The Sight & Sound critics' poll of the greatest films of all time has for decades stood as one of the more controversial and arguably the most influential measures of cinematic excellence. Originally published in 1952, the list and its formation has been updated every ten years, with new titles added, others vanishing, and additional modifications along the way. According to an excerpt from the autumn 1952 issue, the ranking was a “sequel” to the Brussels Referendum, which had been featured in a previous edition of the publication. In that poll, 100 directors were asked to vote for their ten best films ever made. As a follow-up, Sight & Sound turned to the critics, 85 of them from ten different countries; 63 responded. Since then, the sample size has obviously increased as more films were released; new contributors took part (846 critics in 2012); and historical, social, and aesthetic perspectives shifted the ultimate evaluation of what merits final inclusion. In 1992, participating directors were also given their own list, separate from the more commonly cited critics poll.
Although, as the 1952 introductory article states, “most critics were unanimous in finding the question unfair,” Sight & Sound acknowledged the personalized nature of such a subjective undertaking, adding the titles considered should be “the films that have impressed you most personally.” Still, as the article notes, “many critics were quick and right to answer that the films one thought best (in the history of the cinema, et cetera), were not necessarily the films one liked best.” In any event, the critics' poll yielded some significant variations from the directors list, including five films not even mentioned in the earlier survey, and while there have been some vital changes since the poll’s original release, the titles on that 1952 roster should not be dismissed merely on the basis of later appraisals. A select few have indeed made variable reappearances in the subsequent years, one has become a significant mainstay, and all invite further investigation into why they were noteworthy in the first place. More than anything, though, even as new films are released or reconsidered, they remain among the best ever made.
A trio of films tied for the 1952 list’s final slot, each receiving ten mentions, and among them was the only British feature to make the cut. In Brief Encounter (1945), Celia Johnson plays a married, mild-mannered housewife who finds herself, in the most inauspicious, delicate way possible, enveloped in a whirlwind romance with Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), also married. But far from the tawdry treatment such a premise might receive today, in David Lean’s hands, before he moved on to large-scale super productions, the result is a considerate, modest portrait of forlorn love and loss. Based on a play by Noël Coward, Brief Encounter is heartened by the inner turmoil of Johnson’s Laura Jesson, who expresses her fears and desires in effusive voiceovers, providing a corresponding depth to her outward formality. Shot by Robert Krasker, the softened photography of the picture suits its authentic dramatic strain, rushing viewers away in the absorbing ardor between two fundamentally good people burdened by an irresistible temptation. Like its central train station setting, Brief Encounter expresses the transience of such an affair, the unpretentious, fleeting clashes of passion and guilt, and Lean’s refinement is painfully intimate, understated, and enrapturing. Making its first and final poll appearance, the film is less ostentatious than Lean’s later productions, but it’s every bit as textured and stirring, where the slightest touch of hand can cause a heartbreaking earthquake and where self-control and decency arouse despair and bittersweet relief.
Considerably more lighthearted is Le million, a 1931 musical comedy directed by René Clair. Initially doubtful of the transition to sound, Clair excelled in the new medium, creating some of the most inventive early sound features, and this is no exception. Starring René Lefèvre as starving artist Michel, Jean-Louis Allibert as his friend Prosper, and Annabella as his fiancée, Beatrice, Le million is an effortlessly pleasant film about a man who is as unlucky with finances as he seems to be with love. Hounded by his numerous creditors, Michel manages to draw a winning lottery ticket, which he stashes away in the pocket of his jacket. But when that jacket exchanges one hand after another, it sets off some considerable scheming and a desperate, madcap dash to recovery. Moving past his overtly surrealist roots, Clair, with art director Lazare Meerson and cinematographer Georges Périnal, delivers a spare yet decorative picture, with operative sets, model work, and fluent camera maneuvers. The diverting integration of songs, usually from a fulsome community chorus, is good-humored, like the rest of the picture, but even more impressive is Clair’s assimilation of sound as an artificial aural accent. As a whole, Le million is breezy and charming (characteristics often lacking from succeeding top ten entries), and given its fading from the Sight & Sound ranks after this initial appearance, it remains an overlooked transitional sound feature.
On the other hand, although it just barely made the 1952 poll’s top ten, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game has been a top four entry in all subsequent standings. By turns tragic, cynical, hysterical, and eternally perceptive, Renoir’s masterful 1939 film is a stylish and sharply observed depiction of the tenuous codes of conduct that afflict and affect the bourgeois. Forever the great humanist, though, Renoir manages to ride a balanced, oscillating tone, tallying assorted allies and adversaries. Mainly housed within a lavish château, the film is inhabited by a representative ensemble of masters and servants and those who hover perilously in between. And in this realm of loose morality, self-absorption, impassioned declarations of love, and petty antagonism, Renoir transcends the acute social critique with a remarkable orchestration of characters in motion, his camera surveying the drama, holding back, and observing with a tremendous depth of field the fluidity and rich tapestry of these performances entwined with their marvelous surroundings (a brief hunting sojourn outdoors might suggest a respite from the unspooling drama inside, but it too proves just as chaotic and cruelly foreboding). Against the tumultuous political backdrop of France in the late 1930s, The Rules of the Game seemed an exceedingly frivolous film to release, and indeed it was initially greeted by severe reactions, but with the benefit of time, the picture stands as not only one of the greatest ever made, but one that has retained its insightful, biting commentary and, more than that, its capacity for amusement and amazement. And in a film bristling with witty dialogue and prescient exchanges, there is perhaps no greater line than that which is uttered by Octave, played by Renoir himself. When discussing the erratic behavior of others, he dryly and quite accurately observes, “The awful thing about life is this, everyone has their reasons.” True for this film, true for so much of Renoir’s work, and, for better or worse, true for real life, in 1939 and today.
Receiving eleven votes was a film, like Brief Encounter, that has been widely heralded for the performance of its leading lady. Indeed, there has rarely been a portrait of overwhelming solitude, torment, and anguish as that which is sketched on the stark, black and white face of one Maria Falconetti, the superlative star of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). With only one prior feature to her credit (and this would be her last), Falconetti was subjected to a painstaking treatment by Dreyer, who wore the actress down to amplify her wide-eyed bewilderment and degradation. And the oppressive ecclesiastical examiners do much the same, blitzing Joan with a trifold political, sexual, and religious affront. Against the mockery and derision, though, her unflappable spiritual commitment prevails and Joan resigns herself to a state of humble grace. Dreyer relied on the actual transcripts of Joan’s trial to structure his film, which has been on and off the Sight & Sound poll since 1952, but in conjunction with this historical fidelity he also reaches an exalted, thoroughly cinematic fulfillment, with a litany of canted camera angles, smooth movements, and intense, pressurized close-ups. The austere images and Passion’s unadorned yet thoroughly effective sets should also be credited to designers Hermann Warm and Jean Hugo and cinematographer Rudolph Maté, all of whom worked to produce one of the silent era’s final, finest achievements.
A despairing, brooding tenor also imbues the next film on the 1952 list, making its first and last appearance and also receiving eleven mentions: Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève (1939), or Daybreak. One of four French features on this inaugural list, testifying to the contemporary status of French cinema as the pinnacle of inventiveness, quality, and variety (a reputation steadily dissipated in later polls), Le jour se lève begins as the working class every man François (Jean Gabin) shoots and kills Valentin (Jules Berry), a twisted dog trainer, and proceeds to lock himself away in his room. Flashbacks bring the picture up to speed, telling of ill-fated love and irrevocable vengeance. Released in 1939, costarring Jacqueline Laurent and Arletty, the film is a melancholy collaboration between Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert (their fourth picture together), and its tender vulnerability and doomed fatalism result in a bleak, wistful tale that not only encapsulated the French poetic realism movement of its time but helped fashion what later emerged as film noir. Gabin carries the bulk of Le jour se lève, with his weary, sad sack face and drowsy reserve, but he can also be fierce and forward. He’s a solitary figure, private and insular in the end as an anxious crowd grows outside his building, yet the sympathy he engenders is a complicated coalition. A tragic end is all but inevitable for this star-crossed antihero who remains as engaging now as he ever was.
Likewise receiving eleven votes in the 1952 poll, but absent from the top ten by 1972, is the monumental, fatally spoiled, and historically fascinating Greed. This 1925 adaptation of Frank Norris’ 1899 novel “McTeague,” “personally directed” by Erich von Stroheim, is a methodical, grueling witness to humanity’s inherent and persisting capacity for vindictiveness, vulgarity, and the poisonous ruin that comes from its titular voracity. Abounding with dynamic spaces, lusty, impassioned interactions, a salvo of starling imagery, and the inevitable downward spiral born from mankind’s bestial nature, the picture’s vivid realism is engrossing and terrifying, resolving in the intense, hellish heat of Death Valley. Following John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), a husky, unwieldy man, his old friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt), and Trina (ZaSu Pitts), the intractable object of both men’s eye, Greed’s incredibly detailed sets and its imposing chronicle can scarcely contain the reach of von Stroheim’s ambitions, not in its original runtime of roughly eight hours and certainly not in its truncated form of two-and-a-half. While a partially reconstructed version is available today, utilizing existing footage and more than 650 still photographs from excised scenes, the inadequate shape of Greed in 1952 apparently did little to disparage critics from acknowledging its incomplete brilliance; that a more comprehensive version failed to bring Greed back into the fold is an intriguing twist in the picture’s subsequent assessment. Nevertheless, this compromised masterpiece is a masterpiece all the same.
As unassuming as Greed is audacious and extravagant, a notable novelty of the 1952 list (with twelve mentions) is Robert Flaherty’s 1948 Louisiana Story. Like his more celebrated Nanook of the North (1921), this is another semi-documentary populated by amateurs, and it too revels in the atmosphere of its given milieu, in this case the Louisiana bayou. Joseph Boudreaux plays a young “Cajun boy” and essentially acts as a guide through his backwoods habitat, but Louisiana Story is rather less concerned with characterization than it is with scenic radiance and, it seems, industrial propaganda. Commissioned by the Standard Oil Company to promote drilling in the region, the depicted rigs and machinery are greeted by the boy with awe and curiosity, but today, in the wake of numerous environmental disasters, the menacing metal monstrosities appear more as causes of disruption and potential calamity, threatening the graceful indigenous tranquility Flaherty so expertly captures. Working alongside the renowned documentary cinematographer Richard Leacock, Flaherty conveys an otherworldly tone; the camera drifts along the water, the performers interact in halting dialogues, and the disparity between strenuous, volatile drilling and leisurely, low-key fishing evokes the contradictory dualities of individual and corporate endeavor. The only documentary to appear in the Sight & Sound top ten until 2012, when Dziga Vertov’s experimental 1929 take on the form, Man with a Movie Camera, came in at number eight, Louisiana Story ends in apparent harmony, though hindsight can leave modern viewers rather skeptical of its peaceful resolution.
Although the United States would later dominate Sight & Sound’s top ten (boasting seven titles in 2002, for example), in 1952, there were only two American features represented. Louisiana Story isn’t likely to appear again, due to its relative obscurity, and the same can also be said for the only other American film in that initial poll—but for an entirely different reason. Largely stemming from the incendiary racism of his 1915 Civil War opus, The Birth of a Nation, director D.W. Griffith has by now fallen dramatically out of favor, but in 1952, his colossal message movie, Intolerance, took the number five slot (the Griffith adoration was already fading fast—this was his final appearance on the Sight & Sound list). Released in 1916, Intolerance, “Love’s struggle through the ages,” is an overt, somewhat strained plea for empathy and understanding. Divided into four parallel stories, canvasing three historical epochs and one contemporary setting, the film’s complex narrative construction is still ambitious—its sweeping storyline and manifold characters arguably foreshadow today’s expansive modern blockbusters. If Intolerance is to have an impact today, though, it’s thanks primarily to its astonishing production design, practical effects, and formal kinesis, all of which are even more astounding in our current CGI age. However, just as its massive, star-studded cast isn’t of a steady standard (though Constance Talmadge is quite good as the spirited Mountain Girl, one of her two roles in the film), the four entwined segments aren’t created equal; the French story and shortened Judaean story lack the jaw-dropping grandeur and social immediacy of the Babylonian story and Modern story, respectively. Unifying the entire spectacle is Griffith’s inspiring, if occasionally indulgent, sense of magnitude, his grand themes, and the picture’s accelerated suspense, as well as the cinematic command of pioneering cinematographer G.W. (Billy) Bitzer.
Contrasting with Griffith’s passing approval is the longevity of Sergei Eisenstein’s outstanding Soviet classic, 1925's Battleship Potemkin (sixteen mentions). Conceived as part of a cycle of revolutionary productions, Eisenstein’s rallying cry to the masses, standing “shoulder to shoulder” against authoritative abuse and czarist repression, is as much a technical triumph as it is a rhetorical declaration. Climaxing in the justly famed (and frequently emulated) Odessa steps sequence, Potemkin merges archetypal characters and performers with a stunning assembly of montage concepts, some of which were creatively derived from haiku poetry and kabuki theater. Working alongside stalwart cinematographer Eduard Tisse, Eisenstein’s mechanical precision juxtaposes—to thrilling, visually striking ends—single images of manifest graphic force with a collision of shot sizes, repetition, and planes of movement. It remains a textbook realization of editorial brilliance and theoretical practice. It also remained a fixture in the Sight & Sound poll until 2012, when it just barely missed the top ten cut, and it joined Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944) in the 1962 ranking, making it one of just a few instances where a single director had two features placed in the top ten. Another was when Orson Welles had not only 1941’s Citizen Kane at number one (where it would remain until 2012), but 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons at numbers nine (1972) and eight (1982), and when Ingmar Bergman had 1966’s Persona (number six) and 1957’s Wild Strawberries (tied for the final slot) in the 1972 poll. In a rather unique arrangement, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) also came in together at number four in 2002.
The first time when two films by the same director placed on the list, though, was in 1952, with the films that ranked second and third in the first Sight & Sound poll, receiving nineteen votes each. Although they were never to again appear on the critics' listing, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, from 1931, and The Gold Rush, from 1925 (successfully reissued in 1942 with sound effects, a new musical score, and a narration), are among the great comedian’s most beloved productions, and these two in particular stand apart for their potent blend of unceasing humor and deeply-affecting pathos. Two years in the making and released four years after the arrival of sound, City Lights was something of a defiant stand against the “talkies,” as Chaplin resisted spoken dialogue and instead relied on his prosperous pantomime abilities as director and star. From the uproarious introduction of his iconic Tramp character, a symbolic and literal little man out of his element, to the film’s extraordinarily sensitive conclusion, City Lights is a superb testament to Chaplin’s meticulous choreography of gags, his subtle and sublime flair for telling gestures and facial expressions, and the compassion he could engender though transcendent scenes of amiable conduct. Featuring the first score Chaplin composed for one of his films, orchestrated in accordance to the action and characters, City Lights was also Chaplin’s personal favorite. But the film he said he wanted to be remembered for was The Gold Rush, a far more elaborate and technically complicated production. As Chaplin’s “Lone Prospector” ambles along with his naïve optimism and affable ignorance, he routinely falls victim to hilariously-executed bouts of hunger (famously feasting on a shoe) and equally amusing scenes of danger (especially in a dilapidated, precariously perched cabin). And as usual, Chaplin’s supplemental props, his knack for comedic timing, and his admirable physicality contribute to the picture’s purity and poetry. Inspired by the harrowing tale of the Donner Party and some stereoscope cards on Klondike ventures, The Gold Rush, like City Lights, is also tinged with the pain of Chaplin’s own impoverished youth.
With the aftermath of World War II still somewhat fresh in the minds of 1952 audiences, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Bicycle Thieves was the inaugural “greatest film of all time,” with 25 votes. An exemplar of Italian neorealism, its emotional draw combines the arresting performances from a largely non-professional cast and De Sica’s assured direction to form a film that continues to be compelling and deceptively simplistic. True, the surface story of Bicycle Thieves is minimal enough, but its scant premise belies the acuity of the resulting picture, just as the superficial roughhewn view of neorealism generally denies the precise, proficient qualities of such a film. Although he is no conventional hero (he’s quite negligent and careless), Lamberto Maggiorani’s Antonio is the common embodiment of desperation and, complemented by Alessandro Cicognini mournful score, Bicycle Thieves is itself a broad portrait of endemic despondency—Antonio’s plight is hardly a singular one. He is joined by his wife (Lianella Carell), who first takes charge and sells the family’s bedsheets to pay for Antonio’s requisite bicycle, in a scene that crescendos in a shot of towering shelves of similarly pawned linen, testifying to the pervasive hardship of the era, as well as his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), who regularly steals the show, mimicking his dad, displaying a cute, casual swagger, and pulling on the heartstrings at nearly every turn. With seven prior films to his directorial credit, De Sica also allows for moments of tactful humor, alongside a naturally-evolving tension as Antonio’s situation grows more dire and yields to panic, dejection, and eventual shame, all while slice-of-life digressions and peripheral dramas counter the offhand indifference of some with the collaborative spirit of others. Though soon gone from the Sight & Sound critics' list, possibly due to a waning of real-life, post-war resonance in favor of films demonstrating cinema’s own distinctive vitality and evolution (see the 1972 appearance of the Bergman pictures and films like 8 ½ and L’avventura), Bicycle Thieves endures as a perfectly expressive portrait of gut-wrenching hopelessness, humiliation, love, and perseverance.
Surely inviting debate about what made the cut, what didn’t, and where any given film fell in the rankings, each decade’s revised Sight & Sound listing has been a consistent and reliable rundown of features worthy of attention, whatever the subsequent polls may indicate. The ever-changing placement of standard titles, as well as the sudden entrance or omission of others, is itself an indication of film history’s unending fluidity and the fresh perspective new critical eyes can bring to the valuation of an international art form, something which will become increasingly evident as more diverse critics shed light on overlooked productions, neglected nations, and minority filmmakers. At the same time, the superficially “outdated” polls help illuminate how various historical periods informed a general consensus of eminence, reacting to innovative film movements, new directors and directions, and the inevitable reconsideration of long-ago features that, years later, receive the kind of considered attention they were due from the start.