The remake screws it up with that way too long pause at the beginning. It’s trying to be tense but the end result doesn’t do anything. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a remake with looser editing than the original.
What’s elegant about the Hitchcock version is its symmetry. We see Mother, then Marion, then back to Mother, then Marion, and so forth. This is an important aspect of any kind of storytelling because it gives the illusion of forward movement to the audience.
Also, Hitchcock didn’t try to manufacture tension with an all-too-long pause, but got right down to business. The problem with the Van Sant version is that it’s meanders when it shouldn’t. I think he had a few good ideas. Marion shaking her head “No” is an especially good touch. It’s a subtle addition that makes Marion’s death much more brutal.
However, the thunderclouds are distracting and useless. I believe that Hitchcock had intended to splice in images of thunderclouds in the original, which would explain their presence here. However, there’s a reason Hitch didn’t do some of the things he did and it mostly has to do with the fact that they were terrible ideas. Thunderclouds give the whole scene a different feel, but at the cost of pacing. That’s why they weren’t in the 1960 version and why they have no business being in the 1998 version.
What else? The obviously phony “Mother Bates” disguise. By now, everyone knows that Norman is the murderer. Still, that doesn’t mean that Van Sant could clue us in to the identity of the killer so soon. The problem is that the whole screenplay is structured around the twist ending. So the movie is saying one thing, while Van Sant and the cast are saying another. It makes for a schizoid viewing experience.
Here we go. I’ve been glossing over the other aspects of both movies since there’s not much to compare and contrast. They’re 90% identical except for the acting and herein we enter into the meat of our little review.
Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates): There’s a reason why Perkins was typecast as Norman until the day he died. He’s perfect in the role. He manages to trick us over and over again. Our first impression of Norman is that he’s a nice guy, a little pussywhipped with perhaps a few issues, but nobody dangerous. He certainly doesn’t look insane. It’s only after we find out just how crazy he was that we look back on his performance and see that Norman was a psychopath all along. Just watch the part where he hesitates between giving Marion the key to room 2 or room 1, and then picks room 1. First time around, you don’t even see it, but when you know what Norman really is, it makes all the sense in the world.
It’s not out of line at all to declare that Perkins invented the modern interpretation of the cinematic killer. Before Psycho, if a killer in a movie were pretending to be a nice guy then the actor in the role would simply play a nice guy. When the killer turned nasty, the actor would play nasty. Simple. Perkins didn’t do that. When Norman is being nice, Perkins plays a man pretending to be nice, a man with a wellspring of violence just bubbling beneath. His eyes are all wrong. The way he looks at you. His face smiles but his eyes, they don’t smile.
Vince Vaughn (Norman Bates):
I feel bad for the guy. Norman Bates is an impossible role to recreate, because it’s not a matter of talent, but one of perfection. It’d be like trying to put someone else in the role of Captain Kirk. William Shatner is hardly a “good” actor. However, he owns the role of Kirk. When we think of Shatner, we think of Kirk, and vice-versa. Who else could play it? Its like Eastwood’s Dirty Harry or Schwarzenegger’s Terminator or Christopher Reeve’s Superman.
Even when lightning strikes twice and you do find an actor that can carry on the role, like Pierce Brosnan does with Bond for example, the actor can never play anything except a continuation of the original? Sean Connery created James Bond and no matter how much Brosnan will say that he “brought something new to the role” he’s still playing a version of Connery’s Bond. Don’t believe me? Read the books. Bond is a complete asshole towards women. He’s a misogynist and a chauvinist pig. To the book Bond, women are something to be used and enjoyed like wine. Connery’s Bond isn’t like that at all. He loves women and respects them. He’s not the most faithful man on the planet, but he doesn’t take any woman lightly. If he thinks of them as wine, it’s a vintage wine of fine bouquet. Brosnan has proven that he can “be” Bond, but what is he playing anyway if not the original Bond, Sean Connery?
So here’s Vaughn’s dilemma: Does he mimic Bates’ performance and get blasted because he didn’t do anything original? Or does he try to do something new and get blasted because he didn’t play Perkins’ version of Bates? It’s a no-win situation.
What he tried was to do a little bit of both. It doesn’t work. He gives Norman a creepy little laugh that would set off metal detectors at the airport and has a kind of leering _expression that just screams “HE’S THE KILLER!”
However, despite these negatives Vaughn’s pulls off one hell of a positive. He manages to overcome his looks. Which is a very hard thing to do for an actor. Perkins may have nailed the role to perfection, but he did have the advantage of looking like a teen heartthrob on a bad hair; exactly what Norman was supposed to look like. Vaughn looks like a frat boy on Monday morning after a three day weekend. Yet, if you give him a chance, he’ll make you forget his beery persona and convince you that he could be a mama’s boy working in a crappy Motel in the middle of nowhere.
Janet Leigh (Marian Crane): They don’t make actresses like this anymore. Then again, they don’t make movies where Leigh’s style could work anymore either. It’s a shame.
Her performance in Psycho can be measured by what she doesn’t do rather than what she does. In Leigh’s hands, Marion is a woman who’s pretended to be calm for so long that even her desperation can’t break through the facade. When she steals the money you can see in her face that Marion doesn’t really believe that she did it. It’s only as she drives away that the realization begins to set in. First she sees her boss, and then the cop pulls her over. Every set of eyes on her seems to judge her terribly. Inside she’s quaking, but unable to admit it to herself. When she meets up with Norman his eyes don’t seem to judge her and that’s why she trusts him and seals her doom.
Anne Heche (Marion Crane): Heche’s problem is similar to Vaughn’s. Her predecessor nailed the part and she has to live up to that. Leigh played Marion in a way that perfectly suited the character in the script. Heche’s attempt to redefine the role is a bold experiment but I’m not sure it works. The problem is that, like most of us, she’s seen Psycho many times and is probably as big a fan of the original as you or me. In the end, this familiarity hurts her. She’s uncomfortable with the character and overacts slightly. It’s not a big thing, but it’s noticeable. The scene with the Texas oilman for example is night and day between the two actresses who’ve played the Marion. Janet Leigh plays her as someone with impeccable composure. The oilman doesn’t notice anything wrong with her, because she doesn’t let him see anything wrong. The intensity on her face could be mistaken for interest. Heche on the other hand keeps doing this thing with her eyes where it’s blindingly obvious that she wants the man to go away. Then, when he shows her the money she looks as if she’s going to beat him to death with a stapler and run out the door.
Stage actors who find themselves acting in front of the camera often have to be reminded to tone it down. Modern actors playing old parts have the same problem. If you could isolate one specific thing that sets Vaughn and Heche apart from their predecessors it’s that their physical gestures are bigger, they talk louder, they enunciate more. This isn’t so much a sign of bad acting, but one of two actors who aren’t sure how low they should turn their volume switches down. They’re playing it at four when they should be at about two.
Psycho (Original): Not to sound like a philistine, but I don’t think that color would have hurt it. The way it looks now, it’s a bit drab. Black and White was never able to capture a warm environment correctly and it’s hard to see the film taking place in an Arizona heat wave. The merciless sun and dry heat just don’t seem as bad as the characters make it out to be and since the whole plot is based on Marion’s inability to think in such conditions. It was a mistake, albeit a minor one.
Hitchcock had toyed with the idea of shooting it all in color except for the shower scene so it’s obvious he was torn with the whole thing. The only reason he even shot it in B&W was because he knew that red blood would have given it an instant “no” with the censors of the time.
Another flaw is the tacked on ending where a psychiatrist explains Norman’s condition. At the time it made some sense, people were unfamiliar with the concept of split personalities, but that doesn’t mean that it fit in with the rest of the film. Eliminating it would have taken Mother’s final monologue out and the creepy shot of Norman smiling, but it would have been worth it. Here was a movie with impeccable pacing that just screeched to a halt for the last five minutes. It’s even more unforgivable in Van Sant’s version because he repeats it when he could have simply cut and rolled “The End” when Mother is revealed to be Norman.
Psycho (Remake): Van Sant blew it big time with one of his minor additions. It’s the infamous scene of Norman peeking in on Marion. In the original we see Norman lift up a painting and stare at Marion in the bathroom. In the remake it’s the same, except that Norman masturbates. This is a terrible idea that ruins the surprise ending. In the original, the scene can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. In the remake, we know he’s crazy.
One more thing, we’re informed at the beginning of the film that the date is Friday December 11th, 1998. However, much changed in the 38 years between the two movies and that leaves us with some heavy anachronisms in the character’s behavior. No thirty something woman today, even a conservative one, would rather go to a seedy motel than be seen in public with a recently divorced man. The very idea would be laughable.
Then we have Marion’s sister. Early in the film the dialogue goes along the lines of “We’ll have a respectable dinner with my sister with my mother’s picture turned towards us.” and when we meet the sister, Julianne Moore, she’s anything but the prim type.
Same goes for the dialogue, people don’t talk that way anymore. Period. Van Sant should either have set it in 1960 or updated the dialogue.
So what do we end up with? Watching it back to back it’s painfully obvious that the more subtle and nuance Hitchcock version is a vastly superior film up until Marion’s death. After that though, the remake does improve slightly on the original. Julianne Moore and Viggo Mortensen are less stiff than Vera Miles and John Gavin. They’re further helped by the fact the second half of the film doesn’t exclusively focus on them as it did with poor Anne Heche at the beginning. Nor does the dialogue seem as anachronistic as it did for the first hour; which works wonders for believability. Moreover, let’s not forget Robert Forster and William H. Macy who are quite good in their roles. Better than the actors from the original as a matter of fact.
So which is better?
The original. No questions about it. However, I do believe that the remake has been unjustly demonized. Had the remake been the only version, it would have been considered, at the very least, a damn fine movie. The problem, I think, is that time has passed and certain cinematic techniques from the era have become laughable today. For example, the scenes where Marion is driving and we can hear her thinking in an echoing voice seem ridiculous today. Compare them to the exact same type of scenes in a movie like Memento and tell me if Van Sant couldn’t have improved them by using modern methods. The world has moved on and Psycho, like it or not, is seen through the misty haze of time and nostalgia. We forgive certain things merely because it’s old. When Van Sant does the same as Hitch did in a modern setting we groan. It’s an unfair reaction perhaps, but an honest one.
If Van Sant has a legacy with this film, it’s that he’s created a perfect film school tool. If you’re a student in film, filmmaking, acting or writing it’s a must that you watch these two films back to back. I’ve only touched the surface of how these two films differ and a more methodical viewing would be a great lesson in cinematic style and technique. What the hell? It beats being in class right?
Remakes offer a unique experience to understand the craft of filmmaking. You have two different films based on the same story and ideas; two different cast and crews, two different levels of talent, two different points of view. More often than not, one of these films is quite good, and the other is terrible. By comparing the two we can analyze where one went right and the other went wrong.
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Posted on December 1, 2004 in Features by Jeremy Knox
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