Source: © 1960 Shamley Productions Inc. Renewed 1988 by Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Still Reeling - Psycho Redux
By Arnold Simon
The fiftieth anniversary of Psycho came and went rather quietly. Other than a smattering of testimonials from critics that garnered little attention, the public remained unfazed by this milestone in pop culture. Universal Studios marked the occasion by releasing a Blu Ray edition of the film, but viewing a sharp-focus version of what was deliberately conceived as gritty tabloid-style fare somehow contradicts the experience.
While most of the civilized world has by now mercifully forgotten about the 1998 remake, those of us who revere Psycho are still smarting from the beating it took in lesser hands. And with a threatened remake of The Birds in the offing, examining why such projects fail adds clarity to the stature of the originals.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, arguably the director’s most famous and popular work, left its imprint on the collective consciousness of the twentieth century. The audacity of its conceit, executed with seasoned finesse, caught audiences in 1960 off guard. The ramifications of this cleverly subversive film continue to manifest themselves in art and in life, in closely bound imitation of each other.
Unfortunately, like any cultural icon, Psycho has amassed its share of parasites and hangers-on. They take the form of third-rate sequels, tacky tourist attractions, and since 1998, an ersatz remake.
A self-promoter par excellence, Hitchcock parlayed his wry public persona into lucrative publishing, television and sundry ventures. But it’s the feature films that are his lasting legacy, the fullest expression of his creative instincts, and the measure of his reputation. Like all savvy showmen, he struck a nerve somewhere deep within the human imagination.
Overexposure and over-analysis haven’t hurt Psycho. The film blithely transcends time, place, fashions and fads – impervious even to its own shortcomings – to take up residence in the subconscious mind. Hitchcock’s bold gamble (critically condemned at the time as a descent into unsavory, B-movie territory) was the Master’s experiment in pushing the boundaries of propriety. His reinterpretation of a singular point of view for each successive film resulted in an unparalleled series of masterworks, culminating (at the age of 60) in this low-budget shocker that surpassed even his own ambitions for it.1
If a film can be said to change our assumptions about life, then Psycho did just that. The most shocking thing about Psycho was not whodunit, but rather, the harsh indictment of our own true nature. More frightening than the decomposed face of Mrs. Bates was the ruthless assault on our complacency. Hitchcock dared to unmask the self-delusions to which we cling. Scratching the surface of a very American landscape, he again revealed the inexorable chaos lurking not far below. How prescient it all seems now.
Janet Leigh in Hitchcock's Psycho. © Universal Pictures.
Half a century later, Psycho appears only somewhat dated. Its pace is a bit slow and its shock value has greatly diminished. But the craftsmanship holds up and the underlying truths about human behavior come across as insightfully as ever.
Viewers experiencing Psycho for the first time via Gus Van Sant’s unfortunate remake will justifiably shake their heads wondering what all the fuss was about. Though recreated almost shot-for-shot (in color), this unique experiment raises more questions than it answers. What it ultimately highlights are the rich subtleties of Hitchcock’s version, and the pitfalls of tampering with sacred cows.
Universal Studios’ desire to exploit one of its most reliable properties is understandable, and the feeling may have been that even at its worst, a remake would generate interest in the original. And though no one could have doubted the inevitable critical damnation a remake would trigger, in financial terms, it probably sounded like a low-risk venture with a high degree of potential, considering Van Sant’s art house reputation at the time.
More puzzling are Van Sant’s motives. For someone who avows deep admiration for Hitchcock’s Psycho, the resulting remake, for all its faults, seems most contemptible for its disregard of the fundamental coherence that makes Psycho so great in the first place. Recreating sets, camera angles, and editing are purely technical exercises. It’s the creative decisions that are so off-target, it’s hard to understand how anyone with a true appreciation of Psycho could have so grossly missed the mark.
Casting is unquestionably Van Sant’s primary misstep, one that spelled disaster from the start. Hitchcock’s peerless cast turned in several career-defining performances. The new cast fails in each and every portrayal. The sideways glances, the suppressed smiles, the nuances that create the underlying psychological tension are completely missing. These key elements of Hitchcock’s subtle and sophisticated style seemingly elude the majority of current-day actors.
Other misguided creative decisions by Van Sant and his design team regard music, wardrobe, mise-en-scene.
The importance of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score cannot be underestimated, except perhaps by the people involved in adapting it for the remake. A stunning and powerful tour de force, the newer version finds it playing benignly in the background. Rather than leaving us with the chilling, unresolved final chord, the score dwindles to a twangy, electronic afterthought during the closing credits. Hitchcock, unconvinced that Psycho would come across as he intended, 2,3 placed this remarkable score front and center where it belongs, impelling the action and our emotional responses. It stands as the crowning achievement in the composer’s illustrious career, taking on a life of its own and spawning countless imitations. Martin Scorsese wisely went full tilt with Herrmann’s score in his Cape Fear remake, outdoing the impact it made in that original film.
Psycho is meant to be a contemporary tale. Yet the time period in which the remake takes place is muddled. The opening credits emphatically state this is 1998. Why then does the sheriff’s wife still have to call the operator to reach the Bates Motel? Surely technology has reached Fairvale in 38 years. And the Bates Motel is curiously out of sync with its own chronology. Norman murdered his mother ten years before (1988). We’re told she was talked into building the motel sometime shortly before that, roughly the early 1980s. So why are the rooms filled with funky fifties décor?
Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. © Universal Pictures.
Likewise, costumes are outrageously inappropriate. Marion’s bright orange print dress with matching parasol (!) is hardly the kind of outfit one should wear attempting to elude the police and not call attention to oneself. Hitchcock’s Marion simply would not make such a fashion (mis)statement.
And the Psycho house… Is there a more recognizable private residence in the world? Inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1925 painting, The House By the Railroad,(4) this throwback to an earlier era is isolated from the modern world, cut off, literally, by the railroad tracks that have violated its sense of order (In Hitchcock’s film, they moved the highway). The Psycho house is a distinct player in this little melodrama, an imposing presence casting its own disquieting spell. The new house looks rather innocuous and far less threatening.
From Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. © Universal Pictures.
Because great effort went into duplicating the original film, changes made in the remake draw undue attention. The following three examples are the most troublesome.
1. The opening scene in the Phoenix hotel room, where liberties are freely taken with dialogue and staging, contains one particular line from the original that should have been changed. Marion playfully banters about how her extended lunch hours give her boss “excess acid.” In 1960, this was a swipe at a popular television commercial, something Hitchcock loved to do to his TV sponsors. “Excess acid,” no longer the buzzword it once was, means nothing to audiences today. The little joke, which early on set the tone for unexpected glints of humor throughout, is lost. The story needs that initial levity to throw us off balance.
2. Hitchcock deliberately has Marion cram the stolen money into a purse that’s really too small to hold it, thereby making it stick out as a constant reminder of her crime. Van Sant has her toss the cash into a larger bag where she (and we) completely forget about it. Why diminish such an important motivating factor?
3. When Sam distracts Norman so that Lila can search the house, he provokes Norman into hitting him on the head, knocking him unconscious. Anthony Perkins reached for a canister. Vince Vaughn grabs a handy golf club. Golf is a social activity. Norman is decidedly antisocial. What is a golf club doing in his parlor? His hobby is taxidermy, not chipping golf balls on the front lawn.
These mistakes (along with many others) conspire to undermine the logic behind Psycho’s twisted series of events. It’s no wonder the remake lacks suspense of any kind.
Other Hitchcock films have been remade, with varying degrees of lesser success (Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much being the sole exception), so why pick on Psycho? Psycho is inherently different. It broke all the rules and its mishandling compromises its ingenuity. In the future, let all the Hitchcock-wannabes practice the art of the remake as a parlor game and leave the rest of us purists to our untouched icons.
1. John Russell Taylor, Hitch: The Life and Work of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: DaCapo Press, 1996) p. 257.
2. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: DaCapo Press, 1999) p. 420.
3. Taylor, p. 257.
4. Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998) p. 68.
© 2011 Arnold Simon
Arnold Simon is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
Photo courtesy of Laura Corcoran.