Vertigo is not the greatest film of all time (but La Regle du jeu just might be)

    Every ten years the British magazine Sight and Sound polls various cineastes to learn what they consider to be the greatest movie of all time. In 2012, Alfred Hithcock's Vertigo unseated Orson Welles' Citizen Kane which had been selected first in each poll conducted since 1962. Jean Renoir's 1939 classic La Regle du jeu (Rules of the Game) came in fourth. Below, I explain why I believe Renoir's film is demonstrably superior to Vertigo. In the interests of space and time, I will leave Citizen Kane out of this discussion.

    To be honest, I have no idea what is the greatest movie of all time and neither do any of the 846 critics, experts, and academics who voted in this year's poll. For all we know, it might be a picture that none of us have ever seen like the director's cut of Greed. Still it seems that a consensus has sprung up that the best-ever movies include the three talkies listed above as well as The Godfather, The Searchers, other highly praised and widely seen movies, as well as some foreign and arthouse films that are unknown to me.

    While we may not know what the greatest movie is, I think we can agree on a general description. It should incorporate various aspects of cinema into an extraordinary movie-going experience. It should combine humor, pathos, tragedy, realistic and complex characters, and a broad swath of humanity. The acting and cinematography should be outstanding and, because we are talking about the very best here, it should be speak to every generation, yet with a sense of time and place that looks both to the past and future. Finally, these various features should together comprise a whole that is even greater than the sum of very considerable parts.

    Using these metrics, and with all due respect to Hitchcock, his magnum opus simply doesn't measure up to Renoir's. Thematically, it is hard to imagine a more ambitous film than Regle du jeu. Its subject matter is the whole of French society, encapsulated in the hosts, guests, and servants at a hunting party at the country home of the elegant Marquis de la Chesnaye and his lovely wife Christine. It is a measure of Renoir's extraordinary genius that he filmed the movie months before the Nazis invaded Poland. Yet, without the benefit of hindsight, he perfectly foreshadows the horrors to come.

    Despite his courtly manners and title, Chesnaye is nouveau riche and his grandfather was Jewish. The party ends with the murder of Christine's lover by the German gamekeeper Schumacher who believes he is killing his own wife Lisette's lover. It is not a stretch to say that in Regle du jeu the Jew's world is brought down by the German. The horrors of the mass slaughter to come are vividly displayed in the famous and influential hunting scene in which many rabbits and pheasants are pitilessly followed by Renoir's camera until nearly every one is killed - some animals are seen getting hit by more than one shot. One rabbit's death throes, including twitches and then stiffening legs, is fully captured on film.

    There is much humor in Regle du jeu, Renoir himself plays the buffoon Octave, who bumbles around in a bear suit for about 10 minutes begging for somebody to help him get it off. Yet, Octave, like every other character in Regle du jeu is complex and fully realized. He leches after Lisette, who is Christine's maid, yet also manifests a deep emotional concern for Christine herself. Christine is torn between love for her husband, her lover Andre, and her childhood friend Octave. The Marquis appears to love Christine but does not want to hurt his long-time girlfriend Genevieve with whom he is trying to break up. Even the humorless German Schumacher, who is impulsive and violent, elicits our sympathy in scenes where 1) the Marquis prefers the poacher Marceau to the gamekeeper himself who is trying to protect Chesnaye's game from Marceau and 2) Lisette openly spurns Schumacher for Marceau.

    The acting is perfect in Regle du jeu. As should be the case in an ensemble work, no one actor stands above the rest. Each embodies his or her role fully and naturally. In fact, I would posit that current perceptions, even among those who never saw the movie, of a world-weary aristocrat, a sexy French maid, and a love-torn lady owe much to the way they are portrayed in Regle du jeu.

    It is interesting to me that Renoir did not cast Jean Gabin who was recently voted the top French movie star of all time. They had worked together two years earlier on Grand Illusion. Perhaps, Gabin was busy with another project but it makes sense that he's not in this film. Gabin is too charismatic, too good-looking. He is too much the movie star to be in Regle du jeu. Renoir's liberal impulse for us to treat all of his characters generously would be overwhelmed by Gabin who would effortlessly become the main focus of the audience.

    Octave tells us that everyone has his reasons, and it is Renoir's grand achievement that we see and sympathize with the reasons of all his characters even when those reasons lead to conflict, strife, and death. If Gabin had been cast as Christine's lover, the audience's sympathies would align too closely with him for us to have much sympathy for Chesnaye or to understand why she is torn between them.

    Like the acting, the cinematography in Regle du jeu is extraordinary and so good that we don't even realize what Renoir is doing. Given that Renoir's father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was one of the very greatest impressionists, this is not too surprising.  Pierre-Auguste's best-known work is probably Luncheon of the Boating Party wherein the master paints a cross-section of Parisians enjoying an afternoon at the Maison Fournaise on the Seine. No one character stands out in the painting, gentlemen and ladies, the less affluent, and Fournaise himself are all fully realized.

    Consciously or not, Jean Renoir adopted his father's democratic attitude when portraying characters on screen. In Regle du jeu, he uses both framing and tracking shots to show the near-equality of the characters even when some are masters and others servants. In an early scene, Lisette and Christine are talking about their lovers. Both maid and lady have the same number of lines, are centered on screen, and converse on almost equal terms. When Christine rises to leave the room, Lisette walks beside her. It is only when they reach the door that Lisette's subordinate role becomes clear as she holds it open for the Marquise.

    Another scene that shows Renoir's gift for cinematography occurs when Christine learns that her husband has been having an affair. After the shooting on a plain outside the Chesnaye's country house, the members of the party disperse in small groups around the estate. While talking with a general and several others, Christine's attention is caught by a squirrel. One of her entourage hands her opera glasses so that she can see the squirrel up close. While marveling at the detail the glasses afford her, Christine slowly turns to see what else might be of interest. At that moment, on a distant part of the plain, Chesnaye embraces Genevieve for, he hopes, the last time. Christine sees through the glasses what she misinterprets as an intimate lovers' kiss. Because Renoir puts such detail into Chesnaye's and Genevieve's conversation immediately before he cuts to the scene involving Christine and the squirrel which he also films with great intimacy, the viewer is as surprised as Christine to see evidence of the affair through the opera glasses.

    In every area, Regle du jeu excels cinematically. Its theme is highly ambitious. It provides a truly complete movie experience. It depicts with seeming accuracy a doomed world while looking back to an idealized past as well as forward to tragedy. The acting, cinematography, and humor all combine to further Renoir's democratic all-encompassing vision. Indeed, Regle du jeu comes closer than any movie of a Shakespeare play to being a Shakespeare play on film.

    Compared to Regle du jeu, Vertigo seems limited. Rather than filming a representative cross-section of society, Hithcock's 1958 movie focuses on only one man Jimmy Stewart's obsessive vertigo-challenged Scottie Ferguson. Scottie is a private detective hired to track down the runaway wife of wealthy San Franciscan Gavin Elster and he is in virtually every frame of the movie. In Vertigo, Hitchcock does not present a overview of mid-century San Francisco. For example, the city's ongoing economic boom is hinted at by the large business operation we spy through Elster's office window but otherwise irrelevant to the story.

    Unlike Regle du jeu, Vertigo is not a movie that relies upon time or place. Some would argue that this is a point in its favor. Vertigo is truly timeless they say. My response is that we are all creatures of our environment and that for a movie to transcend its setting, the viewer must understand how that setting has shaped the film's characters and how they can or cannot overcome its various effects upon them.

    Hitchcock's reliance on one character limits Vertigo as well. Stewart is an outstanding actor and he comes pretty close to being "everyman" in some of his movies. It's a Wonderful Life comes to mind. But, he is not everyman in Vertigo. His Scottie is a somewhat unlikable obsessed individual. He takes for granted his long-suffering companion played by Barbara Bel Geddes. Scottie remakes Kim Novak into the woman she used to be against her wishes, and he is obtuse about his employer's motives. In Vertigo, through Scottie, Hitchcock is saying something important about men's attitudes towards women. Nevertheless, the image is incomplete. By contrast, in Regle du Jeu, while Renoir's men do act selfishly on occasion, they also evince genuine affection for the women and men in their lives. Renoir's view is more humane, fuller, and ultimately more credible.

    While Hitchcock's portrayal of men - with Jimmy Stewart as their representative - is constrained, he barely portrays women at all. Novak is basically a cipher. She exists as a blank slate on which Stewart can draw his fantasies. The afore-mentioned Bel Geddes is little more than a victim of her unrequited and, to this viewer, inexplicable love for Stewart's Scottie.

    Again, Hitchcock suffers by comparison to Renoir whose Christine sees the flaws in the men in her life but also loves them for their kindness to her and because they love her. Likewise, Lisette participates fully and as an equal in her amorous relationships with men. In another way, Regle du jeu is more complete than Vertigo in its depiction of men and women. Regle du jeu has an identifiably gay character.

    There's not much to choose from between the two movies when it comes to acting. Stewart is a great actor and he performs as admirably as ever in Vertigo. Kim Novak is beautiful and touching as the woman over whom Stewart obsesses and Bel Geddes makes the most of her few scenes. Still, I give the nod to Regle du jeu, if only because it contains more indelibly drawn characters.

    Given Hitchcock's well-deserved reputation for cinematography, it might come as a surprise that I put Regle du jeu ahead of Vertigo in this area. In Psycho, he does a remarkable job filming the shower scene where we think we see much more than he actually shows us. Hitchcock is less successful in Vertigo. The vertigo scenes where Scottie falls into the screen are celebrated but to me seem a tiny bit cheesy. In 1958, they might have been daring and original, today they seem antiquated. Nothing in Regle du jeu seems antiquated.

    Two more problems I have with Vertigo being listed as the greatest film ever: It's not funny and it gets boring in the middle. For the life of me, I can't think of one humorous scene or even sight gag and not enough happens to justify 2 hours and 8 minutes running time.

    Whether Regle du jeu is the greatest movie of all time may be an open question. What cannot be disputed is that, unlike Vertigo,  it has everything that a very great movie should have and nothing that it should not.


    Excellent musings.   A lot of food for thought.  I'm going to to think about this and comment later.  Thanks for the terrific blog.

    I've never seen the movie you describe here, but IMO, almost any movie would be better than Vertigo.  I never understood the appeal.  I thought it was boring and when it wasn't boring, it was overwrought.  And when it wasn't overwrought, it was boring.  Otherwise, it was just a badly acted movie with a silly plot.

    For me,  La Regle Du Jeu, Citizen Kane - the greatest films; with the Renoir just slightly better. 


    Vertigo the greatest film ever? It's not even Hitchcock's best. Your post sent me to read Sight & Sound's list, and I was stunned that this was how this decade's "cineastes" voted. I found myself dissenting: "Rubbish." "Rubbish." "Rubbish."

    It's as if they all concluded: "Citizen Kane will win again. No point wasting my vote." But Kane has consistently topped the list for the simple reason it is the best film ever made. Shot in 10 weeks by a novice director who dominated as its star, Kane blew every movie then being made out of the water. The sheer hubris of the jigsaw-puzzle scene, with the ginormous fireplace as background and the intimate family quarrel echoing off distant walls, earns Welles my vote as gutsiest director ever. I'll even forgive the anticlimactic revelation that Rosebud was just the name of his sleigh. (Oops, spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! Too late. Sorry.)

    Welles's A Touch of Evil, by the way, is his next-best film -- even if the studio butchered it in re-editing. Worth watching for the opening (pre-credit) shot alone.

    I don't know about La Regle du jeu, but I see Renoir's La Grande Illusion enters the list quite far down. I'd place it higher, as I would several other war (and anti-war) movies, from All Quiet on the Western Front (not on the list) to Apocalypse Now and the astonishing Dr. Strangelove. Also off Sight & Sound's list of 250 top films: Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory and Ronald Neame's Tunes of Glory. Two very different films, but both superbly scripted and acted (Kirk Douglas and Alec Guinness). Tunes of Glory is easily in my all-time Top Ten.

    Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line squeaks in, very late in the list. All I can say is, if you haven't seen it, see it. Best documentary ever.





    Mulholland Drive top 30, better than Blue Velvet? Uggh. No "Brazil"? Any Kusturica on the list? I thought Raging Bull much better than Taxi Driver. Give me "Once Upon a Time in America" over Godfather.  And we're going to have crap like "Magnificent Ambersons" but no RepoMan or Brazil?

    I hate lists like this. I walked out of Polanski's The Pianist stunned, same with Bitter Moon. Lars von Trier's Zentropa/Europa.... Leni Riefenstahl's Olympics was almost as good as Vertov's Man with the Camera, skipping her dreadful politics....

    I hate these lists. Vertigo - having a bunch of stiff acting rules, more than say Rear Window? No "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" where Liz and Dick tore up the stage psychically (sp?) for all time? No "Woodstock" or "Stop Making Sense" where the directors redefined music videos? Special award for Yip Harburg, Sam Peckinpah, Jim Thompson? No Stanley Donen for "Charade", Cukor for Philadelphia Story with fast? Too incorrect to choose Mary Poppins for blowing away kids' movie format, or "West Side Story" for updating musicals? Casablanca no longer even makes the list. 

    I'm not a big fan of movie or book "greatest lists", but I would have to add "Bridge Over the River Kwai" as one of the greatest war movies.

    I would add "Gandhi" and "Passage to India" to my favorites list.  And, of course, "Citizen Kane" is a given.

    On my quiet movies list, "Tender Mercies" is right up there.  So is "The Last Picture Show".

    On my foreign films list:  "Cinema Paradiso" jumps out.  And "La Strada".

    A Touch of Evil proved that Welles was the greatest director in history: Heston acts!

    Ouch, touché!

    Counterpoint: Renoir was French.

    To be honest, I have no idea what is the greatest movie of all time and neither do any of the 846 critics, experts, and academics who voted in this year's poll. For all we know, it might be a picture that none of us have ever seen like the director's cut of Greed.

    One of my hopes for online distribution of movies and television  is the liberation of storytelling from the time limits and commercial hacking of at least the last 50 years.  It is disappointing that so few 'content providers' are adapting to their new freedom.  

    I cannot pretend to recognize many of technical details that the cognescenti of films go on about.  What I do notice in movies are good stories, good sets, great characters and a satisfying ending.  It does not have to be a happy one but if not, it should either be cathartic or enlightening.  

    I really dislike movies that leave me feeling mad, bad, sad or just plain empty and that is what a lot of the movies on these critical best lists do.  Example: except for the music and sets Last Picture Show was just bleh.  And why is Empire of the Sun not even in their register of choices?  

    Still I have to give them props for recognizing Rio Bravo, my favorite all-time western as their #2.

    That's enough of my early morning under-informed ramble.  Second cup of coffee is kicking in.  Chore time.  


    I have to come back to this essay after I have reviewed it a few more times.


    Vertigo is a joke to me.

    I never really liked Stewart at all (I am a Fonda fan for sure) and his rugs are ridiculous. hahahah

    It's a Wonderful Life? Well Salon did just a fine long critique of this film and I am of several minds as they say with regard to this film.

    Good communisms present as they say! hahahah

    With the rise in tech, Hitchcock is just plain silly to me except:

    When you go back to the 30's.

    Remarkable films; 39 Steps for instance!

    And Kane? Kane rocks today just like it did when it first aired. The camera shots, the development of characters, the actors for chrissakes. Stewart never 'acted'. Stewart never had the humility to act.

    Orson Wells? Orson the Prima Donna is one of my favorite characters of all time!

    Oh well I am just musing as they say.

    But damn! Thanks for the essay!

    Like I say I shall return.

    I know I have seen Renoir films, they just do not come to mind right now.


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