When Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was released in 1998, Hitchcock loyalists were baffled, puzzled, outraged, soured, and in the mood of total rejection – some even before having taken a look at the product. Why do it? they asked. What was the idea? A host of related questions were raised, not the least of which was: what is a remake? Why are movies remade? And in the case of a unique work of art – as Hitchcock’s Psycho is, by universal admission – why remake it all?
Not all of these questions can be answered satisfactorily, of course, and no answer can satisfy all those who have decided to seal the doom of the Van Sant movie. But it might be useful to dwell on the subject, for, no matter how one looks at it, this is the first verbatim (and thus worth noticing) remake of a Hitchock classic – though several have been made on a lesser scale, including, Rear Window, as a TV movie with ex-Superman Christopher Reeve on a real wheelchair (and a creditable job), and A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis, 1998) based on Dial M for Murder, with Michael Douglas and Gweneth Paltrow, a forgettable movie already forgotten. According to Van Sant (as stated in his DVD commentary), it is likely there will be many more attempts at remaking Hitchcock’s classics in the future, film being a young art barely a century old, and therefore with plenty of opportunity for repetitions. Repetitions aren’t all unfavorable: for one, they help us remember the originals. The other arts repeat: Euripides rewrote the plays of Sophocles; Shakespeare borrowed the Hamlet plot from his Elizabethan predecessors; Racine copied the ancients; opera librettists fed on Greek and Roman mythologies; and sculptors thought it a hobby to copy one another. By the way, not all people were offended by Van Sant’s Psycho: Patricia Hitchcock, who played a minor role in the original and was a consultant in this one, said her father would have been flattered by the remake of his movie 40 years later; and Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of the original Psycho, was more than eager to accept the job of re-writing the second Psycho script.
Remaking movies is not confined to our era of course. Films were remade routinely from the start, and the practice in Hollywood and elsewhere has long been established for a number of reasons, not the least of which has to do with commercial motives, as indeed most of the movies remade over the years were of the commercial/mainstream variety. Epics and action thrillers were sure bets to bring in the cash at the box office if they had done so the first time around. Examples abound: Ben-Hur was made three times (1907, 1925, 1959), with the last version being the most successful in terms of Oscars (11) and dollars earned (37 million); The Ten Commandments (1926, 1925), both epics directed by Cecil B. DeMille, proved equally lucrative at the box office. Not all remakes were so successful financially or otherwise, of course. In more recent times, the remarkable The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973) became the poorer and blood-soaked The Jackal (Michael Caton-Jones, 1997), and the popular Casablanca (Michael Curtis, 1942) petered out as Havana (Sydney Pollack, 1990). Conclusion: remakes were made to emulate the success of the previous version, and this particular reason for making them seems as formulaic and unimaginative as the Hollywood studios themselves. Of course, there is another reason: the vanity of the director himself (or herself), and this includes Hitchcock, who remade The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1955 based on his own version of 1934, a film that some still prefer to its remake. Imitation of a master is also a reason, as in the case of Akira Kurosawa, whose Yojimbo (1960) emulated John Ford westerns, while his own Rashomon (1954) and Seven Samurai (1956) were remade Hollywood-style, The Outrage (Martin Ritt, 1964) and The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960). Kurosawa also imitated great literary works from the west, Throne of Blood (1957), based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Ran (1985), based on King Lear. Though Orson Welles’ Macbeth had been filmed in 1948, and King Lear by Peter Brook, in 1971, technically, these two Kurosawa films were not remakes but original independent productions spurred by original film and literature models. These show, among other things, that remakes can take many forms, some on a high creative level, independent of a director’s vanity or commercialism. This cannot be said for Van Sant’s remake of Psycho, however.
Van Sant claims that his remake of Psycho should be seen as a creative rather than commercial endeavor. As he states in his commentary to the DVD edition of Psycho, he had been toying with the idea for several years, and one motivation was to renew its appeal for the younger generation. With today’s young crowd opting for Michael Almereyda’s contemporary version of Hamlet (1999) and Andrzei Bartkowiak’s Romeo Must Die (1999), names like that of Hitchcock are becoming shadowy memories.
The original Psycho is filmed in black-and-white, not a very attractive medium in itself, and uses archaic language (“We’re taking the air”, says John Gavin to Vera Miles). One wonders whether Hitchcock’s Psycho may have gone the way of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), which to a young audience will sound shrill (at times), pompous (the ‘March of Time’ sequence), and even irrelevant. And yet, it will take considerable audacity on the part of a younger director to try to remake Citizen Kane, shot for shot, using the same script and simulating the techniques (depth of field, montage sequences, camera movement) which made the original famous – and ‘the greatest movie ever made’ in many critics’ lists (a position no longer undisputed, by the way.) This brings us to our point. Remakes of average, run-of the-mill successful movies (let’s say, the Prizoner of Zenda, 1939, 1952) are not only possible, but also frequently quite successful at the box office, with nobody seriously minding their ephemeral prominence. A recent example is The Thomas Crown Affair (John McTiernan, 1999), which was an acceptable update of the blockbuster film with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway (Norman Jewison, 1968). These are relatively innocent endeavors, hardly worth objecting to, especially by those who view film as mere entertainment, if the entertainment is worth the price of the ticket. But again, great classical movies, whether aging or not, have left their imprint on all subsequent filmmaking. Who indeed will dare remake Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (though objectionable on certain grounds), Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Fellini’s La Strada – and the list continues: the movies of Buñuel, Bergman, Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Kiarostami, Scorsese, and, basically, all of the great auteurs of the 20th century and beyond. These are not to be touched, unless by an equivalent artist, and even then the scrutiny will be intense.
The point here is that some great movies, however one classifies them, have gained the status of significant works of art which are difficult to replace or imitate, though copies (in the plastic arts, for instance) can be made. Plays like Hamlet can be staged again and again, but once one makes a Hamlet on film (Olivier’s, 1948), and the film obtains a certain cult status, one has difficulty redoing it, though one can go to the original Hamlet and stage it or re-film it again and again. This point was brought up in the debate over whether Van Sant had a viable argument (he certainly had the right) in remaking a movie like Hitchcock’s Psycho, by all standards perfect. The difficulty increased when Van Sant decided to recreate the original not in the usual fashion of remakes, by modernizing plots and changing characters and settings, but as an exact copy, shot for shot. Even the original music by Bernard Herrmann was used in exactly the same scenes, and, as stated earlier, the services of screenwriter Joseph Stefano to supervise and update the original script were enlisted. The only significant change was that the modern Psycho was shot in color, and, of course, the actors were different. It was the decision to recreate an exact Psycho that unsettled critics, Hitchcock devotees, and discriminating viewers in general. Psycho, which had several sequels in the 1980s (Psycho II, III, IV), all undistinguished (but popular), had left an imprint in the American psyche (no pun) as no other film of its time, for many reasons. Though tame by today’s standards of violence, it was the first truly violent movie of the American screen, and one that dared eliminate the movie’s protagonist before the first half of the movie was over. The murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the shower, an incident based on the novel by Robert Bloch, which had borrowed materials for its story from the life of a brutal serial killer, Ed Gein, from Wisconsin, had shaken movie audiences to the point that many (reputedly) were reluctant to step into a shower for months. Since then, many, Janet Leigh included, have considered the shower the most vulnerable part of one’s home, where one is naked, unable to see, hear or resist an attacker. The movie brought home the realization that hideous crimes can happen within the closest members of one’s family, that men and women can be victims of unrecognized madness. “My mother is ill,” says Norman Bates to an innocent Marion Crane, who was in the middle of an enjoyable chat with a seemingly amiable young man in the parlor of his motel. “She sounded strong,” says Marion. “I mean ill,” retorts Bates, who has little realization that he is talking about himself. The movie is also a moral tale, and an ironic one. Marion, hearing Norman (puns with ‘normal’) speaking wisely about “private traps” and running to “one’s own private island” has a change of heart during this conversation, which to her is salutary, and decides right then and there to return to Phoenix next morning, give back the money and ask for forgiveness. The colossal irony is that a madman who rescued her from her folly was the same madman who later killed her.
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It is the mystique of this movie that made Van Sant’s understandable artistic intentions seem so foolhardy and frustrating. In imitating the master, he had to rise to the occasion, and might have gotten away with lesser results had he not decided to remake the original exactly and faithfully. The fact that the original was remade shot for shot, with the same dialogue (basically), the same music, and even the same screenwriter heightened the expectations of audiences, but also increased their skepticism. If one was to make the exact copy of a previous movie, what was there to be achieved? Couldn’t the original movie do? Whatever the motivation, however, the fact remains that a classic remade with such ambitious standards was bound to be subjected to intense scrutiny. Comparisons were inevitable, especially by the unforgiving older audiences. For one thing, Hitchock’s awesome reputation stood in the way of a fair judgment. Still, one has to be fair to Van Sant and to his honestly stated motives – to attract younger audiences, and to revive interest in Hitchcock’s classic work. He certainly did attract attention, and comparisons of his film to Hitchcock’s were indeed made. But being fair to his efforts does not mean giving him a free passage. In the final analysis, Van Sant’s motives do not matter. One must judge the product by the results, based on one’s perception of this movie on aesthetic grounds. And on such grounds the movie fails on at least three levels. First, the medium itself; the transition of black-and-white to color does not seem a happy choice, though this was one of Van Sant’s stated reasons for modernizing the movie. Secondly, the actors – especially the leads – fail to achieve dimensions of character demanded by roles that have left an imprint on the art of moviemaking. And, thirdly, Van Sant fails to measure up to Hitchcock’s artistic vision. Let us examine these points more closely.
Of course color seems an inevitable choice in contemporary moviemaking. Aside from Van Sant’s stated reasons for choosing color, today color in film is so dominant it seems almost unthinkable that a modern movie, even of the darkest subject, could be filmed in anything but color. And yet, even in relatively recent times, black-and-white films have been made (Spielberg Schindler’s List, 1993, Woody Allen’s Celebrity, 1997), when the subject called for such means of expression. It must be remembered that Hitchcock himself had already made several movies in color prior to 1960 (Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, Vertigo), and that his choice of black-and white was deliberate, to mitigate the shock of blood swirling down the drain in the shower scene, and to invest the film’s gothic subject-matter with an aura of gloom. But in the Van Sant version, the color itself is not so much the problem as the choice of colors. Pastel colors – pink, orange, light brown, green – predominate throughout, altering the tone of the grim tale into what seems a carefree holiday adventure. Anne Heche (who plays Marion Crane) wears a green slip in her apartment before she leaves (compared to Leigh’s black), a pink dress as she flees Phoenix, and sports a pink parasol at the car lot. Even as she enters the office of the Bates motel, pink-orange-brown colors are dominant, in the walls, the desk, and the umbrella Vince Vaughn totes as he trots down the steps to meet her. The sign at the Bates motel (“newly renovated”) is pink, the blood gurgling down the drain pink/orange, and later, the walls of the Loomis back room are in orange tints. This veritable deluge of oranges, pinks and light browns forces the viewer to notice the lapse of mood from the seriousness of the original to the light-hearted and essentially frivolous tone of the remake. Color and color tone affect the viewer’s psychological disposition and help determine the emotions a film, and a violent film to boot, will evoke. And the lapse of mood, here from dark to rosy, is what counts against Psycho ’98.
If verisimilitude were the sole criterion for accepting the Psycho remake, one would grant this movie some respite. But the result is more one of conscientious effort than ingenuity. It helps that the horizontal and vertical bars in the opening shots are the same, but the repetition seems just that – repetition, if one does not discount the now green color. The jarring notes of strings by Bernard Herrmann are now in surround sound – not that this makes any real difference. The time of day is flashed on the screen – two forty three PM, as in the original. The panning shots over Phoenix are the same, though now a helicopter shot zooms smoothly toward the hotel window, modern technology having made this possible. Inside the hotel room, Viggo Mortensen and Anne Heche, who play Sam Loomis and Marion Crane, lie in bed, she half-naked, he entirely so, in what seems to have been a prolonged sexual bout. Their conversation, though copied almost verbatim from the original film, seems flippant, lacking the urgency of the original scene. These seem two casual lovers in a nonessential fling, and the scene elapses without establishing any real suspense, as Hitchcock’s does. Their complaint of not being able to see each other except in her mother’s house does not sound believable near the start of the 21st century, when this action takes place. They seem mature grown-ups not bound by the sexual inhibitions of their forbears 40 years ago. The progress from this scene to that in Marion’s boss’ office, with the obnoxious (in both movies), half-drunk Cassidy flaunting a pile of cash is convincing enough, though $400,000 in $1,000 bills seems far, far too much to carry in one’s pocket even in today’s world, where cash transactions are rare. (The $40,000 of the original movie’s sum is enough to temp, but not large enough to defy logic.) The next transition, to Heche’s apartment, is also smooth, though here there is a striking difference, in the colors of Heche’s underwear (already noted), but also in her mood. Heche does not seem overawed by her action – as Janet Leigh was in the original – to steal the money and run. Though the camera pans to the yellow envelope on her bed, replicating the Hitchcockian finger-pointing camera movement and establishing the necessary suspense, Heche’s demeanor seems too light-hearted for one who from now on will be a fugitive from the law. To her, the action of running away with that much money seems a thrill – not a fearsome plunge into guilt and delusion. The only moment Heche becomes apprehensive, and somewhat frantic, is during her encounter with the road policeman, who is a menacing presence in both movies.
Heche’s light-hearted approach (which in her DVD commentary she says she adopted consciously) may be partly responsible for the deterioration of this movie’s dynamics. For one thing, she does not possess Janet Leigh’s extraordinary features – wide face, curved, expressive eyebrows, and large dark eyes where her inner confusion but also her determination is reflected. As she drives to her destination, Fairville, California, where she will meet her lover, Leigh appears guilty and persecuted, but also empowered. The smirk on her face when in voice-over she mimics Cassidy’s surprise when he discovers she stole his money Monday morning indicates her vindictive spite against the male dominated atmosphere of her office to which she had said good-bye. Heche smiles a bit too broadly, showing more delight than fear, less guilt and more satisfaction, as she drives through the storm. A point of comparison between the two actresses’ styles relates to their entrance into the motel itself. Leigh’s image, full of apprehension, is reflected in the mirror in the Bates office, but Heche enters casually, hiding but not overwrought by her guilt, and still in the adventure mode. Up to this point, she has carried the movie on a relatively tolerable level of interest, having gained some sympathy from the viewer. But her performance is affected significantly, and the tone of the film in general changed, by the first appearance of Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates.
Many have argued that this film’s alleged failure is owed to Vaughn’s inability to measure up to Anthony Perkins’ performance. Vaughn is as tall as Perkins, strong-boned, and physical, where Perkins is of a delicate, almost fragile frame, more female than male in his body language, suggesting perhaps his half female nature, since, in the psychiatrist’s explanation at the end, he is entirely dominated by his mother. Perkins is also childlike (a doll is found in his room by Marion’s sister, Lila, later), since his mother’s half has prevented his full adult maturity. Vaughn does not capture these qualities. Unlike Perkins, he does not stutter (the ‘fal-fal-falsity’ of Perkins when talking of bird habits), thus depriving this scene of important nuances captured in the Perkins performance. Instead, he projects an image of a male overpowered by sexual desire, as witnessed by his masturbating when he removes the picture on the wall to peep at the undressing Heche. He thus fails to suggest a moral struggle that the ‘mother side’ in Norman must be undergoing while deciding to kill Marion. This struggle is betrayed in Perkins’ darkening features, but no such evidence of struggle is seen in Vaughn’s bland facial expressions. More important than anything else is the failure of both Vaughn and Heche to evoke any chemistry between them. Leigh’s Marion is almost in a mystical mode when she enters the parlor and sees the stuffed birds, and is profoundly moved by Norman’s story about his mother. She wants his mother to get well, perhaps unconsciously forming her own desire to see Norman unburdened by his gnawing anxieties and living a happy life. She is in fact so moved by his story that she resolves, right then and there, to go back to Phoenix and return the money, thus showing us, among other things, that Norman’s painful human side had a healing effect on her. This meeting at the parlor between the two is in the original Psycho the crux of the movie, what makes this a morality tale rather than a common slasher/thriller, which is what it has become in the popular mind. In the Perkins version, Norman Bates is a suffering human being, crushed under unbearable guilt, destroyed by the maniacal half that is his “mother”, and unable to get out of his “trap,” where he is to remain in infernal flames forever. Leigh’s Marion pities the young man profoundly, fathoming his anguish, though not knowing his split personality, pitying him but unable to fear him – which is her downfall. This drama is only played on the surface by the Heche/Vaughn duo, who simply repeat the lines; Vaughn in particular remains a stranger both to the levels of psychological symbolism present in the scene and also, in some ways, indifferent to Heche herself. His desire is for a woman, but not this woman specifically. In the parlor scene they are just two casual acquaintances, flirting a little, sparring on a superficial level, and in the end one does not care whether Heche’s Marion has reformed and has decided to return to Phoenix or not.
The failure of the two leads to connect in the parlor scene, a crucial scene according to Joseph Stefano (see “The Making of Psycho”), is responsible for the remake’s lagging emotional interest. In following scenes, in particular when the detective Arbogast (played well by William H. Macy) questions Bates, Vaughn seems more animated, and he now stutters like Perkins (‘my mother is in-in-invalid’). But by now the viewer’s empathy with his persona has fallen out of orbit, and Vaughn remains a liability for the rest of the film. We do not pity him, as we did when Leigh’s Marion reached out to Perkins’ Bates. Lack of interest in what happens next is also partly due to Viggo Mortensen, whose Sam Loomis is no match for the vigorous performance of John Gavin. Neither is Julianne Moore’s somewhat outlandish Lila totally effective, and these two actors also do not connect well. Gavin is smart and heroic, pressuring Bates to elicit information and saving Lila in the nick of time, while Mortensen seems to be wasting time with Vaughn at the office as Moore is prying into the upstairs rooms of the Perkins house without much purpose. Similarly, the scene at the psychiatrist’s office seems just the wrap-up of a minor episode in the lives of various uninteresting people, rather than the fitting closure of a compelling drama.
But the failure of Psycho ’98 must be attributed primarily to Van Sant himself and to his apparent lack of artistic vision. Again, one can ask, what was it that he was trying to achieve? A mere repetition of Hitchcock’s movie? What can an exact copy do for a viewer, especially a viewer to whom the original is so readily available? More specifically, an exact copy of a movie made 40 years earlier, even with minor modifications of style, does not seem a realistic endeavor. Times change, and so do people’s outlooks. Most of the successful remakes have taken this factor into consideration, adjusting levels of violence and other aspects to meet contemporary audience sophistication. Hitchcock’s audiences were relatively innocent and more susceptible to shock when violence erupted on the screen. Today’s audiences are gorged with violent spectacle. The shower scene, though still shocking and frightening, can no longer traumatize them to the degree that it did then. Van Sant could have brought violence to a significantly more intense level, or delivered it with more innovation. Still, the level of violence alone could not have saved his film. For Hitchcock’s Psycho does rely entirely on violent scenes, like the stabbing scenes, to produce its effects; it had a director who could penetrate audience’s inner fears, irrational desires, and mad urges, and actors who could simulate these feelings perfectly. Hitchcock, above all, wanted to communicate with his audiences; their pity and fear mattered to him. Without a sufficient expression of these mental states, the tragic drama, what the original Psycho is, remains on a level of emotional liquidation and indifference.
Harris, Robert A., and Michael Lasky, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, Secaucus, N.J.: The Citadel Press, 1976
Spotto, Donald, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, New York: Balantine Books, 1983
Sterrit, David, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993
Van Sant, Gus, Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn, “Feature Commentary” and “The Making of Psycho”, DVD Edition, Universal, 1998