Sunday, October 17, 2010


In 1998 Gus Van Sant did a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's "Psycho," which was done in 1960. It was a pretty courageous thing to do, and I for one am glad he did it. Poor Van Sant suffered from the comparison, and it probably hurt his career, but I envy him for the lessons he must have learned, and I'm grateful for the light he was able to shine on the original.

Van Sant's version really underlined the importance of casting in the earlier film. Janet Leigh (above) has an arresting face that seems to reveal everything that's going on in her soul.  Hitchcock thought of her character as "bourgeois," but Leigh adds dignity and gravity to it, so that we care about what happens to her.  I love the throaty voice she has here. I heard that he looped all her dialogue to make sure that quality came through.

Here (above) she's being taunted by a flock of unearthly white car demons. She's only just stolen the money and already Hell is opening up behind her. Hitchcock believes that you should never flirt with evil. Doing so puts you on the radar of a frightening supernatural netherworld.

This long road sequence (above) is the best thing in the film for me, even better than the famous shower sequence. Hitchcock believes in the importance of mise-en-scene, where script and characters are less important than visuals, editing and sound in conveying deep meaning.  He strives to get effects through pure film.

Hitchcock said the shower scene (above) was the most important thing in the film for him. Every thing else in the story was there to lead up to it or take us out of it. Fascinating!

That's how I've done storyboards over the years. I search the script for the most important sequence in the film, the one the audience is likely to remember...the thing the story is actually about...and I'll board that first, giving it the star treatment. Everything else in the story is just what leads into that and out of that, and is subordinate (still creative, hopefully, just subordinate).

Anne Heche (above) played Janet Leigh's character in the remake. Heche made bad choices here. Her character has no gravity, no depth. You don't care what happens to her. She's said to have asked Van Sant if she could play the character as being amoral. Baaaad idea! A situation where a good person steals money is full of potential for inner conflict. An amoral person does the same thing and it's just an event.

By the way, who did the sucky lighting (above) in the Van Sant film?  Look how flat and unappealing it is in black and white. Compare it to the frame grab of Janet Leigh.

My friend Chris had an interesting observation about the Van Sant film. He said Heche doesn't seem to care deeply about the guy she's with (above) in the opening scenes. I guess Van Sant thought that detachment would make her appear more modern. But if that's the case, then why would she go to all the trouble of stealing money so they could be together? It doesn't make sense.

Hitchcock's lovers were also a bit detached, but only enough to remind us, noir style, that they were trapped in some situation larger than themselves. We never doubted their affection for each other.

And what's with the candy color anne Heche is wearing?

Here's Hitch in the original trailer for the 1960 film. I kinda like it.


Steven M. said...

Try as he have might, Van Sant still failed to make his remake any better.

in the trailer, Mr. Hitchcock is quite the gentlemen.

Anonymous said...

Eddie, thank you for reminding me of how brilliant the original version of Psycho was. I haven't seen in it in quite a while, but thanks to the post, I sure would like to see it again. I'm glad I'm not the only one who can see and appreciate how important good lighting and photography are to any film.

I'm also delighted that you're a big Hitchcock fan yourself. Do you have any personal favorites from the master of suspense himself? For me, I really can't name any favorites since most of the Hitch films that I've seen are truly great films (yes, even something as unusual or obscure as Under Capricorn or Mr. and Mrs. Smith. For me, they're actually really good in their own right, despite the critics' opinions of them).

Lester Hunt said...


Spot on, as usual! The main thing I got out of comparing the two movies was a new respect for Janet Leigh. The difference between her and Heche was as from one extreme to the other!

As I remember it, there is a scene where Marian Crane is eating a sandwich and talking to Norman Bates. Leigh manages to convey somehow that it is at this precise moment that she decides to go back and return the money. How she does it, I don't know, but I definitely did get the point somehow. All Heche manages to convey is "Oooh! This Norman guy is rilly creepy! Yyyuck!" Leigh conveys that as well, with the other thing, so to speak, behind it.

It's like you say -- casting! Hitch should get more credit for that.

Alberto said...

At least Van Sant did a shot-for-shot remake as well as keeping the dialogue pretty similar as opposed to dragging it throw the mud with contemporary and "hip" references, and adding an obnoxious "up-to-date" soundtrack like most remakes. I also agree on the fact that it was probably a good learning experience, though the lighting was clearly crummy he probably left as a better filmmaker. I don't know who shot that scene but all i ever hear good photographers and cinematographers talk about in interviews is light. LIGHT LIGHT LIGHT!

thomas said...

Funny how you go from the Victorian house in the last post to Psycho..

I like what you said about the car scene, and the build up of tension through visuals and sound. It reminded me of a scene in an early Hitchcock film; I think Blackmail; where a woman who has just commited a murder defending herself with a knife, goes into a crowded bar. The camera pans around the bar, and all the conversation around her is garbled, like its under water, except for the word
"knife", which is loud and clear.

Unknown said...

I like Van Sant's Psycho in theory since it's not a "remake" proper, with all the modernization that comes with. But as a friend pointed out, when he adds split second glimpses of cows on roads, time lapsed rolling clouds, and blindfolded women on beds during the murder scenes, it's like watching Michael Bay try to do David Lynch.

Also, every single person is either miscast or makes the wrong choices. Except William H. Macy as Arbogast, because he always looks and sounds like he walked out of another time.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Roberto: Yeah, Hitchcock delivers, no doubt about it. I don't think I ever saw Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Apart from Psycho it's hard to pick out a favorite. Maybe Vertigo, though it would benefit from a little trimming.

Lester: That "Yyyuck!" characterization of Heche was priceless!

Leigh does decide to give the money back because of something Norman says, but in my opinion that's not very convincing. She clearly thinks Norman is crazy and it's a little implausible to imagine that she'd be influenced by someone she felt that way about. Of course the sequence is so wonderful that a slip like that hardly matters.

Alberto: Yeah, I'd be interested to see one of Van Sany's later films, just to see what he learned.

Thomas: Now I wanna see Blackmail.

Chip: Well, it's as close to a remake as we're likely to see.

BTW, An interesting comparison would be His Girl Friday with the Billy Wilder version of Front Page.

Jorge Garrido said...

I'm not a big fan of Hitchcock or Van Sant's Psycho, but I'm dying to know what Tarantino thought of it. He made a 20 minute video review about Van Sant's version in which he described why it was a better movie than Hitchcock's original.

I studied Van Sant's version in black & white to see if a movie could be made that was cut, edited, composed, and shot EXACTLY like an old movie, but with modern mise en scene. I wanted to see if it would seem more like an old movie or like a modern movie with the colour turned off.

To my surprise, the mise en scene overpowered every aspect of the rest of the movie, and it really did seem like a 1998 movie with the colour turned off. I was crushed!

Jorge Garrido said...

Also, I wanted to say that I find Janet Leigh pretty annoying in general and in this movie. Vera Miles is a much more interesting actress, she elevates any movie shes in. Her and Eleanor Parker. I wish they was still acting.

Chip: You're so right about William H. Macy! Along with Angelina Jolie, he's one of the few modern movie stars who could have had a big career in classic Hollywood!

Jorge Garrido said...

Eddie, Blackmail was on TCM this week!

Lester Hunt said...

Eddie, I'll have to watch the mind-changing scene again.

Eric Noble said...

Psycho is one of my favorite films of all time. Hitchcock is a true master of film. I love janet Leigh as Marion Crane. She showed her as a good person in a desperate situation. Anne Heche makes her look so blase about things. There's no soul there. Makes me glad I never saw the remake.

As for what you and Lester were talking about, my feeling about it is she is very convincing. I don't think it was guilt so much as a fear of ending up like Norman, trapped in his box, unable to escape. I should go back and watch it again.

pappy d said...

I love that Hitchcock trailer. What a tease! He tells you almost everything that's going to happen in the movie, including the climactic shower scene. It all just serves to amplify the suspense once you see the film.

That's really cool to see Ann Heche in B&W. It shows how lazy photography got with tonal values once color came along.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jorge: What!!!??? Tarantino said he preferred the remake to the original!? And you don't like either version???? Somebody should call the police. Jorge, the man of sound judgement who's commented so often here, has obviously been kidnapped, and a doppleganger has taken his place. The genuine Jorge would have loved Psycho!

I've gotta find that Tarantino video!

Eric: Interesting point!

Archfriend said...

I'm a big fan of Gus Van Sant's minimalist approach on his Trilogy of Death ("Gerry", "Elephant" and "Last Days") and so I had more sympathy towards him when I watched his remake of Psycho. I think the biggest shock that comes to the fans of the original is the sudden change of characters, they're not the same people, even the bit-parts were eccentric (eg. the greasy car-salesman).

When you say Hitchcock believes script and characters are less important than visuals, that's what I would criticize his films for. I often find his actors so monotonous I have trouble engaging myself in any of their stories (Anthony Perkins excluded).

Van Sant did learn his lessons and came out a stronger film maker. He accepted that you can not replicate an old film if you are a director with different methods and approach to film-making. It's easy to say "well that's obvious!" but you never know until it's really done. In the age where the multiplexes are saturated with remakes, sequels and comic book adaptations we can thank Van Sant for bravely showing us what doesn't work.

pappy d said...

I think what Hitchcock meant by "bourgeois" isn't what we understand it to mean today.

The dramatic stakes seemed bigger for Janet Leigh's Marion. Respectability was more of a strait-jacket for girls in those days & the margins of society were unknown territory. She broke the rules which also protected "good girls" for a shot at la dolce vita.

Hitchcock used to say that the thing which frightened him most in real life were policemen because they had the authority to say, "You! Come with me."

Jorge Garrido said...

I actually quite like Psycho.

mike fontanelli said...

Why, why, WHY remake a perfect film (like King Kong, Robin Hood or Psycho)?

Why not, instead, remake a clunker that had real potential, but which the original director bungled (like A Chorus Line or Bonfire of the Vanities)?

I've never seen the later Psycho, so I can't properly judge it, but I am aware of its notoriety. The two films run the quality gamut in the Maltin movie guide (not that that's infallible, but it is a handy, rule-of-thumb industry standard) from 4 stars to BOMB.

You can't get much more disparity than that.

Best remakes, IMHO: The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Casino Royale (2006).

Worst modern remake: The Bachelor (technically a 1999 remake of Buster Keaton's 1925 Seven Chances).

BTW, here's a quick value lesson in filmmaking: if you're seriously considering a superior remake, good luck picking an original by Hitchcock or Keaton.

Just sayin'...

Jorge Garrido said...

Mike, isn't Robin Hood 1939 a remake of the Fairbanks film?

And what about the Last of the Mohicans? That's a good film that's been remade like 4 times, and each version was good.

BTW, I watched Angels With Dirty Faces for the 3rd time a few weeks ago, and now I have to reverse my earlier position on it. I used to think it was just an ok movie with a meandering plot and a few great scenes, but a prime candidate for remaking. Now I realize the the entire movie is great, and that it shouldn't be remade at all!

mike fontanelli said...

Actually, they're completely different, Jorge. The Fairbanks movie (which is a lot of fun) mostly takes place before Robin Hood becomes a renegade. He's still a knight; his rogue alter ego doesn't even exist for two thirds of the movie.

I didn't say it can never be done. (I like both versions of The Ladykillers, for instance.) I just question the necessity of it. How many versions of Alice in Wonderland and Planet of the Apes do we need, anyway? (Of course, Tim Burton had to come up sooner of later on this post...)

AWDF is a classic no matter how you slice it. BTW, when Cagney slaps Gorcey - it was real! Cagney didn't take any crap from the notoriously difficult Dead End Kids.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Mike: A few years ago i would have agreed with you. i couldn't see the sense in remaking films that were done right the first time. I since changed my mind, and now i want to remake all the successful black and white films.

Of course the remakes will fail, but if the public is willing to pay to see them then I'm in Seventh Heaven because their dollars are paying for my film education. Remakes almost always make you appreciate the original on a deepr level.

Arch, Pappy: True, so true!

kurtwil said...

I suspect the remake's car scene was a blue screen or digital composite, and unless great care is taken, the result will look flat as a pancake as this remake does, unlike Hichcock's shot of Janet.
In any event I saw the remake and was bored to tears, bailing after the infamous "rub it"" bit accompanying Heche's disrobing.

The curse of film making's the distributor/client insistence on "Marquee value"- remaking a known property over and over and over again. If "Tangled" does well, bet on Hair Nest Babies sequels!

But one remake that did improve on original was "Mighty Mouse The New Adventures", which often took the moldering Terrytoons franchise to new levels of creativity and energy - something missing in nearly all of today's animation.

Hans Flagon said...

It was always my impression that the Van Sant shot for shot remake PR was a ruse, because, if you have seen it (I have NOT seen it since it the van sant version was first released) it actually seems to veer considerably once the sister starts investigating her sisters disappearance. Am I wrong? Perhaps if not for shot choices, dialog at least. It seemed terribly different after that point. And as other messages here seem to suggest, it was NOT slavish shot to shot to the original.

Someone please confirm or deny my impression that the Van Sant version was not scene for scene set up the same way. Perhaps he only used the storyboards.

One thing that did remain different beyond the acting and the cinematography, (actually, related to the acting) was that the length of the scenes varied considerably. There was not an attempt to keep, or tighten, the pacing that Hitchcock created.