Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in the 1960 version
Anne Heche in the remake
(Plot of both films discussed in close detail)
I was involved in a kind of performance piece titled Psycho Squared, where my identical twin brother Joel and I sat down and dissected the original and Van Sant's remake as they played on a pair of video screens. I thought the results were rather illuminating, even if maybe the gimmick with us twins were a bit much.
Some of our observations:
-- The remake may be a mostly shot-by-shot copy, but the length of the scenes varied, sometimes considerably. There were times we had to pause the original to let the remake catch up, times we had to pause the remake. You notice Van Sant unconsciously (or consciously) trying to vary the pacing of different scenes, as if to avoid a studiously faithful copy of the original.
--Mort Mills' patrol officer was a far more anonymous, insectlike, ultimately frightening authority figure than James Remar's (who, after all, is a known character actor doing a cameo).
-- Chris Doyle perfectly captures the grimy airlessness of American motel rooms, using what looks to be dim available light. It's an admirable achievement, but it only points up Hitchcock's tendency to brightly light his sets, particularly the motel bathroom where every tiled and porcelained surface was spotlessly clean. I thought Hitchcock's look worked better because it looked so artificial--he presents a sanitized world against which the least droplet of blood stands out all the clearer. You expect bloodstains in Van Sant's motel rooms; in Hitchcock's they're a shocking affront.
-- The crucial talk between Norman and Marion goes by far more swiftly in Van Sant's than Hitchcock's--as if Van Sant, though aware how important the scene is, knows we've already run through it again and again, and wants to get it over with. A mistake, we both thought.
Anne Heche holds her own against memories of Janet Leigh in the scene; Vaughn is already creepy, which we thought was a mistake. In the original, Norman was a seemingly nice shy guy Marion could talk to; when she suggests he puts his mother in a mental home, the sudden vehemence of his answer is startling, and not a little frightening.
--Joel thought Vince Vaughn's Norman's masturbating to Marion Crane undressing was a big mistake--sexual release suggests a release of tension, a partial satisfaction of desire; it's one less motivation to do what he eventually does. Of course in a sense he didn't do it...
--Overall Perkins captures Norman's vulnerability far more successfully, while Vaughn emphasizes his infantile freakishness. After all is said and done, we preferred Perkins' approach--he holds our sympathy, even when things go from bad to worse, which is the true source of Psycho's horror, I thought.
--On the other hand, we thought Vaughn's vamping William Macy's Arbogast was a hilarious success: tall sweatered young man (the sweater bulks Vaughn up, but also makes him teddy-bear fuzzy) pressing close to dilapidated milquetoast, who doesn't like it one bit but has to smile (Macy giving us his trademark beleaguered grin), nevertheless.
--Simon Oakland as the psychiatrist delivers what has been famously called Hitchcock's worse-ever scene, the explanation for Norman's psychosis. What's interesting is that Hitchcock and Oakland handle the scene better than Van Sant and Robert Forster do, despite the fact that Van Sant should have known better (in other words, it's possible to make a 'bad' scene worse). Oakland treats it like a pitch, delivering dry facts that we already know with all the energy and gusto of a used car salesman, in a pace calculated to keep us from falling asleep. Forster mulls over every word and syllable as if it was his only chance to make an impression in the picture (which in fact it was, and he does--a poor one). Foster makes the scene an acting moment, and we're bored and annoyed accordingly.
Worst scene or no, we did think that the scene had an important function: it gave us the conventional wisdom, the pat answers, the supposedly final solution; it comforted us with the impression that everything has been resolved and explicated and accounted for. Then we meet Bates one more time.
--Van Sant's ending credit image is, frankly, brilliant. He pulls up, and we see everyone busy around the car, getting into their automobiles. It has the finality of the end of a performance where the cast and crow packs up and prepares to leave; the camera, lingering, suggests an observer insisting on staying on, hoping for that final final explanation that would account for Norman's haunting smile. He doesn't get it.
That final shot also looks forward to the searching, gliding shots that characterize Van Sant's succeeding pictures: Gerry, and Elephant. Van Sant has said goodbye to Hitchcock (even if, after doing an entire remake of Hitch's most famous picture and all, he still doesn't have all the answers) and is moving on to something else, to some other style...
Joel mentions the Oulipo Society and their bizarrely handicapped literary exercises (writing an entire novel without using the letter 'e' for example, or writing an entire novel using only the letter 'e'), and he wonders if perhaps Van Sant was after something similar, an interpretation of the same 'text,' as if we were watching a performance of Henry V by Olivier and another by Gielgud. He doesn't think Van Sant pulls it off, though; the remake, a decent effort on its own, begs comparison with the original, and comes off looking worse.
I thought what Van Sant accomplishes is even more interesting: like Borges' fictional writer in his short story "Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote" (Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote)" Van Sant attempts a shot-by-shot recreation that, by virtue of our having simply seen the original, becomes a richer work. How serious Van Sant is about this one can only speculate; for all we know, the whole affair is a warning against such post-modernist exercises, in which case Van Sant is wittier than detractors at the time could ever imagine and his statement, that this Psycho was made for those who refuse to see black-and-white films, is maybe the funniest cinematic joke ever cracked this side of Dogme 95's "Vow of Chastity."
Whatever. Seems to me the people behind the remake missed out most by not doing what my evil twin brother and I did: play their film on a screen side-by-side with the original, accompanied by ironic commentary.
And his evil twin brother.
This post was part of the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon which includes the following blogs:
Lucas over at 100 Films includes Psycho as one of them.
Emma at All About My Movies confirms Hitch is THE master.
Sean's Bitter Cinema unveils Hitchcock the Huckster!
Dan comments on Shadow of a Doubt, Rebecca, AND Hitch's use of music at Cinemathematics!
At Critic After Dark you'l find a side by side comparission in Psycho Squared, as commented on by Noel and his Evil Twin Brother.
I was hoping someone would cover Gus Van Sant's Psycho! Thanks Culture Snob!
Edward Copeland on film asks What If George Bailey Had Vertigo?
The Film Exprience Blog hosted by Nathaniel R. includes his commentary on Rope.
Jeff at Filmscreed covers Blackmail and Rear Window, plus a couple of marquee pieces too!
Over at Filmyear, Thom has some choice tidbit quotes from the master Of Suspense himself
Flickhead graces us with wonderful images from France.
Forward To Yesterday features Bob's piece on Aventure Malgache and Bon Voyage.
Greenbriar Picture Show has John's commentary on the great To Catch a Thief.
If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger has Richard's his piece on Saboteur and Shadow Of A Doubt.
Vincent visite The Trouble with Harry chez son site, Inisfree.
JA over at My New Plaid Pants discusses his favorite character from his favorite Hitchcock.
The Sheila Variations explores one of her all time favorites - Notorious.
Over at Stale Popcorn, Kamikaze Camel takes an in-depth look at The 39 Steps.
That Little Round-Headed Boy talks about Grace Kelly, Hitch's favorite leading lady.
Truly, We Numble, And Then has Adam discussing why Alfred Hitchcock is his favorite director.
Windmills Of My Mind has Damian gracing us with his own unique Hitchcock story.
Now scroll past the slate for late entries and new submissions
Chris over at Category D discusses Hitchcock as he relates to Film Studies.
Nigredo explores Psycho over at What's He Filming In There? And an interesting take it is.