Well, old Rosebud's reign has ended. For the first time in fifty long years in the British Film Institute's decennial list of the best movies of all time, Orson Welles' landmark film Citizen Kane finished No. 2 behind Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 screwball comedy, uh, harrowing thriller rather, Vertigo.
Every 10 years the BFI surveys "846 distributors, critics, academics and writers" about the best movies of all time for its Sight & Sound magazine, the arbiter of what is truly best in movies. Though it missed out entirely on the inaugural 1952 list, ever since 1962, Citizen Kane, a loose fictionalization of William Randolph Hearst's life story, has reigned at the top. But this year's poll shatters Kane's unbroken streak.
On the one hand, the results aren't surprising. In a trajectory that reverses Jimmy Stewart's descent into the dream-sequence void, Vertigo has been ascending Sight & Sound's top ten list rather quickly since 1982. In the 2002 poll, it menacingly hovered just beneath Kane. No film can withstand the burden of a title like Greatest Film Ever without slipping in critical opinion a little bit, so the fact that Citizen Kane still comes in at No. 2 in this year's poll demonstrates its timeless resilience.
But viewed through the long lens of history, it's very surprising to see Vertigo, a film critics at the time considered a tepid misstep for Hitchcock, mount this podium. Even Sight & Sound gave it a middling review back in 1959, complaining about Vertigo's "plot structure of egg-shell thinness," and arguing that everything about it was "reminiscent of things Hitchcock has done before, and generally done with more verve." Critic Penelope Houston concludes, "One is agreeably used to Hitchcock repeating his effects, but this time he is repeating himself in slow motion."