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Nashville Scene Robbing Hitchcock

Golden shower or all wet? Two takes on the Bizarro World "Psycho"

By Noel Murray and Jim Ridley

DECEMBER 14, 1998: 

730 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4 I'm sitting in a movie theater with my wife, waiting for Gus Van Sant's highly anticipated remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Van Sant has shocked pundits and cinephiles worldwide with the announcement that his Psycho will be a virtual shot-for-shot and line-for-line copy of the classic. So, to get into the spirit of things, this will be a moment-by-moment review.

738 p.m. There are some noticeable differences right off the bat. In the opening scene between Marion Crane and her boyfriend in the seedy hotel, Van Sant has added sex noises. The update from black-and-white to color is distracting, especially since Van Sant has dressed the room and the actors in vivid pastels. Most odd are the performances of Anne Heche and Viggo Mortensen, whose naturalistic acting styles are way too flat for Joseph Stefano's punchy dialogue.

7:57 p.m. Bernard Herr-mann's score over the rainy highway shots are still tense as hell. When the Bates Motel appears, and Heche pulls in, my wife leans over and whispers, "Apparently, she's never seen Psycho."

7:59 p.m. Vince Vaughn appears as Norman Bates and is instantly likable. He's aping Anthony Perkins, but with flashes of rage and confusion that are more modern. It's a good interpretation of the role--smooth, but not as slickly charming as Perkins.

8:05 p.m. They eat. Was it always this creepy for a strange man to be alone with a frail-looking woman, or is that just the times? Heche has improved her acting to match Vaughn, who has the anxious manner of a teenager waiting for his parents to go out so he can masturbate.

8:15 p.m. Mister Bates masturbates.

8:18 p.m. Shower time--aaaaah! This is where shot-by-shot is really noticeable, since we all know this sequence by heart. Van Sant adds shots of storm clouds gathering. He also shows Heche's bare ass, at an angle that is downright crude. The blood is very red and almost overwhelms the intensity of the scene.

8:32 p.m. Enter Julianne Moore! And William H. Macy! And Flea?

8:35 p.m. Macy investigates. He has the perfect acting style for old-timey dialogue. The color is faded, like stock footage. Shouldn't Macy be in black-and-white?

8:47 p.m. The second on-screen murder. Van Sant inserts shots of a cow in the road and what looks to be a naked woman. To be honest, the scene is grisly, and I'm watching through laced fingers.

8:50 p.m. Moore, as Lila Crane, says, "Let me get my Walkman." This is one of the few self-conscious updates to the dialogue. One thing about the shot-by-shot discipline--it precludes the smirkiness of contemporary remakes, which always try to be above their material.

9:02 p.m. Maybe it's because I know what's going to happen at the end, or the absence of the original's stark B&W cinematography, but these closing scenes strike me as dry and perfunctory.

9:04 p.m. Lila investigating the Bates house is still creepy, though, maybe more than ever. It's a house frozen in time--'50s dresses, the toys and fetishes of adolescence. And the motel seems even more dilapidated in this era of affordable luxury hotels.

9:06 p.m. Don't go in the cellar!

9:17 p.m. The final credit--"In Memory of Alfred Hitchcock." Awwwww....

9:40 p.m. Home and thinking. Hitchcock once said, "Actors are like cattle," which may be the theory that Van Sant is trying to prove by sticking new cows in an established mise-en-scène. There are times when this new Psycho seems curiously lifeless, like a snapshot of a Georges Seurat painting. You can't interact with it much; the movie has already been boxed into one line-of-sight. But mostly Van Sant's film works because the original worked, and even if his attempts to make his title character crazier don't quite pan out, Vaughn at least proves as fascinating as Perkins.

Bottom line? Won't supplant Hitchcock, but should be viewed side-by-side by film students for years. Not a travesty, as some had suspected. Quote that, publicists!

--Noel Murray

The best way to criticize a movie, Jean-Luc Godard once said, is to make a movie. Bankrolled by major-studio suckers to the tune of $20 million, Gus Van Sant's Psycho must be the most expensive movie review ever made. Watching the director of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho wrestle with Hitchcock's technically precise blueprint is like watching someone try to build a working computer out of twigs. And yet it's the imperfections that illuminate Van Sant's methods as clearly as they define Hitchcock's.

The big question is, why? There's already a very effective scene-for-scene Psycho parody/homage Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill. (It kills off its biggest star in the first half, includes not one but two shower scenes, and lampoons that terrible closing gabfest with the psychiatrist.) Plus Van Sant's own style is nothing like Hitchcock's He's at once a more humane and less technically proficient filmmaker than the Master of Suspense.

So the motivations come down either to tribute, criticism, or cold, hard cash. Since a stunt like this represents at best a lateral career move, my guess is some combination of the first two. Psycho is revered as the pinnacle of movie craft at its most blatantly commercial. A cold, disreputable, brilliantly manipulative box-office smash, it was gradually embraced by highbrow critics as a macabre personal vision. Van Sant, an indie auteur who has carved a career of late as a mainstream journeyman, may have taken the assignment to draw a distinction between the kind of movies he wants to make--idiosyncratic films with broad appeal--and the formula genre pieces and, yes, remakes that Hollywood cranks out by the hundreds.

The result isn't Psycho, exactly: It's more like a dissertation on Psycho. One big difference, of course, is that Hitchcock's film took place in a world without Psycho. But from the minute Anne Heche's Marion Crane pulls into the creepy, deserted Bates Motel parking lot, we're incredulous. That's even before Vince Vaughn turns up as Norman, looking like Junior Brown on steroids and mumbling about taxidermy and his deranged mother.

Van Sant has to contend not only with the original, he also has to deal with the body of criticism spawned by the original--the decades of theoretical writing that have picked apart Hitchcock's mise-en-scène for clues to the director's method. Take the bird angle. Critics have labored over the movie's bird symbology, which goes something like this: Norman stuffs and mounts birds--British slang for babes, let's not forget--and adds one Marion Crane to his collection, with all the nasty sexual undertones words like "stuff" and "mount" connote.

Good student of film that he is, Van Sant's as aware of this as anybody. So he goes bird-crazy, filling the sets with avian prints and the soundtrack with caws and chirps. Thus you get the goofy spectacle of a director using impersonal skill to recreate Hitchcock's oddest personal quirks. Elsewhere, Van Sant renders explicit what was implicit in Hitchcock--say, that Marion and her boyfriend Sam are conducting a tawdry affair, or that Norman's spying on Marion in the shower is sexually motivated.

At the same time, Van Sant's few obtrusive choices call attention to what's most questionable, or least admirable, in the source material. In the shower scene, Van Sant dutifully reshoots the grisly building blocks that make up the montage: knife, body, thrust, stab. In the midst of the frenzy, though, he cuts away to storm clouds overhead. Are these Norman's thoughts? A weather update? Either way, it breaks up the rhythm and intimacy of the sequence. But we'd do well to wonder: What's so great about a technically ingenious way to show a naked woman being butchered with a kitchen knife? When Van Sant makes similar near-subliminal cuts (no pun intended) with Arbogast on the staircase, he again disrupts--what? Hitchcock's mastery of film technique, or his single-minded fascination with brutality?

You're saying: Forget that crap--just tell me if it's worth seeing. Well, uh, yes and no. William H. Macy's rakish Arbogast is great fun; the Saul Bass titles rock; Bernard Herrmann's peerless score is even more unnerving in Dolby Digital. But the plot twists and shocks that were the original's hallmark have been copied so thoroughly over the years that there'd be little surprise left anyway--one reason Psycho hasn't aged as well as some of Hitchcock's less showy films (Marnie, for one).

For movie nuts who love the endless algorithms and recombinations of cinematic possibility, though, this Psycho is pretty damn fascinating. After he has recreated Hitchcock's last image, of Marion's car being dragged from a lake, Van Sant rewards himself with a shot of the lake and the countryside at rest, and he holds it for a good long breath after the final credit: "In Memory of Alfred Hitchcock." It's Gus Van Sant's acknowledgment that he couldn't beat the Master at his game, and he's already moved on to bigger stakes. Too bad we'll never see what Hitchcock could've made of Good Will Hunting.

--Jim Ridley

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