Psycho vs. Psycho

1960 / 1998
Alfred Hitchcock / Gus Van Sant
[Hitchcock:] Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam [Van Sant:] Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy

A while back I had the idea to watch the two versions of Psycho, Hitchcock's original and Gus Van Sant's "shot-for-shot recreation," in close succession, to see what can be gained from watching both. But I held off for months for fear that while it could prove to be terribly interesting, there was also a very good chance it could turn out to be phenomenally boring. Finally I found a friend brave enough to go through this with me, we hunkered in one night and, luckily for us, this experiment turned out to be not just terribly interesting, but terribly, terribly interesting.


I had seen the Hitchcock original twice, and read a 60-page shot-by-shot analysis of it [less interesting than one would hope]. My experience was the same as many younger people attempting to get into Hitchcock; since all of his techniques have been appropriated so completely into film language, his own films can come off as hopelessly tepid. My experience with most of his films is that it's only on the third or fourth viewing, when one is no longer expecting to be thrilled by the movie and is really following the technique, that the films become exciting. And such was the case here.

We won't dwell too much on the original, as everyone knows about it. This time I noticed that the opening, from the pan across Phoenix in through the window of the hotel room, was composed of several small cuts. In my mind, I had previously assembled them into one continuous shot, which is what Hitchcock apparently wanted, but was unable to technically achieve. From there, certain motifs of the script made themselves apparent in ways I hadn't connected before. Marion is having an affair with Sam, and wants to get married and thus gain respectability, but they don't have the money. She is wearing white underclothes. She returns to work, where she meets a man who is jovial because his daughter is getting married. He tells her that he "Buys off unhappiness" with his money. You can't buy happiness, but you can buy off unhappiness. So Marian cannot make her relationship respectable because they don't have the money, whereas if she did have the money, she could "buy off unhappiness" and be married respectably, like the businessman's daughter. Continuing the theme of marriage and respectability, the other secretary in the office suggests that the businessman flirted with Marion and not her because "he must have noticed my wedding ring."

The businessman, of course, gives a stack of $40,000 dollars [$400,000 in the remake], and her boss entrusts her to put it in a safe deposit box. When Marion goes home and is packing [i.e. she has already decided to steal the money], her underclothes are now black. She drives off, interrogated by a cop after she has pulled over to sleep on the road, then hurriedly exchanging her car for another [under the watchful gaze of the same cop, which kind of negates the disguising power of the car switch]. As she drives she imagines her boss and the other secretary looking for her. There is an odd sequence in which her eyes are repeatedly blinded by the glare on oncoming headlights.

She arrives at the Bates Motel. Before she meets Norman, she sees the shadow of his mother in the bedroom window. He comes down to help her. She signs a false name in the guestbook, and as she does so we see him reach for the key to cabin three, then change his mind and give her cabin one, right next to the office. So, just as Marion had decided to steal the money before she actually left town, Norman decided to at least peep at her at this early stage. Soon they agree that she will come up to the house for sandwiches.

Marion hears Norman's mother mocking him and accusing him of being degenerate for his interest in Marion. He brings the sandwiches to her and suggests they eat in the "parlor" of his office. In this room are many threateningly-posed looming stuffed birds [there are also several bird art prints in Marion's room], and Marion is of course named "Crane." Norman [who could also be known as "Master Bates"] likes to stuff birds because "they're passive anyway." By the way, Hitchcock's next film was The Birds.

Marion sympathizes with Norman, and suggests that he consider putting his mother "someplace." This sets him off and we can see that he starts to hate her. He grows ever more emphatic, suggesting that if he left his mother her fire would go out, and her heart would be cold and damp, like a grave. Start keeping an ear out for Norman's many mentions of spaces that are dark and damp and cold and clammy, and that "make you feel creepy." He also mentions that his father died when he was young and that although "A boy's best friend is his mother," that "a son is a poor substitute for a lover." By the time this conversation is over—a conversation about the "traps" people end up in because of their pasts and their actions—Marion has changed her mind and decided to return the money and face the consequences.

I think we all know what happens now. An interesting bit of trivia is that this is the first time a toilet was shown on screen up until that time. My impression upon watching the shower murder is that it was much shorter than I recalled. Also please note a little piece of indirection Hitchcock engages in; he shows us Norman running up to the house, effectively telling us that Norman is now away from the hotel. Once the murder is over and Norman returns, you will see that a bird print from the wall falls onto the floor. He cleans up, throws her and all her belongings [including the $40,000 in cash] in the car, and dumps it into the swamp. The suspense trick of having the car stop sinking for a while, as though it's just going to stay like that, have been countlessly imitated.

One surprise upon watching this film again is that I had always considered it a little lopsided, in that it loses considerable interest once Marion is dead. I was surprised this time to find the second half actually more interesting on this go-round. For one, the way Marion and Lila, her sister, are made up to look very much alike and set up for comparison; the sneaky criminal versus the assertive good girl. And both of them have a relationship with Sam, who we are invited to think is comparison them on some level. Then Sam is also physically doubled with Norman, each looking similar and dressing somewhat alike, with each of them having a relationship with Marion. And all of this is emphasized by the large amount of mirrors placed at strategic places throughout the shots, and of course the fact that the film starts with Marion in a hotel room, and ends for her in another motel room.


One of the most prominent differences with the Van Sant version asserts itself right away: it’s in color! So the recreation of the credit sequence is now in vivid green rather than just gray. We’ll see that Van Sant uses color throughout the film to highlight certain aspects of the narrative or comment on the original film.

The move from wide pan of Phoenix into the hotel room window is now accomplished seamlessly, completing what Hitchcock wanted to do originally but was technologically unable. Marion and Sam are now played by Anne Heche and Viggo Mortensen. The solution they come up with to deliver their now somewhat quaint dialogue is to deliver it ironically. Therefore when Marion talks about getting married so they won’t have to sneak around, it’s delivered as though she is referring to quaint attitudes about respectability—the attitudes that were contemporary when the original film came out. There are also additions in less noticeable areas, such as sound… in this scene, we now hear a couple having sex in the next room, and there is an additional quick shot of a fly, surely to connect to the fly Norman comments on at the end.

One interesting facet of the remake is that they continue to use 60s-styled clothing and sets. I’m not exactly sure what it adds, or made easier for them, but it’s a little funny in how Van Sant just tries to float that we are among a group of late-90s Arizona professionals who are just really, REALLY into 60s retro!

As one of the primary reasons for making this version, Van Sant has said that he sees it as similar to a play; we see multiple versions of plays with different actors and different sets, different interpretations, and he doesn’t see why film is any different. Well, film is different because it is a medium that preserves ONE definitive version and THAT is the work of art, whereas plays typically are unique performances that are not recorded. But part of the interest here is like watching a new production of a play, seeing this exact recreation of a well-known text, with the actors and sets swapped out, and the same lines delivered in a slightly different way.

One area Van Sant uses to much effect is color. Orange and Green are the dominant colors here, with a few other notable additions thrown in. Therefore, Marion’s underclothes, which went from white to black after she had decided to take the cash, now transform to green. The friend I watched this with thought this might be to de-moralize the colors, moving away from the rigid right/wrong symbolism of white and black. I’m not so sure. Regardless, it’s hard not to sense a feeling of director amusement when you see such touches as the bright yellow envelope containing the money, or the way Marion’s bathroom at the Bates motel is now a brilliant, overexposed white.

Some scenes come off differently, and some are added to. In the original, Marion’s long talk with Norman in the parlor caused her to change her mind and return the money. One senses she felt pity for him, and that their talk about how poor decisions can shape the entire course of one’s life caused her to reassess her own situation. This contributes to the uncanny power of the first film; she has a connection with this guy, she is moved by him… and he ends up killing her. In the remake, Heche seems to understand that Norman is crazy, and seems terrified of him. Vaughn, for his part, is also unable to come off as the harmless recluse Perkins was able to project. The scene is scary in the remake, but when Marion announces that she has decided to return the money it is now abrupt and unmotivated, and the sense of their shared understanding is gone.

Similarly, not much is added but a great deal is taken away by the explicit depiction of Norman masturbating as he peeps on Marion through the wall. It was implicit before, there’s no need to make it explicit, and it deflates a lot of the tension that should be slowly rising as we near the shower scene.

The shower scene is left relatively intact, technically. One issue is—and I was going to hold off on this—is that Anne Heche is just not sexy [to most people who are not lesbians]. Janet Leigh was not exactly a sex bomb either, but she seems sensual and you want to touch her. Hitchcock, as usual, seems to take particular delight in her hair. And in the shower scene, she seems to be really enjoying the feel of the water in a sensual way—as well she should; she just decided to return the money [i.e. not pursue the life of a criminal], and she surely has a heavy weight off her mind. Heche does not seem to be enjoying her shower. What’s more, you don’t want to touch her—she’s sharp and clipped and angular. This effect goes far to remove the viewer from empathizing with her. There has been talk that Van Sant is trying to reverse the sexual roles here—the original film had a gay actor as the killer, this one has a lesbian as the victim—and that may be an interesting thesis [whether that was his intention or not is debatable], but regardless, we are further removed from empathizing with Heche’s Marion.

Van Sant cheekily makes the shower curtain a distorted fractal pattern. This may be a very meta joke—the original shower curtain, a translucent plastic the takes up the entire frame at one point, has been taken as a replacement for the movie screen, about to be ripped aside. This new version refracts the image behind it—a bit like this entire movie is a refraction of the original film. Again, it may be an interesting concept, but for me it hurts the film as something one might want to watch, because now we cannot see the approaching mother figure as well. The murder proceeds in much the same way as the original, with the addition of more blood [orange blood, btw], and a few inserted shots of ominous clouds. The clouds did not distract as badly as they could have, but they are absolutely unnecessary, and hint at the idea that we are supposed to understand that nature herself is wounded by this murder, which may induce exasperated sighs, eye-rolling and slight nausea in some viewers.

Among the pleasures of the remake is that it draws attention to directorial flourishes in the original that may have passed unnoticed. Primarily because camera moves and angles that seem at home in an early 60s movie seem quite odd in a late 90s movie, thus drawing more attention to themselves. For example, I had not previously noticed that the camera pans directly from Marion’s lifeless head, just after the rolling eye pull-out, and moves directly to the money on her nightstand in the next room. I suspect this is because the money is quite a powerful red herring—it ends up meaning almost nothing to the movie—and reflects Hitchcock’s understanding that the audience will be sitting there asking “But what about the money? Where’s the money?” Another example is the shot just above; notice that in the remake Van Sant has brought to the fore the geometrical division of the frame into sharp rectangular planes, that remains only hinted at in Hitchcock's version.

We now enter the second part of the film. Sam is working in his hardware store when Julianne Moore as Lila shows up. This Lila is an assertive rocker chick with a defiant demeanor and prominently-placed yellow headphones. They are soon joined by William Macy as Arbogast, and continue to go through the paces of the original film.

Arbogast’s murder also includes two “mystical” images inserted right into the middle of the action, one of a nude woman in a mask, one of a sheep on a foggy roadway. And about now the major casting issues become apparent. The first is that Vince Vaughn is rather large and can be physically threatening. This completely alters the dynamic during his conversations with Arbogast and later Sam, as in the first film they felt entitled to be aggressive with the seemingly harmless Norman, whereas in this one a viewer can see that Norman is bigger and meaner and one clearly does not want to piss him off.

Another issue with the casting points to what is either a serious misreading of the original, or a conscious decision to deviate from it. The original features a great deal of mirrors in its mise-en-scene, with many characters appearing doubled in several shots. This reflects the thematic doubling in the story, and causes one to reflect on the ways the characters are similar and different, giving the story additional dimension. With the red-headed Julianne Moore as sister to Anne Heche, all physical resemblance, and thus this entire thematic strain, is gone. Ditto the intriguing comparison between Sam and Norman, both of which contributed greatly to the original film’s uncanny resonances.

The most disappointing alteration—which also points to a serious misreading of the original film—is the climax. Throughout the movie Norman has made mention of his aversion to “cold, dark, damp places” that give one “a creepy feeling.” He specifically mentions that he could never leave his mother in such a place that is “cold and damp like a grave,” because if he did so, her “fire would burn out.” Those who have seen the film before know that he is in fact leaving her in a cold, damp place—the basement—and that, in reality at least, her fire has burned out long before. All of this adds an extra layer to Norman’s psychology.

However, in the remake, the basement of the Bates house is Norman’s large, bright, seemingly dry taxidermy studio. This effectively negates that entire strain of depth to Norman’s psychology, as well as destroys the visual power of the swinging lightbulb in that scene. I can grant that perhaps Van Sant turned Mrs. Bates into a blond Palm Beach-style mummy as somewhat of a gay-informed joke, but it’s unfortunate that his most alienating changes have to occur right at the climax of the film.

Overall, the watching of the two films back to back turned out to be a fascinating and revealing exercise. However, I think that the second film is probably never so interesting as when watched directly after the first one, so every little gesture and inflection is fresh in one’s mind.

It would seem that any interest the remake is able to generate is based entirely on its relation to the first film—and I see nothing wrong with that. By the standards of a contemporary thriller from 1998, it is hopelessly slow and meandering. Scenes such as the one with the cop or the switching-the-car sequence seem irrelevant and meandering, and are only of interest in comparison to the first film. I saw this version in the theater when it originally came out, with a young audience who seemed to expect a full-on terrifying chiller. This was, after all, the famous Psycho they had heard so much about. Van Sant has said that part of his motivation in remaking the film so faithfully was to introduce the movie to a generation who had never been exposed to it. It’s ironic that the effect was to show younger viewers a rotten time and ensure that they’ll never, ever watch the original.

But for those who wish to understand Hitchcock’s original better, this version is an invaluable gift. I wish there were more contemporary recreations of different movies. One can find much rich insight in comparing elements of the two films—the way the sets and background art have been updated, the delivery of dialogue—and especially in the noticing of elements in the remake that highlight the same element in the original. For example, when Arbogast is looking at the guestbook, there is a very odd shot of Norman’s neck as he leans over sideways to look. This shot passed unnoticed as I watched the original, but seemed so odd in the remake, it became just one of many examples of the remake causing us to appreciate moments that went by without note in the original. My friend and I spent much of the running time going “Was that in the original? Did the camera move like that in the original?”

Van Sant may not have succeeded in updating the film for a new generation or creating a version that can stand well on its own, but he has delivered a loving homage and reinterpretation that can provide an invaluable prism to review the original film through.