her in the clothes and makeup of his dear departed, even as Norman wears a dress to become the late Mrs. Bates.

(LIST: Find Psycho atop TIME’s Top 25 Horror Movies)

For me, Psycho is as profound an examination of voyeurism as Vertigo, or Rear Window — Hitchcock never tired of implicating himself and the moviegoer in the fine art of peeking — but with more astute performances and a bolder use of cinematic technique. Novak, an appealing actress in blowzier roles, is just wrong as Madeleine: earthy rather than ethereal, lacking the grace that Scotty sees in his beloved. You could say the film makes sense only if it is seen as the director’s own attempt to turn Novak into his departed princess, Grace Kelly — the cool blond apotheosis of Hitchcock’s hottest, darkest dreams.

(MORE: Corliss on composer Bernard Herrmann and Vertigo)

Charles Foster Kane, like Scotty, was determined to turn a shop girl into a goddess. Viewers in 1941 knew that Kane was a shadow figure for the publisher William Randolph Hearst, who offered RKO money to suppress the film. (Among other accomplishments, Citizen Kane is probably the first fake-documentary feature.) But screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who knew both Hearst and Welles, made Kane a joint history of the two men. Both thrived on sensation: one journalistic, the other theatrical. Both were powerful media moguls with a gift for manipulating people. Both brought art and news to the masses, showed it in images an immigrant could understand; some said they lowered standards to become rich or famous. Mankiewicz also infused elements from his and Welles’s youth: Welles had a sled he cherished as a boy; Mank had a bicycle called Rosebud. Even odder, the movie prefigured the director’s prodigious rise and long, sad decline. Biography became prophecy.

Such details do not make a great film. What sets Kane apart is Welles’ forging of skills from two media he had already conquered — the stage and radio — with what he’d learned in a year or so playing with his shiny new toy, the movies. In New York productions of Julius Caesar (set in Fascist Italy) and a “voodoo” Macbeth, the 22-year-old proved himself a genius showman, a master of expressionist, pre-film-noir lighting as well as acting and directing. Those legendary events are lost to history; but most of the 200 or so hours of Welles’s radio work — a three-and-a-half-hour Les Misérables, and then the entire run of The Mercury Theatre on the Air and its successor The Campbell Playhouse — can be found online. To listen to them is to realize how close Kane is to the finest Mercury broadcasts, but expanded to epic form. The RKO logo at the start of Kane proclaims “A Radio Picture,” and as David Thomson observes in his Welles book Rosebud, Kane “is, among so many other things, a great piece of radio.” Great radio, great theater, great movie.

(READ: Corliss on Orson Welles’ radio career)

Welles had the ambition to put all that in his first film, and Kane pants with pride at achieving it. In a 1996 story for TIME about the movie, I wrote: “Aside from the breadth and wit of the thing, its brooding on the very American subjects of power and celebrity, there is a reason why Citizen Kane is often named the world’s best film: because it wants to be. Critics and audiences still respond to its eagerness to create a unique world and to be recognized for this grand achievement. The film both pants for approval and demands to be approached in awe. Glowing with boyish brazenness, Kane is an inspiration to all who see it, especially filmmakers. Here, it says, is what you can do with youth, a blank check and a little genius. A big genius, that is. The opening credit heralds him with astounding bravado: ‘A Mercury production by Orson Welles.'”

(READ Corliss’s “Praising Kane” by subscribing to TIME)

Maybe the Sight & Sound critics thought that the director — dead since 1985 but perpetually the boy wonder — deserved a comeuppance, like the one that’s handed to the proud Georgie Minafer in Welles’s second film, The Magnificent Ambersons. Perhaps, preferring films that are solemn and nearly silent, they thought Kane too talky, with too ripe a sense of humor. But to me, the film still stands alone: a magical amalgam of Welles’ experiments in theater, radio and his new toy, the movies. It is not just a masterpiece, it is a unique achievement, indeed its own genre, allowing no sequel or remake. 

Stephen Colbert used to ask this question about about George W. Bush, “Great President? Or the Greatest President?” Well, the collective critical voice won’t sway me. Vertigo is great; Kane is the greatest.