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A Crime of Passion, Not Profit: The ‘Retelling’ of Alfred Hitchcock’s "Psycho"

SHERWYN J SPENCER: Gus Van Sant had been interested in doing a shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” (1960) for some time. While Universal Studios were open to the idea of a remake, they weren’t too crazy on the idea of a remake that kept everything the same. Everything. Van Sant says the last time he asked to do it, “They said ‘yes’ because ‘Good Will Hunting’ made a lot of money.”

The worst thing you can say about Van Sant’s ‘retelling’ of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece is that it’s utterly unnecessary – or that its critical and commercial failure is what forced him to pay a kind of retribution by following it with the dull, paint-by-numbers, “Finding Forrester” (2000). Still, that hasn’t stopped a lot of people saying a lot worse of it. As a fan of Gus Van Sant’s work, it stands to reason that I’d be sympathic to his decision to tackle a sacred cow, and since I’ve never been particularly emotional about Hitchcock’s work – despite respecting his influence, legacy, and contribution to the world of movies – I’ve done little more than admire his technique. I’ve seen and enjoyed almost all of his films but to appropriate the asshole standing on line behind Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in “Annie Hall” (1977), he ‘doesn’t hit me on a gut level’. It’s not a question of quality, purely a matter of personal taste.

I don’t want to take anything away from the original “Psycho,” it’s practically perfect, but I do want to make a case for the remake. There’s nothing wrong with people criticising the film, but I’ve always felt the criticisms were the wrong ones.

What’s common to both films are the broad brushstrokes. Let’s face it: Hitchcock got them right the first time. I’ll spare you a summary of the plot – assuming at least a vague awareness of it through a collective social consciousness – but I do want to briefly mention the script. Joseph Stefano’s dialogue is taut and functional, but the structure of the film is one of the things I’ve always loved most about “Psycho,” the way it introduces an apparent lead character, Marion, and then abruptly swaps her for Norman. It’s the way he figuratively wrestles the movie from her in the parlor scene. Later, when the detective, Arbogast, comes snooping around, the script widens its focus to incorporate all the peripheral characters only to then hone back in, sharp as a tack, on the true star of the film, Norman Bates.

Hitchcock knocked “Psycho” out of the park using all his trademarks; fluid camera movement, editing, tension, atmosphere, everything. There’s a reason this film is held in such high esteem, but Van Sant gets these things right too simply by the fact that it’s a copy. He doesn’t mess with Hitchcock’s broad brushstrokes, he uses the same script and the same shots. Where Van Sant differs, and where I make my case for the remake, is on a few key points. First, his long-term collaboration with costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Marion Crane’s character, played by Anne Heche in the remake, still wears tight fitted, 60s-inspired dresses that keep the same silhouettes, but Beatrix adds flair and vibrancy through colour, detail and accessories that dazzle the eye. Marion’s parasol in the car yard sequence for instance, is an inspired choice.

In terms of casting, Anne Heche for mine is as good as Janet Leigh in the role of Marion and it’s much of a muchness trying to compare the two. The improvements come from the supporting cast. I wonder if it’s presumptuous to suggest Van Sant may have sent a little thank you note to Paul Thomas Anderson for making casting “Psycho” easier; Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Phillip Baker Hall all outstanding in Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997) which came out just a year before “Psycho” was remade.

But it’s not only those three that shine; James Legros adds another layer to Charlie the Car Dealer by seeming almost as interested in bedding Marion, as he is in selling her a car. His slicked back, skunk-like hair is perfect for the role. Viggo Mortensen, who plays Sam (Marion’s lover) rocks the cowboy, hardware store owner thing, but with way more presence than John Gavin – also referred to as ‘The Stiff’ by Hitchcock for his uptight performance – ever did in the original. Viggo plays Sam more with his cock than with his wits. In a line added to the opening scene, Sam says to Marion, after some talk of being introduced to her mother and sister, “I’d kinda like to meet your sister, does she look anything like you?” It makes Sam’s motivations seem based more on sexual urges than any arbitrary arguments for his character continuing on in the movie. The choice to play the character that way further supports Marion’s line, ‘You make respectability sound disrespectful.’ And Viggo holds that course for the rest of the film.

The needling private detective, Arbogast, played by William H. Macy, benefits from Macy’s presence by the mere fact that he looks like he was born to play the role. His green-screen moment on the stairs, to this day, still terrifies and amuses me in equal measure. But it’s Julianne Moore who steals the show. She takes the already resilient character of Marion’s sister, Lila, and without changing a word of dialogue makes her stronger, more aggressive and gives her purpose. Stomping around, yellow Walkman on, she projects subtle but unmistakable hints of distaste and mistrust of Sam - which suits both characters, as he may or may not, be more interested in sleeping with her than finding out where his lover has disappeared to. What the supporting cast add, is depth, texture, and character where none existed before. They give lives to the characters who in Hitchcock’s original, serve as little more than mechanical functions of plot progression and exposition.

The main argument for the remake’s worth centers around the work of cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. Van Sant’s decisions to use colour, to infuse green, the colour of evil, throughout the film in title sequence, production design, and costumes, combined with his decision to employ Doyle’s flair for lighting and composition, is what elevates “Psycho” to a new level. This murder in colour is a visceral and technicolour red. Doyle’s bright whites (surely someone deserves a mention in the credits for ‘whiteness’ a la Scorsese’s prize-winning short, “The Big Shave” [1967]), his purples, greens and blues elsewhere in the film diffuse an atmosphere over Bates’ Motel that is both candy and romance to the eye. If people were, justifiably, going fall all over themselves to gush over the photography in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) – also shot by Doyle – just two years later, it stands to reason that they should fall all over themselves to praise this, a piece with the very same talent at work.

There’s no doubt people have been conditioned to be wary of remakes, many a wonderful film has been ruined by a re-imagining, but there’s a purity, an intrigue, about remaking a film and not changing the script or the shots. Do we begrudge the theatre for reworking Hamlet time and time again? Van Sant dutifully adheres to the original, and adds depth and subtleties between the lines, in honor and respect for the original, not against it. If I have any issue with Van Sant’s “Psycho,” it’s not that Norman masturbates or has porno magazines in his room, it’s that Anthony Perkins’ performance couldn’t be transplanted into it. That’s all.

Van Sant said, “There’s nothing wrong with the original, just that no one goes to see it.” Well, that might be true for eleven of the twelve months of 2010 but the BFI are holding a ‘Psycho: A Classic in Context’ season throughout April, both Hitchcock’s original masterpiece and Van Sant’s intriguing ‘retelling’ will be screened. It’s no secret that I’m for them both.

...

Click here to see this article in its original incarnation, alongside extended screen-shots of the remake in, 'Gus Van Sant's "Psycho": A Visual Defence.'

The full program for the BFI's 'Psycho: A Classic in Context' can be found here.

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