Posts Tagged ‘Psycho’


First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Total Recall (1990). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’ Bannon, and Gary Goldman, from a story by Shusett, O’Bannon and Jon Povill, itself based on the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick. Starring Arnold Shwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside. 113 minutes.** 1/2

Total Recall (2012). Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by  Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, from the 1990 screenplay and Philip K. Dick story. Starring Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, and Bill Nighy. (Produced by an outfit called “Original Film,” which got a huge laugh all by itself at the showing we saw). 121 minutes. ** 1/2

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Okay. Let’s get this much out of the way, first.

The general disdain many people have for the very phenomenon of remakes is often centered on the movie made so perfectly the first time that it is unthinkable to imagine such perceived perfection ever being sullied by an inferior imitation.

And there’s something to be said for this: after all, we have the remake of PSYCHO, a failed attempt to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

The reflexive disdain is so automatic that it has, in the past, condemned films that had something to go for them. We’ve discussed how one great movie, The Wages Of Fear, was remade as a pretty damn good one, Sorcerer, and how many critics of the time assaulted it just for the unwelcome presumption.

We have seen some rhetoric of the kind directed at the latest big remake to hit the multiplex, a second film called Total Recall.

The implication is that the original was such an unparalleled classic that just to even attempt to remake it was blasphemy.

But let’s be honest here. The original was not a capital-g great movie. Like the remake, it’s a rather dopey one, enjoyably kinetic in its setpieces and resonantly paranoid in its premise, but nevertheless a dopey one, driven by machine-guns and explosions and a McGuffin that fails to pass the bullshit test of anybody with even a passing familiarity with science. The remake is also a rather dopey film, also enjoyably kinetic in its setpieces and resonantly paranoid in its premise, but driven by machine-guns and explosions and…well, the rest of the sentence continues on as before, even though the McGuffin here is entirely different than the one in the original film and therefore requires an entirely different species of bullshit.

The films have many of the same strengths and many of the same flaws. It is possible to consider both absolute crap and it is possible to consider both enjoyable thrill rides. It really depends on how “hard” you prefer your science fiction. In either film, if you require your physics to obey the laws ogf the real world, you might as well not pay the price of admission.

In broad strokes, the setups are identical. Both films open in a near-future metropolis, where a happily-married menial worker named Quaid (Arnold Shwarzenegger in the first film, Colin Farrell in the second), who feels stifled by the same old grind of to-work-and-back, has been having dream-flashbacks of an adventurous life not his own. The dreams come complete with a woman not his wife, which disturbs that wife (Sharon Stone in the first film, Kate Beckinsale in the second), who is remarkably understanding about her man having erotic dreams about someone else.

Still driven by the sense that something in missing, Quaid goes to Rekall, a corporation that sells false memories of grand times the customer has never lived. He is talked into a dream involving himself as an unstoppable secret agent. But midway through the procedure, something seems to go wrong; it seems that he might actually be a secret agent named Hauser, who was only weeks ago mind-wiped and installed in his current life by the forces of a villain named Cohaagen (Ronny Cox in the first film, Bryan Cranston in the second). Now Hauser must flee ruthless assassins who include his own loving wife, while seeking out the answers to the mysteries behind his origins.

The films share a number of other dramatic beats in common, among them the major revelation regarding Hauser’s real agenda. But they are otherwise so different that neither really spoils the other. Let’s take a look at the differences.

The Futures

The key difference is in the science-fictional background.

The 1990 film presents us with a future where Mankind has started to colonize the solar system, where people on Earth live pretty much the same way they do today except with more gadgets and where people on Mars live under the heel of a corrupt local administrator whose pocket-lining ways has created a permanent oppressed underclass of mutants and other 99 percenters. Questions of harmful radiation, of life support, and of the stupidity of firing machine guns around glass in a pressurized environment – which is stupid, but clearly a joke the movie is aware of, given that Michael Ironside’s rather dim manhunter makes or tries to make that same mistake multiple times – all factor into it, but the overall impression given is that mankind’s horizons have expanded and that there are enough wonders to go along, if not for the few selfish and brutal people who insist on ruining it for anybody. It’s hard to imagine minding a life in this future, as long as you’re one of the privileged and all the shooting is safely in the past. It’s all rather familiar, really – it even has many of the same corporations.

Some of the new gadgets are particularly fun; I like the bored airhead receptionist, amusing herself by instantaneously changing the color of her sculpted fingernails. And some have actually entered our lives; i.e., the wall-sized television sets.

The 2012 film, more in line with the tone of author Philip K. Dick, presents us with a firmly Earthbound humanity, on a ruined planet that possesses only two habitable regions, one in what used to be Great Britain and one in what used to be Australia. Both regions, beset by wild overcrowding, have built their urban centers up vertically, in a form of architecture that involves laying one city entirely over another, and then another over that, for as high up as the superstructure will support.  Workers commute from Australia to Great Britain on a daily basis, via a kind of skyscraper commuter train that plummets through the core of the Earth, and somehow builds up enough momentum to make it all the way to the surface on the other side.  So it is, in a very real sense, a world that has lost all hope, and where all the machine gun battles and running around amount to a form of fighting over the crumbs. There are gadgets here, as well – Colin Farrell’s Quaid has a refrigerator that also functions as an I-Pad, and there’s a wondrous chase through a network of crisscrossing high-speed elevators, traveling both vertically and horizontally. But again, the impression given is that one world is a hopeful one, marred by corruption; the other is a terrible place where people can live their lives, but where their horizons are strictly proscribed.

The differences between these two milieus is further underlined by the visual palate. The 1990 world has some dark and/or undeveloped places, but is mostly a brightly-lit and colorful place, where even the sleazy hooker bar looks about as threatening as a McDonald’s at lunch hour. For the most part, the 2012 world is grimy, grungy, dimly-lit, often rainy, and in the Australian scenes populated by people who look like they’ve managed to eke out a few precious square meters for themselves and dress to let us know it. This extends to the look of the false-memory shop, Rekall. In 1990, it has stone walls, but is clearly an upscale business, with techs in white coats, a smiling high-pressure salesman, audio-visual presentations for the slower folks among the clientele. The model is a travel agency. The 2012 version is tucked away in an alley in the midst of a skeevy hooker neighborhood, is dimly lit, and is decorated for mood  – the impression given being that it’s more of a vice-driven enterprise.

(Both places have a three-breasted hooker, but 1990’s three-breasted hooker is implicitly one of the area’s mutants, and the 2012 specimen is a one-of-a-kind anomaly, possibly a new form of deliberate body-mod.)

Claims that the 2012 version is “just” a ripoff of the original are defeated by the change in design. Clearly, a lot of thought went into making the new version look different. The competition between them is frankly a wash. 1990 is brighter, more colorful, larger, more filled with visual humor; 2012 is more eye-popping, more dazzling visually, less hopeful and certainly more a world that anybody would mess with his mind to escape. 

 

The Performances

1990 star Arnold Shwarzenegger has often been accused of being utterly without acting talent. That is a canard. He is no grand thespian, and was indeed at his best in the first Terminator film where he was employed less as character than as living special effect, but any close examination to his accomplishments on screen reveals than he’s actually pretty good at expressing rage, fear, terror, pain, amusement, amiability, charm, uncertainty – not quite a full spectrum of human emotion, and certainly not enough to completely overcome his easily-parodied line readings, but certainly enough to function within the scenarios usually provided for him. He is a larger than life figure, and viewers never wanted him to be anything other than his usual screen persona, anyway. (Hence the frequent, jocular repetitions of “I’ll be back.”)

2012 star Colin Farrell is an actor of harder-to-deny talents, who has been very good indeed in character-based movies (two capital-g Great ones: The Way Back, In Bruges),  but one odd result of casting him in big-budget action films is that he tends to disappear in them even when he’s supposed to be the focus (see: Miami Vice, Daredevil).   In his Total Recall, he’s very good indeed as a hero who imagined himself an ordinary man and now finds out he’s not (or, in the other interpretation, as an ordinary man who is merely being made to imagine that he’s a hero), but much of his acting is subtle, inward, as far from over-the-top as possible. It’s a better performance, technically, but is it a better one for the material? This reviewer is honestly not sure. Call it a wash.

Bryan Cranston has recently made his bones playing a good guy who becomes a bad guy in Breaking Bad, which is why it’s so disappointing that his 2012 evil mastermind is not nearly as memorable as Ronny Cox’s 1990; he’s just not given the same level of emotion to play. On the other hand, Sharon Stone’s vicious undercover wife from 1990 is just a little bit more than competent and Kate Beckinsale’s equivalent in 2012 is a wonderment; she is an unstoppable force of nature, a frightening figure even when she just frowns with determination, from a distance. It is grand theft movie, first class, by far the best reason to see the remake.

Beckinsale’s character, Lori, is actually the combination of two characters from the 1990 film, Lori and Richter. The loss of Richter (played in 1990 by Michael Ironside) is a major one, in that his character has more than one pressing reason to break orders and want Quaid dead. There’s a great exchange between him and another of Cohaagen’s men, regarding Lori’s undercover role as Quaid’s wife: “Are you saying she enjoyed it?” “No, I’m sure she hated every minute of it.” Ironside played him as a guy who adored his wife but wanted to erase her transgression by any means possible, to the point that it rendered him reckless and stupid. It was a performance that made it possible to feel sorry for him. As great as Beckinsale is in her performance as Lori, a female terminator, it’s a shame that the streamlining of the story deprived us of a subsidiary villain who could have had some equivalent fun with this dynamic. 

The Competing Species of Bullshit

In Total Recall 1990, the big secret is the discovery of a massive alien machine designed to melt a glacier in the core of Mars, and thus provide the planet with a breathable atmosphere.

This is a terrifically cosmic science fictional concept called “terraforming,” and it renders Cohaagen an even greater villain in that he refuses to turn it on, preferring to profit from a Mars where every citizen has to pay for every breath of air. (Oh, he provides some lip-service to fears over whether the machine is safe…but really, it’s clear; he just doesn’t want to destroy the Mars that enriches him.) In the climax, the erupting plumes of vapor shatter all external glass in the colony, but renders Mars a blue-skied paradise within minutes.

Umm. Sorry. The first bad news is that it can’t possibly work that way. Even if that much gas is created, all over Mars, it’s impossible to believe that the air would dissipate all over that globe in mere minutes, unless it creates a worldwide windstorm far stronger than the most violent terrestrial hurricane. And, frankly, just providing Mars with an atmosphere is not the problem. Finding a way for Mars to keep an atmosphere is the problem. There’s a reason why it barely has an atmosphere now; it simply doesn’t have the gravity to retain one. Even if the colonists could enjoy a few minutes of balmy weather in the aftermath of the machine’s activation, the same problem would face them a week or a month or a year later, after all that atmosphere was gone. It’s like giving money to a derelict with holes instead of pockets. He can’t hold on to it, that’s all.

There’s also the issue that Quaid and Melina are exposed to near-vacuum for long minutes as the atmosphere is created, and suffer explosive decompression, complete with eyes popping out of their heads. That they survive, to face a delightful blue sky and a happy ending, without any medical aftereffects, is unlikely in the extreme…but, hey, if we take the position that the entire adventure just survived is Quaid’s psychotic delusion, thanks to the malpractice of Rekall, then it’s fine in that it really doesn’t have to make sense. If it’s not part of Quaid’s real world, it’s dopey. If it’s part of his dream, it’s sneakily brilliant.

One major problem with Total Recall 2012 is that the nonsensical elements are part of Quaid’s waking world. It really is impossible to believe in the Fall, a skyscraper falling through the Earth’s core (and back up again), as the most practical form of mass transit in an nearly uninhabitable world. The physics of it don’t work and logic of it doesn’t work, and beyond that it’s downright ridiculous to posit one transport full of robot soldiers being enough to conquer a teeming city, when we’ve seen that those soldiers can pretty much be taken apart by anybody sufficiently good at martial arts. It can’t be written off as a dream because the same technology exists when Quaid is awake. It’s pretty enough…but fails to beat the common sense test.

Alas, so does the entire justification behind the amnesia storyline in the first place. Assuming you take the interpretation that everything that happens to Quaid is real and not a fantasy implanted at Rekall, it makes perfect retroactive sense, in the 1990 film, for his character to be working undercover with his memory erased. After all, he’s going after a rebel organization run by a telepath. He needs to believe in his own sincerity. There are no telepaths in the 2012 version. Hauser doesn’t have to believe a damn thing; he could accomplish the same thing by just believing real hard. There is no reason to place him in a position where he can run amuck, wholly out of the control of the people who hired him, killing their own men…except to obey the general plot outline that was such a hit in 1990. It doesn’t make sense, not even if you consider Quaid’s adventures a fantasy.

Another element of the 2012 version that makes less sense than the 1990 version: the robotic cops. In 1990, there are none; there’s just a bunch of thugs and a very powerful alien machine with the ability to change the world. 2012 presents us with a bunch of “invincible wimps” – an ultimate weapon killing machine so flawed that it is possible for an unarmed martial artist to take one down. This would not be a serious problem if they were just scenery. But we are made to believe that the plan is for one commuter-car of robot soldiers, to completely exterminate the entire population of the Australian zone. Not based on what we see. I think they’re in for a fight.

The 2012 version is also so fixated on propelling its story that it omits many of 1990’s grace notes. For instance, in 1990, when Quaid and Malena are captured, Cohaagen puts her in a reprogramming chair too, to make her a “respectful” and “obedient” bride for Hauser. It’s just a little terrifying. Not in 2012; she’s simply arrested.

The Action

Both films have wild over-the-top action sequences, with stunning explosions of violence. The ones from 1990 are funnier, and confidently give some of the best bits to people other than the titular hero. For instance, there are precious few moments of junk-movie bliss more transcendent than the moment in that film when the dwarf hooker grabs a machine gun and starts mowing down thugs. She was a bit player, and people still cheered her. It was, I think, the loudest cheer the movie got, which is saying a lot in a film where Arnold Shwarzenegger gets to shoot or beat up dozens of people. The 2012 version is pretty much a four-character show. It’s a loss.

Give the 2012 version credit, though: it has three lengthy action set pieces that outgun and outclass anything in the original film, among them Quaid’s flight through the shadow streets of the Australian zone, a multi-level chase that runs on for miles and takes him through all strata of his society. That’s neat. So’s the hovercar chase, a scene that would have blown my mind, as a youngster. And so’s the wildest innovation of the whole film, an action scene unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any movie, an extended chase through vertical and horizontal elevators that is eye-popping, original, and downright thrilling. It’s great stuff, the main reason the 2012 version receives a grade equal to 1990’s.

The Memory Vault

1990 version: a campy thrill ride, that is science-fictionally richer, and happens to make just a little more sense,  than the 2012 follow-up. The 2012 version: darker and more despairing, better acted albeit (aside from Beckinsale) to lesser effect, and set in a future that makes no sense whatsoever, but with visuals and action sequences better than anything in the original film.

Life circumstances intruding, there will be no Remake Chronicles essay in September. We hope to be back in October, but those “life circumstances” will be continuing well into that month, so it might well be a 60-day break. We shall see you when we see you.

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And now, the wife remembers it for you wholesale…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Total Recall (1990). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’ Bannon, and Gary Goldman, from a story by Shusett, O’Bannon and Jon Povill, itself based on the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick. Starring Arnold Shwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside. 113 minutes.**

Total Recall (2012). Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, from the 1990 screenplay and Philip K. Dick story. Starring Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, and Bill Nighy. (Produced by an outfit called “Original Film,” which got a huge laugh all by itself at the showing we saw). 121 minutes. ** *

 

One of these two films is better than the other, and its not the one the critics think.

I had fond memories of the 1990 Total Recall.  I mean the images of Mars were amazing and the mutant population was wonderfully varied.  The story had love, hate, war, rebellion, greedy land barons and sympathetic prossies, everything you need for a fun time in the old west right?  Only this wasn’t the old west, it was the future and having bulgy AHNOLD slinging throw away punch lines just doesn’t hold up.

In 1990, I believed a person could survive in a non atmosphere by holding their breath reallllllly long.  Ummm…chalk up one for the gullible.  But guess what?  The filmmakers wanted us to believe not only that, but no permanent damage would occur after  the incident.  Boy, is there egg on my face.

I could go on picking apart the pseudoscience in the original but why bother, its been done ad infinitum by those much better /knowledgeable than I.

Well, to prepare for the remake I decided to read the source material.  Boy, was I ever taken aback.  Where was all this Mars rebellion stuff? This story is all about a guy trying to search for his true identity and then deciding, he really doesn’t like himself too much.  That’s the film that I saw a few weeks ago.  That’s the story that I read.  That’s the reason so few folks liked it in comparison to the first take. 

Colin Farrell plays most of the film as a poor confused sap finding himself involved in things he doesn’t understand or care about.  Audiences don’t like their hunky leading men to play second fiddle to strong capable women. Audiences don’t like plots with more twists than their poor struggling minds can follow. Audiences today want the story spooned up and fed to them so they can run out to get another big gulp and still catch up in one sentence or less.  This is why the majority of folks prefer the first version. You don’t need to think, just cheer on the bruiser.

The remake has an infinitely better cast, better script , special effects and most importantly a set to make any Blade Runner fan drool in envy. 

To compare, Arnold does a quick bit of surgery and recovers pronto, Colin staggers with each bash and bruise.  Sharon Stone as wife in original is a B**ch, but not unstoppable, Kate Beckinsale as wife in remake is a force to reckon with.  Wife two made a more plausible baby sitter for the “dangerous spy/good guy/bad guy/ummm you name it.  Compare Ronny Cox to Bryan Cranston as the money grubbing baddy and it’s a close one.  Cox oozed menace, but couldn’t fight worth a bean.  Cranston oozed menace and proved a bit formidable too. 

So, throw it all into a pot and stir well and you get a tight SF film nearly true to the source material versus one that took the name and a few plot points and then decided to make an action comedy SF film.  You can choose for yourself. I already have.


Keep Your Mouth Shut, Or Say Goodbye to the Kid

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, from a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlison. Starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, others. 75 minutes. **

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the earlier screenplay. Starring James Stewart, Doris Day, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke. 120 minutes. ***

You and your family are on holiday abroad. You are intent on having a good time and minding your own business, but a mortally wounded secret agent warns you of an assassination plot threatening the stability of the entire world. Naturally, you resolve to tell the authorities…but before you can the bad guys kidnap your child and threaten murder if you ever tell the police what you know. All you have left is your own resources, your own determination to get that child back…and an imminent rendezvous at a concert in  London’s Royal Albert Hall, where an assassin’s bullet has been scheduled to coincide with a climactic clash of cymbals.

This is the dilemma that faces the protagonists of the only story Alfred Hitchcock ever saw fit to revisit, the two Men Who Knew Too Much; two very different films similar in plot outline and much more than “similar” in the Albert Hall sequences that mark the high points of both, but which are in other ways quite different. Hitch himself told Francois Truffaut that the first film was the work of a talented amateur and that the second was the work of a seasoned professional; he is not wrong about that, even though both are second-tier work, missing the subtext and psychological richness that mark the best of the suspense master’s output. It’s safe to say that without the master’s name on it, the first would now be totally forgotten if not the presence of the great character actor, Peter Lorre; and that the second, fun as it is, would likely not be remembered all that much more. (Sorry; even as lightweight Hitch goes, it’s certainly no North by Northwest.) But as far as originals and remakes go, they make a deeply instructive pair, because a side-by-side comparison demonstrates the best possible reason to make a remake in the first place: i.e. fixing what was, initially, wanting.

Lorre

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The first The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) presents us with Bob and Jill Lawrence (Banks and Best), a British couple on vacation in St. Moritz. Jill is a competitive-level skeet-shooting champion; she misses her shot here, but her skill is established, and anybody who wants to know whether this will eventually be a story point should recall the maxim once posed by Anton Chekhov. The first thing worth noting here is that while kids in jeopardy are a long-standing tradition in movies, kids in jeopardy can be annoying when they almost die stupidly, and Betty gets on our crap list right away when she chases a weiner dog – which we take to be hers, though it is never seen again – onto a ski-jump slope, and comes within a few feet of being mowed down by a skier in competition. (Given Hitch’s later fame for staging elaborate and persuasive set-pieces, it’s worth noting that the near-accident is presented as unconvincingly a product of stock footage, a reaction shot, and the editing room, as anything you are ever likely to see in a Hitchcock film ever again; this in part because it’s a low-budget film from the very early days of sound, and in part because Hitch was, as he later admitted, still learning his craft). 

It is also worth noting that Bob and Jill feel like place-holders instead of characters. We are invited to root for them because the camera is on them, not because either one of them does anything to make us fall in love. Bob pulls what is allegedly a neat trick involving his daughter’s knitting, which he hooks onto the tux of a man dancing with Jill, so it unravels during the waltz and tangles everybody on the dance floor in twine…but the moment is pure movie hokum; it’s impossible to believe that the dancers would all fail to notice that this was happening, for as long as they do. And there is absolutely no sense, aside from the natural assumption, that this couple has any real affection for their child, until that child is kidnapped; there simply isn’t any real chemistry between spouses or between parents and child.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that even by the standards of the era, where some actors seemed to have used their cigarettes as substitutes for actually giving a performance, it’s downright cringe-worthy to see star Banks take a deep drag and deliver his next line with a big, white cloud of toxicity puffed directly into his little girl’s face, at what amounts to point-blank range. Betty doesn’t seem to mind much. The actress, Nova Pilbeam, retired from show biz only a few years later but is is apparently still alive, her iron constitution providing a terrific defense against second-hand smoke.)

The subsequent assassination of the secret agent makes little sense even by the flexible physics of Hitchcock movies. The bullet, evidently fired by a sniper outside the building, cracks a window, its trajectory carrying it over a very crowded dance floor with other bodies in every direction, and then manages to hit the secret agent in the chest even though – I cannot possibly stress this enough – even though he is at the moment dancing with Jill and any bullet striking him in that spot would have had to go through her first. It is in short such a magic bullet that the one responsible for hitting President Kennedy and Governor John Connolly is revealed as a muggle bullet by comparison. We will forgive the happenstance that has it piercing the agent’s chest UNDER his tuxedo without making a hole in that tuxedo; the logic of bullet holes was extremely loose at this point in film history, and if we started to complain about that one we’d have to complain about all the others and would probably be here all day. Still, the moment doesn’t work at all.

Following Betty’s subsequent kidnapping by the bad guys, the action moves to London, where in between bouts of dramatic cigarette smoking, Bob decides to investigate the assassination plot himself, and (because this movie is only 75 minutes long), finds the conspirators right away, through a visit to a creepy dentist. There is some goofy nonsense involving a “Church of the Sun,” which manages to hypnotize Betty’s monocled twit of an Uncle, but for our purposes the important part has to do with Bob’s almost immediate capture by the bad guys, who have him in custody and ENTIRELY ineffective for most of the rest of the film.  Led by droopy-eyed, cigarette-smoking Peter Lorre – they naturally spend this time blowing smoke in his face. (Lorre’s filmic output consists of many great films like M and Casablanca and The Mask of Dimitrios and The Maltese Falcon and Mad Love and Arsenic and Old Lace where he gave performances by, you know, brilliant acting, and a couple of others like this one and the tv version of Casino Royale where he substituted his cigarette; he is profoundly creepy here as always, but really, the cigarette is being asked to do far too much of the work.)

The climax is an all-out assault by cops where Bob accomplishes almost nothing – the very model of the ineffective hero.  (Jill’s skeet-shooting does come into play, however, a twist telegraphed for almost the entire length of the movie that nevertheless got outright applause at the one repertory theatre showing where I saw it, years ago.)

Is there anything to recommend the film to earn it its unlikely reputation as a classic? Well, yes; the Albert Hall sequence, where the leadup to an attempted assassination is set against a classical music piece, while Jill sits helplessly in the audience. It is a remarkably effective and suspenseful interlude, the one thing here that would lead any viewer to think that this young Hitchcock fellow might indeed have a future. But even there, there’s an astonishing gap in logic. The point is made, following the non-fatal shooting of the foreign dignitary, that the concert resumes after a slight delay, even though the assassin has not yet been caught. This is a line of unnecessary passing dialogue that doesn’t really affect the plot at all, but…umm, what? Does this follow any real-world behavior you recognize?

But that brings us to the remake, which is in very small part an exercise in brilliantly re-staging that scene and providing it with a surrounding story that is somewhat more worthy of it.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

The second The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is separated from the first by two decades, a generation’s worth of technical advances, a clearly superior budget, and the increased clout of its superstar director. Make no mistake: it is still not a great film. Hitchcock did make other great films in this decade, among them the other James Stewart vehicles Vertigo and Rear Window;  this was merely a solid thrill ride, with little in the way of resonance beyond the doings on screen. (And even as such, not nearly as fun as North by Northwest.) But as a story, it works substantially better, for a number of reasons.

To start with, it’s visually far more sumptuous. The black-and-white cinematography of the original is not particularly special, except in moments. The 1956 film is never less than gorgeous, even during scenes set in Morocco that clearly employ rear-screen projection and other artifices easy to discern by a sophisticated modern eye.

It’s also better storytelling. It actually takes time to get us to know its two leads, Ben and Jo McKenna (James Stewart, Doris Day), an American doctor and his somewhat retired stage actress wife. We learn that they have an easy familiarity, that Jo has a somewhat more refined bullshit sensor than Ben, and that Ben has an amiable awkwardness about him, here shown in his discomfort with Moroccan table manners, that instantly humanizes him and makes him more than a generic thriller hero.

Doris Day gets a lot of crap for her performance as Jo, and particularly for her two renditions of her signature song “Que Sera, Sera,” – a ditty that strikes many modern ears like nails on a blackboard – but, your opinion of the song aside, look at how it’s used as storytelling. We see Jo singing the song while making the bed for her son Hank…who happily joins in to sing a verse on his own. There is strong story value in this moment. You know at once that she’s sung this song for her son many times, and that he takes an uncomplicated, unembarrassed joy in singing it with her. An entire childhood is sketched in with this one unremarkable demonstration of a parent/child relationship. The song comes up again – irritating its detractors still further – at the climax, when Jo uses an impromptu embassy party performance to signal her captive son that she is in the building and looking for him; it is also pure hokum, but it is hokum based on character, a climax that is therefore infinitely more satisfying than the one in the original, where the lair of the villains is stormed by police and Bob Lawrence accomplishes little before being knocked out beyond freeing  his daughter from a locked room.
    
The gradual entrapment of Ben and Jo into the espionage plot is a lot better established than in the original. In this version, it turns out that spy Louis Bernard sought out the McKennas because he has reason to believe a vacationing couple might be involved in the assassination plot he’s investigating. As it happens, he has mistaken the pair for the actual culprits, the Draytons…who in turn note how familiar the Mckennas are with Bernard and assume that they’re associated with him.  It’s a wildly unfortunate series of coincidences that gets the McKennas in trouble, but then coincidences are perfectly fine as plot devices when they make matters worse. They’re only unacceptable when they make matters better. The net that gradually draws around the McKennas in the first half hour of the film is a perfectly acceptable evocation of the capriciousness of fate, and works quite well at setting up the conflict – best of all during the scene where a mortally wounded Bernard, who’s disguised as a street arab, staggers through a crowded market toward the man he knows to be a doctor, who will not be able to help him. The moment where his false brown skin color comes off Stewart’s hands is downright horrifying in its subtext: a visually compelling cue for the danger being passed from one man to another.

Every element of the story is improved. In the original, when Jill finds out that her daughter has been kidnapped, she turns away, dazed; she looks downright stoned, and it’s such a terribly designed scene that it’s difficult to empathize with her. In the 1956 scene, physician Ben tells Jo that he has something to tell her, which he will only impart if she does what he says and takes a pill he has offered her. It is a sedative, which he has prescribed to lessen her shock. Even with the sedative, she is downright hysterical. The scene speaks on more than one level: Ben’s cold-blooded practicality in a crisis, Jo’s tremendous love for her son, the size of the hole that’s just been ripped in their lives.

The plot even works better when the movie moves to London. In the original, when Ben decides to go after the kidnappers himself, the piece of paper he has picked up from the dying spy leads him directly to a dentist affiliated with their conspiracy. The dentist may be creepy, and Bob’s encounter with him effective enough, but the lead still seems too easy; almost spoon-fed. The remake addresses this by sending Ben on a wild goose chase to confront a hapless taxidermist named Ambrose Chapell, who clearly knows nothing of the conspiracy…when he should be visiting a house of worship named Ambrose Chapel, instead. It’s a funny, frustrating, and suspenseful interlude, raising the possibility that Ben’s independent investigation might end before it begins. Best of all, it defuses what would otherwise be an overpowering sense that everything here happens just a little too conveniently.

The set piece at Royal Albert Hall is largely a shot-by-shot remake of its counterpart in the prior film, but even it works better, in part because Hitchcock plays more visual tricks, among them visual tracking of the musical notation as the orchestra proceeds toward the fatal crash of cymbals. It is lusher, more visually enchanting, scarier, and in part even funnier (thanks to the special attention paid to the guy whose job in that orchestra is to sit there quietly, bored out of his mind, until the time comes to bang those cymbals together).  You may note that Bernard Herrmann, the composer whose famous scores included the famous one for Psycho, plays the conductor – and is even identified on-screen as himself, a bit of meta-humor that he likely appreciated.

We will also note that the scene has been improved dramatically, as well. In the original, Jill silently pieces together the assassination to come while sitting in one of the seats; here, Jo stands at the rear of the auditorium, clearly not part of the audience, her discomfort palpable until it becomes unbearable and she is left silently weeping, utterly lost over what to do. You may, like many, hate the two performances of “Que Sera, Sera,” and indeed it’s not unfair to call Day a mediocre actress at best, but she still acts the living hell out of this particular scene. In a career that was largely dominated by lightweight comedies of no particular memorability – and which she ultimately walked away from in disgust, following horrific mismanagement of her finances and her thespic options by a manager/husband who was either totally oblivious to her desires or downright contemptuous of them – these are likely the best few minutes she would ever have on film.

James Stewart made four movies for Hitchcock, two of which are all-time classics and none of which are less than interesting. (Even the worst one, Rope, is a fascinating experiment, that rises to greatness at several moments.) His The Man Who Knew Too Much occupies a position somewhere in the middle. It’s a solid, nuanced, movie-star performance of a good man forced to rise to an untenable occasion over stakes that affect him deeply. There’s a reason why Stewart’s place among the immortals is as linked to Hitchcock’s fame as it is to the direction of Frank Capra and Anthony Mann; his work for Hitchcock, even in this film where he played the most straightforward character of the quartet, helped give him the impact of a star who could express inner darkness while still projecting basic decency.

This was no small thing.

The Crash Of Cymbals

Hitchcock said it to best: The first film is the work of a talented amateur. It shows genius in spots, but is otherwise not very good. The second film is the work of a professional at the peak of his craft – not his best work of the period, but never less than assured.

And now, the wife prepares to shriek from the cheap seats…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, from a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlison. Starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, others. 75 minutes. *

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the earlier screenplay. Starring James Stewart, Doris Day, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke. 120 minutes. ***

I was actually looking forward to seeing a Hitchcock film I had yet to see.

Adam and I, early in our relationship, took a trip to Universal Studios and had to see the special effects exhibit  framed around the works of Sir Alfred. We entered the hall with about a hundred fellow visitors and perused the photos and films names about the room.  Adam and I began happily checking off the films we had seen and making note of those we hadn’t.  Most of the crowd just mulled about waiting for something to happen.  After all this was Universal and a special effects exhibit, so I guess they were waiting for someone to pop up and yell BOO!  Nope, a guide came out and began asking folks how many of the listed films they had seen.   Never had I been so bothered by silence as then.  Only one other couple in that room had even remembered seeing at least 3 of the master’s works.  As for Adam and I , we stopped counting somewhere around 12 films, with many more yet to go, realizing we had seen more by far than most others in that place.  We sat wondering why these folks had come to see this particular exhibit if they had no clue about these films.  The Hitchcock tour closed a few months later to be replaced by some cartoon-related attraction, but Adam and I miss it to this day. (Especially when we use our Bates Motel towel set).

Ahh, but on to the films.

I understand why Hitchcock felt an absolute need to right this wrong in his career.  The early version (1934) was clearly made by a filmmaker constrained by budget and his own learning curve. The characters are absurd, exhibiting a lack of warmth I can only attribute to poor scripting and worse acting.  We get to meet a disappearing dachshund who nearly causes the death of the soon to be kidnapped “child”,  a mother conveniently a champion skeet shooter, a poor maligned father who takes abuse with a cheerful smile, and a group of friends and who don’t question why a child who has been travelling with her parents and pet must suddenly stop and visit an never before heard of aunt in a different country. 

Next, we deal with the lack of reality in both the shooting and the sudden angst of the parents.  The shot rings out, the spy slumps over to whisper those needed clues, and dies without a hole in his dinner jacket or blood spreading out anywhere.  Come on, even in the 30s a death was a death.  And, now suddenly, when the kid disappears(and the dog, but no one mentions this), the parents get all upset, when earlier they would have gladly bundled her off to the nearest boarding school or convent.  PUHLEEZE!  These parents early on show all the warmth of a pair of wet shoes and only daddy shares a childlike joke with his daughter, more like a friend than parent.

So, I quickly gave up hope that this (I cant use “old” cause the film was released the year my mom was born and she’ll be annoyed by the old word) first version would resolve in a logical or satisfying manner, and I was right.  The cops can’t shoot straight and are afraid to take a kill shot.  They are more interested in the residents of the homes they take over than the killers firing at them.  And, of course, it all falls on skeet champ mama to save the day, after ineffective daddy gets all the leg work done.  Last I checked shooting skeet is waaayyy different than offing a human through an open window, who also happens to be holding another human shield in front.

Now let me get on to the musically irritating, but eminently better 1956 version.

I was born in the early 1960s, therefore “Que Sera Sera”  was sung and played around the house a LOT.  Did I learn to despise it?  YES!  Do I still cringe when I hear it?  YES!  Has anyone actually analyzed the message handed out by this little ditty?  Obviously not really, or maybe this ear worm is the reason for all the ills suffered by the baby boomers and Gen-Xers..  After all, the song does say just roll over and accept whatever happens, and that does seem to be the problem we face.  So I guess I can blame part of the woes of the world, since the 1960s, on the effect that the placement of this one song , in one film, had on the world.  But, Don’t blame Doris Day, she was just the delivery system for this ennui bomb.

In this version we have a more believable family group.  Older, doctor husband, hot, young musical theater star wife and precocious spoiled child.  There is actually a semblance of familial feelings seen from the start.  This said, when the fan gets hit, the couple who worries about arranging for a sitter in the hotel for their 8 year old child while they attend a local restaurant, have no qualms turning said child over to a couple who amount to total strangers who happen to share the bond of a common language.  Ummm..??? Maybe this comes from a jaded sense of the 80’s  and children on milk cartons, but I remember my folks cancelling plans, rather than leave me with an unknown sitter.  Same time frame, better parenting?  Maybe?

Then, these caring, loving parents refuse the help of professionals in the mistaken belief they only they, with no expertise, can rescue their child.  OK.  Right!  The film follows the same pattern from here as the original, but the red herrings and set ups are MUCH better, but still, that damn song is the key, or is it?  By the time daddy doc finds the kid, the song is over and the bad lady kidnapper is helping the kid get away.  Happy ending, with a glib last line, as is the trademark of all the good Hitchcockian films, but kinda unsatisfying on multiple viewings.  Now, North By Northwest, so much more fun!


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

(This one comes from February 2009, shortly after Slumdog Millionaire defeated Milk in the Oscar Race for Best Picture. It’s a highly political piece, which has relevance, I think, far beyond its critical comparison of the two movies.  – A-TC)

It is fundamentally unfair to compare one piece of art with another piece of art. They must both exist in their own universes, and at their own levels. Comparing GREAT EXPECTATIONS with THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is an act of tremendous injustice; they are both masterpieces of their kind, and the immortality of the first does not preclude the smashing entertainment value of the other, or of (naming another work at random) “The Music Box” by Laurel and Hardy. We know this. We know this well.

And yet there are times when the comparison is so instructive that it must be made anyway.

To wit: I finally caught up with MILK yesterday. And about a week before it I caught up with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, which just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The films are both riveting, and so different in their assumptions that they are practically different species. It would be spectacularly unfair to criticize one for not being the other. And yet this is one of those times that one must.

You see, everybody’s talking about how beautiful and magical and classic SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE was. Everybody’s dropping dead with love for that movie.

I liked it very much. It is at heart an old-fashioned movie movie, visually sumptuous and deeply involving. But I was also disturbingly dissatisfied with it, so dissatisfied that I ended up resenting it, a little.

You know what it’s about. Three children are orphaned in the hellish slums of Mumbai, and endure the horrors this world reserves only for the most destitute. Years later, one appears on the Indian version of the TV game show “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,” where he’s mocked for his slumdog background, and is expected to do poorly. To the nation’s astonishment, he knows all the answers. It turns out (and this is not a spoiler, since the movie begins with this), that his experiences taught him exactly the answers he needed to answer these particular questions. The central question is whether he is reunited with the love of his life, who has fallen under the control of some bad people.

Now, this is what SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE did well. It had some searing scenes of poverty. It nailed the dilemma of a young boy who remained more or less unspoiled while his brother became a corrupt thug. It made us care about that standard movie trope, an unspoiled love that begins in deepest childhood and remains pure and chaste until the final clinch. I firmly confess that it worked its spell on me, and I even liked the post-narrative ending, which is straight out of Bollywood.

But I walked away unsatisfied, and I think this is why.

The protagonist did nothing.

Life happened to him. He was battered by poverty, bullied by his brother, and limited by his circumstances. He finally went to the modern equivalent of a fairy godmother, the game show, and was rewarded for just, you know, deserving it. Much was made of this being his “destiny,” and I realized upon seeing the movie that if I never hear that word again, in a storytelling context, it will be too soon.

I realized I first decided I hated that word when Crispin Glover in BACK TO THE FUTURE kept saying, “I am your density.”

Because it’s a slave’s word.

In debt? Working for a boss you can’t stand? In danger of being thrown out of your house? Working two jobs and barely a nodding acquaintance to your kids? Keep buying that lottery ticket. Someday you’ll win. It’s your destiny, or at least you’re supposed to believe it’s your destiny. As long as you have that, you might as well not work to change anything else.

The teeming masses of Mumbai, cheering our hero’s game show successes throughout SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, represent a triumph for him. But, guess what. He got out of poverty because it was his density – er, destiny. He had a million-to-one shot on a game show, and he gets a romantic clinch as well. But them? They’re still fucked. Whether he moves to the suburbs or goes out in the streets and starts handing out his rupees, he can’t help them all. The corruption is systemic. He’s just lucky he got out.

The movie has other flaws. I did not believe for one instance that the sociopathic shit of a brother, who has always been about serving his own immediate needs, would ever extend himself to help the protagonist he has used and brutalized. He only does because the movie needs him to. And that’s “density” talking again.

Now, take MILK.

And I need to establish, first, that it’s not just subject matter and approach that makes this a better movie. MILK is brilliantly performed by a fine cast, central among them Sean Penn, who has always been brilliant but who has rarely conveyed the warmth he shows here; he’s often been cast as pricks and thugs, but rarely as a guy whose smile could persuasively make others want to do anything for him. The same could be said for supporting players Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber and others; and for the staging of real historical events, and for the direction by Gus Van Sant (who, I should say, has here firmly earned his way out of the critical perdition some of us condemned him to, for his temerity in remaking Hitchcock’s PSYCHO; that move was asinine and corrupt, but MILK more than earns him his artistic pardon).

And who is Harvey Milk? An affable little gay guy from New York, living in closeted fear, who moves to San Francisco and gradually gets involved in local politics, running for office multiple times until he finally makes history by getting elected. Facing down the gay-bashers, defying those who tell him he’s wasting his time, he is instrumental in raising public awareness and defeating a truly noxious piece of anti-gay legislation. It’s a great personal triumph that is the culmination of his life, and that starts a legacy of change still continuing decades later; a legacy that he does not get in share in, as he and mayor George Moscone are assassinated by fellow city supervisor Dan White.

(Nor are these spoilers. It’s history, people.)

MILK has humor, it has passion, it has dialogue and performances capable of making the receptive viewer weep, it has a great performance by Penn and one very much on the same level by Josh Brolin, whose Dan White is a study in stewing resentments. (It was incidentally the real Milk’s theory, mentioned in the film, that the conservative White was a closeted “one of us,” but that diagnosis is not strictly necessary to what happens; what White really is, and what Josh Brolin captures, is a kind of uber-Nixon, driven by self-loathing without any of Nixon’s compensating talent. Nixon was bad enough as a political genius. Dan White was Nixon as mediocrity: Nixon the guy who remained certain that everybody was laughing at him and was pretty much right about that, Nixon the guy who was such a nonentity he could only achieve something by bringing others down with him. Brolin played Dan White and George W. Bush in the same year, and I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t a display of his versatility as an actor; the parts required the same chops.)

It’s a brilliant film, and possibly the best of the year on its own merits. I would like it more than SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE in any event. But what happens when you compare it to the film that beat it for the Oscar?

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE gives us a character who remains more or less helpless, who gets on a game show, who hasn’t even made himself the kind of person who might win there, who is instead handed a golden ticket by the happenstance of the right questions being asked. Chance rescues him, and he is cheered by a crowd that is still in the circumstances he left.

MILK gives us a character who refuses to be helpless, who head-butts that same wall time and time again and finally breaks through it, who accomplishes great things and plants the seeds of change, who does not get to share in it, and is left by a crowd whose lives he was able to change because he lived.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about trusting the phenomenon of the happy ending. MILK is about making that happy ending happen even if it’s for other people.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about “and then he won the lottery.” MILK is about “Don’t wait for it to be given to you. Demand what’s yours.”

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about wish-fulfillment. So is MILK, but it doesn’t absolve its protagonist of the responsibility to make it happen.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about “density.” MILK is about depth.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a fairy tale. MILK is….well, that’s where the contrasts fail. (I apologize.)

Cinderella stories are crowd-pleasing. But Cinderella, the character, does nothing. She’s harassed and rewarded by powers greater than herself. People respond to that because it’s how everybody feels, sometimes. But how much satisfying is a story when the character stands up and acts?

Even Buttercup, in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, gets to tell off the Prince.

The difference, I think, is the one between a movie that provides a balm to slaves, and the one that instructs free men. Trust SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and you’re deeper in your rut. But MILK, like the beverage, is good for you.

It is, as I began this little rant by saying, fundamentally unfair to compare one work of art with another. The two movies had different aims, and that’s fine. Fantasy’s fine. After all, I’m the guy salivating to see WATCHMEN in a couple of weeks.

But there was a period in film history, beginning in the mid-seventies but strongest in the eighties and the nineties, when every hit film had to end with the protagonists getting handed everything they wanted: they had to get a great job, get famous, and end up being cheered by a huge crowd, so that the audience had that image imprinted on their eyeballs. Coming after the complexity films had in the early 1970s, which was one of the greatest periods for American film at least, was like being forced to eat pablum when we’d become used to steak. I can give MILK no higher compliment than saying that it belongs to the era of DOG DAY AFTERNOON and SERPICO and THE GODFATHER. And I can say nothing more revealing about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE in contrast than saying it belongs more to the era of ROCKY or STAR WARS, except that it uses true human suffering as a romantic backdrop, and thus (I think) betrays its subject matter.

MILK wuz robbed.


* We* are the music makers… and *we* are the dreamers of dreams.

  

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others.  100 minutes.  ***

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. * 1/2

Let’s get this out of the way, right at the beginning.

Despite a lifetime of voluminous reading that began in childhood, I have never actually picked up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I have read some of that master’s short stories, notably the grisly and often-filmed modern “Lamb To The Slaughter” and “The Man From The South,” but I have never actually read Charlie.  I therefore come to Willy Wonka’s factory with no preconceptions, no fidelity to a version that exists between pages. Anything I might say about one version’s faithfulness to its story is knowledge I might have picked up by osmosis. Unlike  our previous two part essay on films starring the Three Musketeers, this one will not and cannot refer to a ‘definitive’ take, based on the characters originally portrayed in a beloved book; it can only talk about what works best on screen.

There is, as we’ll see, enough to note on that basis alone.
  
Both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory deal with the adventure of an impoverished young boy named Charlie Bucket, who lives in a hovel with an extended family that includes two sets of bedridden grandparents, perpetually sharing the same king-sized mattress in an arrangement that must lead to any number of broken noses whenever one of them kicks suddenly in the middle of the night. Charlie is a paragon of virtue, given his circumstances; he works to support his family, endures a ridiculous host of deprivations, and never complains, mever even seems to think of complaining.

Then one day, the reclusive but world-famous candy maker Willy Wonka, master of a factory that continues to churn out delicious confections decades after firing all its workers and shuttering its doors, announces that he will open his doors to five children lucky enough to find the golden tickets that have been inserted into five Wonka bars, worldwide. Each child will be able to take one adult family member and each one will win a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. The first four tickets go to kids who are all truly rotten, for one reason or another; the fifth lands in Charlie’s hands, and he takes the tour along with the other winners, their equally terrible parents, and his own suddenly – one would almost say ‘suspiciously’ — ambulatory grandfather.

(Watching the film as an adult, reality intrudes and it’s hard not to feel suddenly angry at Charlie’s grandpa, who has been lying in bed for years, while his family rotted in poverty and his grandson grew up eating weak cabbage soup for every meal. Talk about lazy bums who needed to go out and get a job. This is not a profitable train of thought, though, any more than it’s profitable to despise Willy for firing all the local workers and bringing in a tribe of little people willing to live in the factory and be paid in cocoa beans. Right there, you have both the rationale behind Occupy Wall Street and the response of the opponents who tell the demonstrators to stop whining. In either case it’s not something you want to think about very much. As we’ll see in our discussion of the first film, this is a fable, that exists in an isolated moral universe.)

In any event, all of Charlie’s fellow winners, and their parents  and the other winners, are driven by their own individually awful brands of awfulness to meet whimsically horrific fates in a factory that has certainly never been inspected by OSHA. And in the end, it turns out to all come down to Willy’s desire for a deserving heir, to carry on his confectionary work.

Both films stick to this skeletal plot very closely, but in practice they couldn’t possibly be more different.
 

 

Two Willy Wonkas

The key difference is in the character of Willy Wonka himself.

He makes no sense viewed in grown-up terms. A genius businessman who lives by himself in a factory that seems to run on whimsy, its only current employees a diminutive race of men who sing germane songs while they work, he is clearly a fantasy figure, a magician, a wizard whose magic manifests as chocolate instead of bright bolts of light. Any real attempt to deconstruct him makes about as much sense as trying to reverse-engineer the Easter Bunny.

The key to recognizing why one Willy works and why the other does not is examining the context.
 
In both films, Willy Wonka exists in a universe where access to his factory is the most important thing in the entire world. It’s just about the only thing that anybody talks about, the only issue that matters. The first film has some fun establishing that this extends, to a ridiculous degree, to adult society, where one newscaster confesses that there must be stories more important than Willy’s contest but that he honestly cannot think of any; where an auction house sells off the last box of Wonka chocolate in England at a highly inflated price; and where a woman whose beloved husband has been kidnapped needs to think before giving up his box of Wonka chocolate bars as ransom. This is absurdity, but it’s absurdity that sets up the laws of its fantastical universe, that establishes Willy Wonka as, really, the most important man who ever lived. In this context, he’s not just some rich guy, exploiting the workers and running a scam contest. In a child’s terms, he’s not Donald Trump. He’s Santa Claus: the god, or perhaps Mephistopheles, of chocolate.

On the story’s chosen level, it therefore makes more moral sense that he should damn well act that way,

And while both Willy Wonkas are colorfully-clad eccentrics with childlike priorities, strange hair and an impatient streak that sometimes bubbles over into cruelty, they otherwise couldn’t be farther apart.

Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is, among other things, an adult. He is charismatic, and he is charming. He is enough of a showman to enter with a painful limp and then reveal with a flourish and somersault that he’s just kidding.. When the contest winners enter his gates he is friendly enough to share introductions with both the children and their guardians, and to give them all the benefit of the doubt until they rapidly prove themselves to be a bunch of intolerable creeps. Even though disaster repeatedly strikes along the way, there is never any doubt, at any point, that he’s ever in less than full control. When he assures Charlie, at the end, that the kid who drowned in chocolate and the kid who went down the chute to the incinerator and the kid who was turned into a giant blueberry and the kid who was shrunken to infinitesimal size will all be restored to full health, there’s no doubt that he’s telling the truth, and that there was never any real danger, to any of them, at any point. The sense is that he was always testing Charlie, and – though this is not stated aloud, it is my personal interpretation – that he somehow arranged for Charlie to get that last golden ticket in the first place. We trust and like that Willy Wonka. It’s a happy ending, for Charlie to end up with him.

Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka is not only manifestly not an adult,  but he’s a pale, nervous, infantile, disturbed, broken caricature of a man, twisted by childhood trauma, and so asocial that he nervously resists being introduced to the various kids  who have come to tour his factory. There are times when he seems downright evil. Some of this is actually fun – it’s amusing, for instance, that he always accuses Mike Teavee of “mumbling” whenever that boy points out something that doesn’t make logical sense. But the movie doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind whether this Willy Wonka is taken aback when disaster befalls the various nasty children, takes pleasure in it, or has maliciously planned it. There’s a genuine qualitative difference between Wilder’s Wonka, a man who doesn’t dwell in the real world but who seems to exist on some plane superior to it, and Depp’s Wonka, a man who has retreated from that real world in fright. Wilder’s Wonka is the ultimate prize Charlie wins: a magical friend, an understanding father. Depp’s Wonka is a good reason for a restraining order.

Nor is this a subtle thing. Tim Burton’s Chocolate Factory  builds up a substantial amount of good will with its visual wit and flawless pacing, up to the moment that the contest winners enter the factory. It is, to this essayist’s eyes, actually a substantially better film than the original for as long as the opening act lasts, in that it’s better at establishing the mystery of the factory, smarter when it comes to dramatizing and visualizing the squalor of Charlie’s everyday life, more impressively photographed, and – though this may get some hate mail – more merciful in sparing us a couple of songs that are difficult to sit through today. It seems poised to enter classic territory. Then Willy Wonka enters and opens his mouth. And he’s so bloody wrong, less P.T. Barnum than Boo Radley…if Boo Radley were not, at heart, a good neighbor, but a predatory one…that in less than a minute, the quality trajectory is recognizably steered toward the abyss. It’s hard to remember the last time a great actor sabotaged a film so quickly. Unless you remember, let’s say…Jack Nicholson and that previous Burton film, Batman.

The history of movies is a history of great directors who have forged lasting partnerships with great actors, and who did their best work with those actors; partnerships where both were better together, than they usually were apart.  John Ford made classics with John Wayne. Akira Kurosawa made more than a dozen all-time classics with Toshiro Mifune. Martin Scorcese had such a partnership with Robert De Niro and has started another one, almost as fruitful, with Leonardo DeCaprio. Tim Burton’s actor of choice is Johnny Depp. And though it has been profitable for both, the sad fact is that it has also been intensely limiting for Depp, in that Burton seems determined to always cast him as twitchy, pale-faced, freakish child-men…and that, between his collaborations with Burton and his success in the Pirates Of the Caribbean series, Depp has made a disproportionately large number of films where he played cartoons and disproportionately few where he played recognizable, nuanced human beings. It’s repetitive, and disappointing…and in this version of the Wonka story, downright unpleasant.

But that’s not even the main problem.
  

The Quality Differential In Oompa-Loompas
 

Roald Dahl’s original book was subjected to charges of racism because of its Oompa-Loompas, who were specifically African pygmies, and therefore by implication slaves being exploited in Wonka’s factory. (Dahl therefore changed a few things, in subsequent editions.)

The Oompa-Loompas of the 1971 film are little orange men with green hair, a visual design that happens to have two benefits. First, it frees them of any accidental insulting similarity to an existing race. Second, it eliminates their humanity. Some lip-service is given to them being an isolated tribe from Oompa-Land, but that might as well be Oz; what they are, really, is a magical race  like elves or dwarves; why not put them to work in a factory? They’re not serving mammon, they’re serving Willy’s perverse take on virtue.

The 2005 film makes the mistake of showing the Oompa-Loompa tribe in their homeland and dramatizing the contract negotiations where Wonka arranged to have them stay in his factory and be paid in cocoa beans. They all have a recognizable human skin tone and they are, in close-up at least, recognizably people. The racism is subtly restored.

(And while we’re on the subject, let’s be clear on this. In 1971, it was just barely acceptable that all the children who found golden tickets were white. In 2005, that story element is significantly more uncomfortable. If it can be forgiven at all, that’s because it’s hard to imagine any race feeling slighted in not having one of their own cast as one of the other, awful alternatives to Charlie. How racist would it be to have a fat black kid as Augustus Gloop, or a Japanese kid obsessed with video games as the Teavee brat? Let us shudder, and move on.)

The means the two films use to bring their Oompa-Loompas to the screen are also completely different.

The 1971 film made do with a bunch of authentically little men in costumes. The 2005 film used CGI to multiply actor/musician Deep Roy into dozens of simulacra of himself, performing in synchronized dances. It’s an impressive trick, but a grotesque one, in that the 2005 Oompa-Loompas are not little people but shrunken ones, who look disconcertingly unreal whenever they are made to appear beside actors of normal dimensions.  There are also, as a result, any number of scenes where the film seems more interested in showing off the cleverness of the technique than in serving the needs of the story. This is nowhere more true than in the scene where obese kid Augustus Gloop is sucked into the transparent tube; dozens of little Deep Roys perform an Esther Williams water ballet in the chocolate river around him, which is a) deeply unfunny, b) intrusive on the actual meaning of the moment, and c) a pop-culture reference so dated that it’s designed to sail over the heads of not only the kids watching the film, but also their parents and in some cases their grandparents. (It’s, as we shall soon see, a pervasive problem.) Six orange Oompa-Loompas popping up and down on their knees has infinitely more charm than dozens of CGI Oompa-Loompas performing overelaborate production numbers that only serve to make an already noisy film even noisier. It’s one of the many places where the advances in technology and the deeper pockets of the production actually betray the 2005 film. (The extended sequence aboard the glass elevator would be another.)

But that, also, is not even the main problem.
   

Another Problem: Overindulgence in In-Jokes and Self-Referential Humor 

The 1971 Chocolate Factory was the product of a less cynical, less media-savvy age, and exists entirely within its own universe. No other pop culture intrudes. No winking intrudes.

Since then we have have had pop-culture spoofs and Shrek movies and any number of other films that congratulate the audience on its familiarity with pop-culture precedents (though, of course, that knowledge is ankle-deep, as the references only rarely flag stuff more than a decade old). And it is now common, indeed almost expected, for a movie to step away from itself and comment on the action, in effect reminding us that it’s a movie, which in effect diminishes it.
 
This is why the 2005 Chocolate Factory has dialogue pointing out that the Oompa-Loompas seem to have a song pre-written for every occasion, and how forced this is. That is also why the Teevee brat gets to snarl, “Why is everything (in this factory) completely pointless?”, a line of dialogue of the sort that resonates deeply in any movie that has long since outstayed its welcome.

That’s why Tim Burton includes that parody of an Esther Williams water ballet, which is a fine thing if you think the kids in the audience will point and hoot, “Look! A parody of an Esther Williams water ballet!”

This is why there’s dialogue talking about how unlikely it is that the Oompa-Loompas have songs pre-written for every occasion. (Ha ha. A musical, pointing out how ridiculous musicals are. Ha, ha, ha. That is hilarious. Actually, it can be. See Urinetown. But it’s just forced, here…and it comes off as the movie, trying to be superior to itself.)
 
That’s why there’s a painful joke involving the supposedly world-traveling young Willy Wonka parading proudly past a montage of flags of the world, that suddenly becomes literalized when we are told that it’s not filmic shorthand but actually the young Willy, marching through a museum exhibit of flahs of the world. (Ha-ha.)

Winks like this have a way of destroying a story. They don’t always. After all, Tony Curtis’s Cary Grant impression doesn’t ruin Some Like It Hot. But they work best when they’re organic, when they can be glossed over, when they’re functioning parts of a tale that doesn’t stumble over them as if they were speed bumps. The knowing humor in Tim Burton’s film constantly deflates the story being told.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scene in the 2005 film, in many ways a remake of a scene from the 1971 film, where Wonka demonstrates the invention that transports chocolate via television. As apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey cavort around a monolith on the TV image, the soundtrack plays “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and a huge candy bar becomes a monolith, itself. Ha, ha, ha. As if parodies of the 2001 monolith and evocations of Also Sprach Zarathustra hadn’t become clichés by 1969; as if 2005 kids were going to say, “Ha-Ha, 2001!”; as if many of their parents  were going to get the reference and that most of them weren’t also going to be bored by it; as if this is particular joke (or a subsequent joke about the Psycho shower scene), weren’t less about telling the story than about Tim Burton the film buff evoking movies that were much better than this one – or for that matter any he has made.
  

(Rule of thumb: don’t quote a great movie in your less-than-great film. Especially don’t show us a scene from that movie. The audience will resent it when that much better movie goes away…that is, if they recognize it all.)

The impression this device leaves is that film buff Tim Burton is bored by the movie he’s actually making and had to find some other way to amuse himself. This is never a good impression for any moviemaker to make.

But that is also not the main problem.

Nor is the main problem something the Oompa-Loompas allude to, in the song they sing after Mike Teavee is shrunken to miniscule size; they moralize about how TV brutalizes the imagination, immediately after a film that literalized so much at such high volume that it brutalized the imagination pretty horrifically itself. Though it’s never good for any movie to accidentally critique itself, the problem lies elsewhere.

Other Issues

There is much in the 2005 version worth admiring. The design of the Bucket house, for instance. The performances of such worthies as Helena Bonham Carter and Edward Fox. The performance of its Charlie, who unlike the original actually can act.  (Actually, all the kids were better.) Some of the lines of dialogue. Some of Willy Wonka’s bits of business. The staging of the sad fate of Violet.  2005’s “Bad Nut” joke is no substitute for 1971’s “Bad Egg” joke, but hey, kids in 2005 may not have heard the phrase “bad egg” and something had to be done.  The grandfather does not have the charm of Jack Albertson, but brings his own. And unlike the first movie, which is as flatly and unimaginatively staged as any beloved film can be, it shows a genuine sense of visual flair, though that seems to be Burton’s great skill and is no real substitute for skill at storytelling.)
 
Some of the 2005 version doesn’t work nearly as well as the original. Willy’s chocolate wonderland from the 1971 film is a practical set and not the vast CGI-enhanced locale of the 2005 version, but works about twenty times better. (It, too, represents the difference between teasing the imagination and clubbing it.)

The real problem comes at the point of the story where, in 1971, Charlie has every reason in the world to betray Willy Wonka and decides instead to be true to himself and not go for the quick payday. That’s the key moment of the 1971 story; everything else leads up to it. It is a moment of karmic justice that kids and adults can appreciate. In 2005, Charlie has a much easier decision: not abandoning his family by agreeing to live with this rich but profoundly dysfunctional man instead. It’s a much easier decision, poor as his family is; we can see that they have always loved him, and only a terrible kid who valued money or everything else would turn his back on them.
  
Missing this, the entire point of the 1971 version, the 2005 version decides to hinge on how exposure to this profoundly decent kid improves the broken Willy Wonka for the better; and thus goes on to explain how Willy reconciles with his son-of-a-bitch father (Christopher Lee). But there’s a major problem with that. Lee projects so much stern evil in the prior flashbacks that, frankly, it’s hard not to conclude that this was one of those families that was better off estranged. Christopher Lee may improve any movie he’s in just by standing there, and it may be a real hoot to posit him as Willy Wonka’s Dad, but he’s better, in this film, projecting villainy than he is when reconciling with his wayward, peculiar son.
  
The whole movie leads up to an emotional catharsis it honestly has not earned.

And that’s the fatal problem, the one that ultimately turns it into a colossal bummer.
 

The River Of Chocolate

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a minor classic that soars in the performance of its star, Gene Wilder. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, a movie that for a long time also seems poised for greatness until the moment its star walks on screen. I’ll see Willy again, gladly; I don’t think I’ll ever want to take another run at Charlie, which earns most of its star grade for its excellent staging of everything that happens before Willy Wonka shows up. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.

And now, eight miniature orange versions of the wife march in singing, “Oompa-Loompa, Oompaty-Ooh, I’ll Critique This Movie For You….”

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others. 100 minutes. ***1/2

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. *

Yippee!!!   This set of reviews gave me the grand opportunity to be as annoying to my hubby as he has been to me while rewatching films for these columns.  How so you may ask?  Well, Adam is a lot like those wonderful folks in the theater who already know the story, they don’t exactly give it away, they just throw enormous hint boulders at you. “OOh watch what happens here, you’ll never believe it”.  This time I got to sing along and speak the lines all through the viewing of the 1971 film.  I was sooo darn happy.  Now, he too got into the Oompah Loompah songs, but not nearly as effusively as me. For you see, I have always loved this film!

Now, when the 2005 Tim Burton film was announced, I was a bit worried , but very hopeful.  In the years between, I had read the Charlie books and knew that some differences were to be had from the sweet/slightly frightening Gene Wilder portrayal to the Wonka of the books. I wondered how the overwrought genius of Edward Scissorhands would rework the seminal figure.  YOWCH!!

What Burton and Depp wrought was a savage, over psychological mess.  This man/child twitches and tics his way through his half of the film and leaves the audience wondering why he was so beloved by past employees.  Sure the man makes great candy (not the stuff at out stores, the imaginary stuff of the film), but I can’t see how he could run an internationally recognized snack food corporation with his mind ripped to shreds by parental abuse issues.

What Burton did right was the visualization of Charlie’s impoverished family. The look and feel of the Bucket homestead are nearly perfect. The familial warmth as good as the 1971 film and the feelings evoked from the books.

He ruins the factory by overdoing it.  The initial welcome scene tells the audience that the tour is a nightmare come true, not the dream they are hoping will be.

And, must I mention the horrid Oompah Loompah.  Singular, not plural.   Does Tim Burton dislike little people,  that he could only abide one on set? Or, was this a cost cutting measure gone horribly wrong?  Having one man play an entire tribe of overeager, happy slaves just blew the magic apart of the happy little lessons “they” sing.  I can recite the lyrics of the 1971 Oompah lessons, but I can’t even remember the tune to hum it for the 2005.  Not the best move for posterity there.

Okay, so I’m obviously prejudiced  in this matter.  But I need to assure you, I don’t hate the Burton/Depp mess, I just don’t like it all that much.  And, if you ask me to show a child the movie made from the Dahl books, Well…figure out which I’ll grab every time.


Doing everything exactly the same, and still getting it all wrong

Can you imagine any movie trailer like this, today?

 

Newcomers were led to expect a fast-paced roller-coaster ride of shocks. Sorry.

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Psycho (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles. 109 minutes. ****

Psycho (1998). Directed by Gus van Sant. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore. 109 minutes. *

Other Affiliated Films: Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (TV-movie, 1990), all starring Anthony Perkins; A Conversation with Norman (2005). There is reportedly a making-of-Psycho dramatic film also in the pipeline, but who knows if it will ever be completed?

*

Your name is Marion Crane. You’re a good girl aching for domestic bliss with your lover, a man from another town who returns your affections but is financially unable to commit. He tells you that until he can pay his father’s debts you will have to be content with stolen moments, the occasional hour of passion in a motel room, and the promise of a better tomorrow. You cannot wait. But then a boor doing business with your employer flashes a wad of cash, you are entrusted with the task of getting it to the bank…and you succumb to a moment’s mad temptation. You take the money, pack a passport, and hit the highway, hoping to talk your man into escaping the country with you. It’s a desperate and poorly-thought out plan, one that begins to fall apart even before you make it out of town. But your temporary madness is nothing compared to the greater madness that awaits you, in a small out-of-the-way motel with no guests and a desk clerk who seems as vulnerable, and as trapped, as yourself. It is where you will meet your annihilation…because this story was never really about about you. The story’s about the sad, lonely, and stammering little desk clerk, who harbors a madness dangerous to any who cross his path.

The original film Psycho is often given the directorial possessive, and listed as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, as if he was solely responsible for creating Norman Bates and structuring the plot. Entire forests have been cut down to print the articles and books crediting him with the genius required to get audiences invested in the fate of Marion Crane, and then to have her brutally murdered in a shower only one-third of the way through the story, changing the direction of the tale completely. It honestly isn’t so. The story wasn’t ushered into being by Hitchcock, but by one Robert Bloch, a veteran writer of pulp thrillers whose career included Lovecraftian fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, Star Trek episodes, a couple of the best stories ever written about Jack the Ripper, recognition as a grandmaster of both science fiction and horror, and a declaration frequently misattributed to Stephen King (who had provided attribution to Bloch when he said it), that he had the heart of a small boy…pickled in a jar on his desk.

It was Bloch who read of the gruesome murders committed by a Wisconsin loner named Ed Gein, speculated on just what kind of madness might have driven that strange man to furnish his home with such art objects as an armchair constructed of real arms, and applied his rich imagination to the creation of one Norman Bates, an affable homebody deadly only to those who cross his path. It was Bloch who was contacted by Hitchcock’s representatives, and not told just who had taken an interest in his story…Bloch who was paid a few hundred dollars for the story that he would soon see hailed worldwide as the manifestation of another creator’s genius.

Nor was this hogging of credit entirely Hitchcock’s sin. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano’s contribution to the original film was superb, but when discussing the film in interviews during his later years he would go on at length about the train of thought that led him to make certain story decisions, as if he and not Bloch had been the one to originally decide that Marion Crane would steal the money and meet her fate in that shower. Trust us, folks; Stefano and Hitchcock and the various actors all contributed to the splendid collaborative stew that is the 1960 Psycho, but as far as the grand outline of the story was concerned, they “decided” little. Again, it was Bloch who had his seeming protagonist, one Mary Crane, steal that money; it was Bloch who had her stop at the Bates Motel and befriend its pathetic proprietor; it was Bloch who had her lose her life in the shower; it was Bloch who arranged everything that happened with her sister, and Sam Loomis, and “Mrs. Bates” after that. Against pretty much the entire body of literature that’s been written about the movie in all the years since, Stefano and Hitchcock were interpreters: interpreters deft enough to qualify as artists, but still interpreters…and Bloch was swindled not out of the full payday he deserved, but also of the wider popular recognition he merited for his pivotal role in the creation of Norman Bates.

Which is not to deny the stamp that Stefano and Hitchcock put on the material. Bloch’s shower scene is very minimal, and ends almost as soon as Marion Crane realizes that she’s being attacked. The shock moment consists of two sentences, which I here paraphrase from memory: “The knife came down, cutting off her scream.” Paragraph break. “And her head.” I’m sorry to say, that’s pretty much it.  From that, Stefano and Hitchcock crafted one of the most indelible scenes in motion picture history.

Once, this was the most shocking movie moment anyone had ever seen.

Don’t feel too sorry for Bloch, as he enjoyed a long and productive and reportedly happy life, and did indeed profit from Psycho,  if not from the movie’s earnings then in increased book sales for the rest of his career.  It doesn’t mean Hitchcock behaved well in obtaining the rights, or in minimizing Bloch’s contribution afterward. As epilogue we note only that when Gus van Sant announced the plans for a shot-by-shot remake, there was no thought of rewarding Bloch’s estate with any additional payment…until a public outcry, way beyond the usual level of popular concern for what a writer might be owed, forced the backers to begrudgingly open their pocketbooks. Every once in a while, justice prevails. Or somewhat prevails. Given the millions the studios made from Psycho and its film sequels, Bloch still deserved more.

van Sant’s 1998 remake was ballyhooed as a thought experiment, dedicated to finding out whether a new version using the 1960 screenplay, as well as the 1960 Bernard Herrmann score, and the 1960 set design, that matched the Hitchcock version shot by shot, would have the same impact. Or at least, that was the rationalization, the one that may have motivated him as he pointed his camera. The motivation of the money men was more crass. By that time, we had a new generation of filmgoers with little respect for the past, who despite an unprecedented wealth of home-video opportunities open to them had nothing but revulsion for anything made before they were born…especially if it was in black and white.  And yet Norman Bates himself remained a familiar, marketable name, one that had driven a number of inferior but financially successful sequels, not to mention attractions in theme parks where macabre film-lovers could, among other things, buy Bates Motel towels and shower curtains imprinted with the murderous silhouette of Norman in the guise of his mother. A new color version that hit all the same beats as the original was, they thought, just the right thing to revive the brand.

It wasn’t. I saw it during its theatrical release out of sheer perverse curiosity, not expecting much, and was stunned by the hostility it received from a large audience that went in expecting to see their idea of a horror movie, and was bored beyond endurance by this lame, slow-ass story where the killings were few and far between and reprehensibly bloodless by the standards they had come to expect. Though van Sant has claimed that it eventually broke even, it is remembered as a bomb and has largely disappeared except as a cautionary tale. It is certainly almost never seen on television, whereas Psycho 1960 still plays in revival houses and pops up regularly on all the classic-oriented movie channels, to be cooed over by hosts and enjoyed anew by viewers who recognize it as a still very much living relic.

But the question remains. Why doesn’t the remake work?

Smallest Problem: The Tin-Eared Updating From 1960 to 1998

For the most part the updating manifests as how much things cost. Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane steals $40,000;  Anne Heche’s steals $400,000. There are similar adjustments to the price of a used car and the cost of a cheap, no-name motel room. That’s reasonable.

Other updates are just tin-eared, like Julianne Moore’s Lila Crane declaring, “Let me get my Walkman,” before accompanying Sam Loomis to ask the local sheriff some pointed questions. (Yes, when your sister’s vanished into thin air following the theft of a large amount of money, and you don’t know whether she’s alive or dead, your first thought should be having some tunes to bring along.) 

One of the minor plot points that remains intact is Marion’s boss at the real-estate firm (Rance Howard) telling his client to join him in his own office, the only room which happens to be air-conditioned. In 1960, it was reasonable and believable for a real estate office in downtown Phoenix, of all places, to reserve air-conditioning for the boss, and force the rest of the firm’s employees to sit in the general reception area and sweat. The lack of air conditioning was after all a key requirement of a great movie Hitchcock had made only a few years earlier, Rear Window. In 1998, air conditioning was far more ubiquitous. The girls in the front room, not to mention the drop-in customers waiting to be helped, would have not only expected but demanded it. (I suspect that matters will change back in the coming decades.) Again, this is a small point. But since it doesn’t really affect the flow of the story one way or the other, why not omit the line or adjust it in some way?

At least one other change that assaults the ear has to do with an entire word leaving the popular vocabulary: in the original film, the dogged private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) tells the evasive Norman, ”Well, if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jellin’.” As was also pointed out in the recent film Julie and Julia, people don’t really eat aspic anymore and for the most part have no idea what the word means. So the remake’s Arbogast (William H. Macy) says, “If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t jello.” Which may be more current, but still lands with a thud. The solution may have been to just use the “aspic” line as is, accept that it’s a bit odd to the modern ear, and let its essential meaning come across through context; either that, or drop it completely.

What may be more serious is the second film’s Arbogast dressed in a snappy blue suit with matching hat that together look positively antiquarian to the modern eye, telling Lila that he could trail her undetected because it’s his job to avoid being seen; a plot point that makes sense in the original film when Arbogast is an average-looking guy who dresses like everyone else and makes less sense in the remake when, in context, he looks like an escapee from an old-time movie. In truth, Lila should respond, “You haven’t been unnoticed, mister. I’ve been noticing your  hat everywhere I went all day.”

Nor is that the only generational fashion faux-pas. When the second film’s Marion Crane gets out of her car and unfurls a pink parasol to protect her from the Arizona sun, my audience audibly snorted.

Larger Problem: The Terrible Miscasting of Norman Bates

One of the biggest changes between the original novel and the first film was the physical look of Norman Bates. Bloch’s Bates was a pudgy little man in the first throes of middle age, obvious to Mary Crane’s eyes as a guy who had been so dominated by the mother over the years that he’d never had a life of his own. It was believable that she felt sorry for him and saw him as no threat. Faithful adherence to Bloch’s description would have resulted in the casting of Rod Steiger, or maybe even Ernest Borgnine. Today, it might have been Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Stefano and Hitchcock decided to go another way. They decided it was critical for their audience to like Norman Bates and feel empathy for him. So they cast a slight, boyish young actor named Anthony Perkins, who had played young leading-man roles as, among other things, the young town sheriff opposite Henry Fonda in The Tin Star. As Bates, Perkins projected a loneliness and a vulnerability that rendered Marion Crane’s immediate compassion for him entirely believable. It made sense for this young woman, on her own with 40,000 reasons to be afraid, to agree to join this total stranger in his parlor, to listen to him and to feel for him, and to see in his tale of a life trapped with a deranged mother not a potential danger that would lead her to get back in her car and drive away as fast as possible, but an object lesson in the trap she’s made for herself and a reason to return home to face the consequences of her actions. It made sense, all in all, for her to like Norman, even when she suggests institutionalization for his mother and gets a flash of anger in return. Who wouldn’t like that Norman? Watching the scene, it’s even possible to believe that had she left the motel alive, returned to Phoenix with the stolen money, avoided serious legal consequences  and then come back to town to settle down with Sam Loomis, she would have sought out Norman again, this time as a concerned friend, and tried to help him.

All of this was central to the impact of the story as intended. Marion’s subsequent murder in the shower really does come off as a shocking twist, even if it’s already been spoiled for us by reputation or previous viewings. And Norman’s subsequent horrified reaction and desperate efforts to clean up after the killing do come off as the trapped actions of a man trying to protect his homicidal mother. It even comes off this way if you go in already knowing that Norman pretty much is his mother. His horror feels genuine.

You know who would have been able to project the same qualities while making the performance his own? Ed Norton.

Instead, van Sant went with Vince Vaughn, a big guy far broader and more imposing than Anthony Perkins, who looks even more massive when photographed alongside his film’s Marion Crane, the petite Anne Heche. He is able to manage a goofy, frat-boy affability during their initial meeting, but after that, when he presses Crane to join him for dinner and later discusses his sad circumstances with her, the likeability goes away and all that’s left is a seething, oversized man-child whose eyes go cold and distant when he talks about his mother.

Yeah. I can totally dig Marion being willing to share a roof with this guy.

It is difficult to tell whether this more sinister characterization of Norman is a poor acting choice by Vaughn or a directorial decision on the part of van Sant, reflecting the inescapable fact that most of the people who saw this movie would enter the theatre already aware that Norman Bates kills people. But it’s fatal to the scene and a serious blow to the movie. An ominous Norman Bates makes Marion Crane look like an idiot. In 1960, when Janet Leigh tells Anthony Perkins that she can’t have breakfast with him the next morning because she needs to get an early start, it’s an attractive woman being kind to a stranger who doesn’t get to speak to many attractive women, and who she can tell already harbors a substantial crush on her. In 1998, when Anne Heche has the same conversation with Vince Vaughn, it’s a tiny woman who has become profoundly creeped out by the big hulking man…and who out of incomprehensible recklessness doesn’t change her plans to spend the night in his hotel. Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane honestly doesn’t think she has reason to fear. Anne Heche’s Marion Crane is rendered nervous, but remains in a room next to the office of the scary hulking man with the master key. It’s a spike through the very heart of the story, harming everything that follows.

And it’s not the only one.

Stranger Problem: Changes Crass, Repulsive and Nonsensical

van Sant’s mission statement of directing a line by line, shot by shot remake to the contrary, the changes he made to his Psycho are not only obvious, but gross.

Some are understandable. For instance, he extends the climax slightly. When Lila Crane finds the mummified corpse of Norman’s mother and Norman rushes in wearing wig and housedress to murder her, Van Sant’s Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortenson) needs to struggle with him a little bit more in order to subdue him.

This makes perfect logical sense in that this film’s Norman Bates is a bigger guy, larger in fact than this film’s Loomis.

And it also makes commercial sense in that the generations of thrillers since the original Psycho have trained  audiences to expect more substantial action climaxes than the mere moment or two Hitchcock provided in the original. (It still wasn’t enough, as per the reaction of the theatrical audience I saw it with, when they realized that the struggle was already over…but it could have been worse; van Sant could have gone whole hog and constructed a climax more in tune with the new era’s sensibilities, complete with an extended battle in a burning house and a bad guy who kept coming to life after being presumed dead.)

Some of the other changes are unfortunate, but forgivable. The original shower scene is justifiably famous for implying extreme violence while never actually showing the knife touch Marion’s flesh. This film’s version duplicates it almost shot by shot (the exception being a few inexplicable inserts of rolling clouds), but makes sure that we see the gaping wounds in Marion’s back as she collapses over the rim of the tub.

Some are repulsive and unnecessary. It was creepy enough, in the original film, when Norman Bates peered through the hole in the wall and spied on Marion in her room. We didn’t really need to see him hyperventilating or hear the vivid moist sounds of masturbation…in part because it’s vulgar, and in part because it prematurely erases any sympathy we might feel for the man. (This is by far van Sant’s most irritating move.)

And finally, some are nonsensical.

This scene is also known as WTF: THE MOTION PICTURE.

What on Earth was van Sant thinking, when he added a random shot of a cow on a highway, and another of a blindfolded woman reclining on a bed, to Arbogast’s murder on the stairway? What did he think this communicated, other than random film-school absurdity?

The Fatal Problem: We already know who Norman Bates is 

Scroll back up and watch the trailer for the remake again. Does it hide Norman’s nature, or trumpet it? Is this now a story driven by an unexpected twist at the one-third mark and shocking one at the conclusion, or by the dreary inevitability of an icon behaving exactly as we expect him to behave?

The 1960 Psycho was not born already imbedded in amber. It was paced for its time, driven by twists unexpected at the time, and appreciated as something new by the audiences of the time. Though now devoid of surprises, it can still be appreciated for the better mousetrap that it is. By contrast, the 1998 version was for audiences who could never be fooled into thinking that the movie was about Marion Crane’s theft, or a fundamentally innocent man trying to hide the crimes of a deranged mother. Remade beat for beat for people who know going in that Norman Bates was a crazy murderer, but too interested in paying obeisance to that original to offer them anything but strict adherence to that blueprint, it completely failed to achieve audience identification with either the main victim Marion or the just as sympathetic killer Norman. It played the notes but did not make the music. It’s no wonder that modern audiences, expecting a modern horror film, sighed with exasperation at the dullness of everything they saw on screen. van Sant did not have to emulate the murder-every-fifteen-minutes pacing of Friday the 13th with his Norman Bates, but what he made was as lifeless, really, as Norman’s mother, moldering in her rocking chair in the basement.

It might have been possible to remake Psycho in a manner that incorporated its main secret as already common knowledge. In fact, it’s been done, in a way. Starting in 1983, Anthony Perkins made a series of sequels that began with Norman Bates released from the mental hospital as “cured,” and went on to elicit thrills over uncertainty over just how unstable he really was. They weren’t great films – in fact, they were largely derided by critics – but they were all far more entertaining than van Sant’s distorted carbon copy remake. I liked Psycho II, in particular,  quite a bit, for presenting us with a story where Norman really is trying to atone for the insane crimes of his past despite Marion’s vengeful relatives  trying to drive him back to a state of madness. It was easy to feel sorry for Norman, in that movie. There was nothing in van Sant’s subsequent straight remake that matched the sheer geeky wit of that endearing moment in Psycho II when Norman Bates, desperately struggling to behave better now, declines to slice a female guest’s sandwich, telling her, “I have a problem with c-c-cutlery.” Anthony Perkins acts the hell out of that moment.

Norman does ultimately return to killing, of course. And he is returned to the asylum at the end of Psycho III. But I always took deep satisfaction in the final moment of the final sequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning, a made-for-TV movie – also written by Stefano — about the events that twisted him in the first place, where the Norman Bates of the framing sequence, mysteriously paroled from the asylum again, ultimately seems cured for good and ready for an unlikely but still gratifying happy ending that includes marriage to a loving young woman and the implied birth of his child. This redemption made almost no psychological or real-world sense, but I liked Norman enough to embrace it. I’m a wuss that way.

For what it’s worth, Robert Bloch’s own version of Norman’s aftermath, the novel Psycho II, was quite different. It’s all about a series of murders that follows Norman’s escape from the asylum. Norman, who is off-stage after the first couple of chapters, seems the obvious culprit, but the book ends with the revelation that he died soon after going over the wall, and that almost all of the recent killings attributed to him were committed by another character entirely. It’s an interesting use of a legendary monster as mere red herring, but feels like a betrayal. Ambivalent as Bloch may have been about his signature creation, Norman Bates really did deserve better than that.

In any event, van Sant received more than his share of abuse by people who called him a talentless hack for his stunt, but let us be honest about this much. He tried something that failed. That’s all. And he has more than earned his way out of purgatory with some of  the work he’s done since then, including the splendid biopic Milk.

As for the man who really started all this, crazy old murderous Ed Gein: he continued to have a tremendous impact on the world of motion pictures, as his crimes also separately inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill from Silence Of the Lambs.

*

And now, the wife’s ominous silhouette comes into view behind the shower curtain…!

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Psycho (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles. 109 minutes. ****

Psycho (1998). Directed by Gus van Sant. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore. 109 minutes.

Other Affiliated Films: Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (TV-movie, 1990), all starring Anthony Perkins; A Conversation with Norman (2005). There is reportedly a making-of-Psycho dramatic film also in the pipeline, but who knows if it will ever be completed?

Thank you so much, my loving hubby.

Who decided that Psycho needed to be remade?

Was this one of those late night drunk then wake up in the morning kinda What have I done deals?

It had to be for the remake to so totally miss the mark.

OK, An updating is never a totally bad idea, but you gotta go all in or fold the hand (too many hours playing online poker).  The folks here knew they couldn’t best the original, so they decided to copy and tweak it.  Fine, but again come on and play like ya mean it.  Everything is mixed between 50’s and 90’s .  The dresses look like someone went to a 60’s vintage shop and said give me the ugliest ya got plus the accessories.  And every PI tries to blend in by wearing the Ward Cleaver off to work look.  I mean they are going from a sweltering city to an unused motel and nobody seems to feel that shorts and a t shirt might fit a bit better?  And, besides some older ladies and a few younger Latinos, I have yet to see a parasol in regular sun use. And I live in the Sunshine state.

The big surprises in the course of Psycho worked back then because they were surprising.  Now, the shower/murder scene comes across as toothless as a defanged vampire.  All bloody and wet, but not very scary. And lets face it, Vince Vaughn doesn’t look like he’d have any problem lifting away Anne Heche’s remains. I mean at least the movie goer had a reasonable doubt whether Tony Perkins could actually manhandle Janet Leigh’s body ( and I mean that in the nicest way possible guys).

Oh, AND ONE MORE THING, who the hell decided that the Daliesque images enhanced the fall down the stairs?  Talk about throwing the scene out of whack.  Is it supposed to be his memories or just some random last thoughts?  HUH?!?!  I just didn’t get it.  Did anyone?

Alright, So two guys walk into a bar and one guy says Hey, I’ve got a few million lying around, lets make a movie.  The other guy says sure and they begin to drink.  That’s the joke and the punch line was this remake.