In common

Once every decade Sight and Sound magazine polls experts on film to determine which films are understood to be the best.  In 1962 they chose Citizen Kane best film, and every ten years since that time, they have returned Kane to its place of honour.

Until now, that is.  On the Sight and Sound webpage they announce

846 critics, programmers, academics and distributors have voted – and the 50-year reign of Kane is over. Our critics’ poll has a new number one.” 

The new number one?  Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock.

If you understand film as a director’s medium Vertigo may seem to be a very different film from Kane.

  • One film is a pseudo-biography, complete with a bogus documentary near the beginning.  The other is a suspenseful film
  • One is black and white.  The other is colour
  • One is the first feature film from a director who would never
    Herrmann

    Genius at work: conductor & composer Bernard Herrmann in his youth

    be so successful again. The other is one in a series of great films from a director at the height of his powers.

But the two films have something very important in common.  Both films have an original orchestral score composed by Bernard Herrmann.  Music plays a prominent role in both films:

  • In Citizen Kane there is a segment of opera within the film, a series of tantalizing fragments from a fictional setting of Salaambo.  But whereas Kane’s mistress is not a great singer, here’s a chance to hear the aria sung by a genuine star, Kiri Te Kanawa.
  • In Vertigo there are several places where Hitchcock lets Herrmann play a special role, such as the opening chase scene 
    …and the wordless dream sequence  

Both films are wonderful, but if I prefer one over the other –and it would have to be Vertigo rather than Kane–it’s because of Herrmann and the role he plays in the film.  I believe Hitchcock entrusted some of his most important scenes to Herrmann, as he would again in films such as Psycho and North by Northwest.

Herrmann may have died back in the 1970s (just as he finished Taxi Driver: another great film) but his music continues to live on.  For example just this past year his music figured in The Artist, a film that won Oscars for best picture and best orchestral score.

I have to wonder.  Did the voters of The Academy realize they were giving Ludovic Bource the award even though the climactic moment in the film is underscored by Herrmann’s music from Vertigo?

Oh well, at least they showed good taste.

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