NEWS ON THE MARCH! This week the venerable UK film mag Sight & Sound released its seventh “Greatest Films of All Time” survey, the results of which have been unveiled every decade since 1952.
The big news, if that even applies, was that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) had been toppled from the #1 slot, from where it had reigned as king of the hill from 1962 to 2002. The new boss was none other than Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Your humble columnist is a regular S & S contributor, and his Top 10 contained one of the 191 votes that helped achieve a coup that anyone could have anticipated if he cared to see the signs: Hitchcock was the cover star of August’s Sight & Sound, coinciding with the run of The Genius of Hitchcock at the BFI’s fine Southbank facility.
If anyone might have been pleased by this reversal of fortunes, it’d have been Chris Marker (1921-2012), who died this week; I am indebted to the good people at Light Industry for pointing me towards his “Notes on Vertigo.” Otherwise, the significance is relative. I qualify “big news” because the Greatest Films of All Time list is notoriously a rather monolithic thing, with any small shift granted significance well out-of-proportion with its actual meaning. What are we talking about?
Kane was the product, quite famously, of a 25-year-old Wisconsin wunderkind whose arrival in Hollywood was occasion for sky-is-the-limit optimism amongst ambitious artisans, and frantic circling of the wagons amongst the established order. In one of his rush job “Pat Hobby” stories, filed in February of 1940, Scott “I’m a good writer—honest” Fitzgerald has his washed-up souse of an ex-scriptwriter playing up to the fears of old-guard studio gatekeepers: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Orson Welles is the biggest menace that’s come to Hollywood for years. He gets a hundred and fifty grand a picture and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was so radical that you had to have all new equipment and start all over again like you did with sound in 1928.”
Alfred Hitchcock was, like Welles, a 25-year old—albeit a rather more potato-faced one—when he has his directorial coming-out, but Vertigo was released near its director’s 59th birthday, after he’d spent nearly three decades doing the necessary politicking to remain at the upper echelon of popular filmmaking. The film stars James Stewart, once America’s perennial innocent, but now pushing 50 and irreparably sunk into what Manny Farber called his “harassed Adam’s-apple approach to gutty acting.” The difference between Kane and Vertigo is as stark as the difference between 1941, with its captive audience and its robust box-office, and 1958, when the studios were overhauling their business model in a panic. It’s the triumph of sunset over sunrise, decadence over youthful exuberance.
Fitzgerald’s aforementioned “I’m a good writer” plaint comes from a letter he sent after seeing changes made to his script for Three Comrades, which was based on a novel by All Quiet on the Western Front author Erich Maria Remarque. The recipient of the letter was the film’s producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a career movie man of some cultivation, and a far cry from the stereotypical front-office philistine. A little over a year after that letter was written, Mankiewicz’s older brother, Herman J., would begin work on a film tentatively titled The American, which later became Citizen Kane.
Either in spite of or because of Mankiewicz’s tampering, Three Comrades, filmed by Frank Borzage and released by MGM in 1938, is a fine film. And though Scott Fitzgerald was, honest, a more than good writer, success in prose does not always translate into what we broadly call film sense. There is no finer example of this than the career of Gore Vidal, another of this week’s casualties. Gore was one of our most perspicacious essayists on literature who was simultaneously responsible for more nonsensical pronouncements on the subject of motion pictures than anyone I know. (As if to drive the point home, 1990’s Hollywood is the worst of his “Narratives of Empire” series.) Where letters and cinema intersected, however, Vidal was capable of some real insights:
“Mine is the first generation of authors brought up on talking films,” he told one interviewer, “and I think we were more affected by films than any of the other narrative forms. Tell me someone’s favorite actor when he was ten years old, and I’ll tell you who he is. Could Norman Mailer have existed without John Garfield? He’s been playing Garfield, and I’ve been doing George Arliss. You get hung up on an image.”
This line is pursued in Vidal’s “The Top Ten Best Sellers According to the New York Times as of January 7, 1973,” contained in the essential United States: Essays 1952-1992. The piece begins with Vidal’s recollection of sitting in the MGM commissary with Christopher Isherwood and John O’Hara, continues through a one paragraph dismissal of the entire politiques des auteurs—the sort of thing that Kent Jones was thinking of when he called Vidal a “cinematic illiterate” in his profile of Andrew Sarris—and then hits paydirt:
“I think it is necessary to make these remarks about the movies of the thirties, forties, and fifties as a preface to the ten best-selling novels under review since most of these books reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years, while at least seven of the novels appear to me to be deliberate attempts not so much to re-create new film product as to suggest old movies that will make the reader (and publisher and reprinter and, to come full circle, film-maker) recall past successes and respond accordingly… Except for the influence of the dead Ian Fleming (whose own work was a curious amalgam of old movies in the Eric Ambler-Hitchcock style with some sado-masochist games added), these books connect not at all with other books. But with the movies… ah, the movies!”
It would be profitable to perform a similar act of cross-medium reverse-engineering of influence on the generation of early literature-influenced filmmakers—for example, it is impossible to calculate the effect that the strenuous outdoorsy cult of Teddy Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling had upon the generation of American action directors who came of age during the 1920’s. Reading Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, I recently discovered the author’s essay on Kipling, which analyzes a boy’s attraction to the Jungle Book author:
“…understanding Kipling’s ellipsis and allusions, you partook of what was Kipling’s own special delight, the joy of being ‘in.’ Max Beerbohm has satirizing Kipling’s yearning to be admitted to any professional arcanum, his fawning admiration of the man in uniform, the man with the know-how and the technical slang. It is the emotion of a boy—he lusts for the exclusive circle, for the sect with the password, and he profoundly admires the technical, secret-laden adults who run the world, the overcalled people, majestic in their occupation, superb in their preoccupation…”
Now, if there is a better description of the American cinema’s cult of professionalism, as epitomized by Howard Hawks and eulogized by Jean-Pierre Gorin in Routine Pleasures (1986), will someone please let me know?