Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek’


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009). Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson.  152 minutes. ***

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011).  Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen. 158 minutes. ** 1/2.

Spoiler warnings should go without saying by now, given that this blog earns its bones by contrasting plot minutiae of multiple movies based on the same source material. But a word to the wise is particularly apt here. These films are procedural mysteries, hinging on buried secrets, horrible revelations, unexpected reversals and horrific crimes against women. If you haven’t read the best-seller by author Stieg Larsson…if you haven’t seen either movie adaptation, but plan to indulge in the future and do not wish exposure to surprises, then this current sentence is the place to stop. So stop. Do not come after us with wrath in mind, especially not if you’re an unstable girl with a vengeful streak and a tattoo needle. Be apprised that it’s more or less impossible to compose intelligent commentary about the first installment of this particular franchise without delving, at least briefly, into the sequels, which are also set up here. We won’t be discussing those in nearly the same level of detail, but, again, if you haven’t indulged and wish a radio blackout, you won’t find it on this blog. If you prefer another topic, either go elsewhere or check out this handy-dandy index of all the other fun stuff we’ve talked about in our first year. We promise, we won’t be upset.

Clear on that?

Fine.

So here’s where we stand. Both these movies are based on a worldwide publishing phenomenon, a trilogy of Swedish novels centered on the tangled backstory of one Lisbeth Salander, a troubled girl whose past includes abuse, wrongful imprisonment, cover-ups at the highest levels of government, rape by authority figures, and her own barely repressed rage. She is a dangerous, asocial genius, suspicious but not incapable of friendship or loyalty. She is almost impossible to fully know but possesses such a knack for inspiring reckless loyalty in those who care about her that, by installment #3, the conspiracy of friends intent on saving her from a government  intent on destroying her oddly seems to outnumber the number of people actively involved in that conspiracy. She is a brilliant computer hacker, a talented thief, and a tough fighter, in addition to being a mathematical prodigy and the secretive user of a totally photographic memory.  She is physically petite, aggressively sexual, a chain-smoker, and defiantly off-putting. Some people, like critic Roger Ebert, have ventured that she might have Asperger’s Syndrome, but that’s not a diagnosis we concur with; she may be anti-social, but she’s too good at reading people for that to be a sensible label for her. Let’s just say that she has good reason to distrust people and to keep the number in her inner circle to an absolute minimum.

All three novels also feature one Mikael Blomkvist, a left-wing journalist recently convicted of libel. Blomkvist, a clear stand-in for author Stieg Larsson. Larsson was also a crusading journalist, well-known in Sweden for his exposes of white supremacist groups, and the recipient of one of life’s great terrible breaks when he wrote these novels and died in his early forties before any of them were published, thus doomed to never sit on a airplane, anywhere, and see that one person in four was reading one. He incorporated many elements of his own personality, at least as he saw it, into Blomkvist, which may be one reason why even readers who adore Lisbeth find his character too much to take, in that he’s always juggling several women simultaneously and here breaks through the reserve of a hot, moody chick half his age while also maintaining an active, long-standing affair with another woman whose husband honestly doesn’t mind. 

(Characters who exist as authorial self-flattery are not exactly unknown in fiction – the writer M. Night Shyamalan played in Lady In The Water  was easy to peg as his own –  but it took Star Trek fandom to label them properly; they’re Mary Sues. Mary Sue is the young ensign identical to the author who shows up on the Enterprise bridge, is instantly beloved by all the featured players, has affairs with a number of them and is soon acclaimed as an invaluable member of the crew. Mary Sues are wish-fulfillment, to an often embarrassing degree. They can be uncomfortably self-revelatory when they appear in fan-fiction and downright appalling when they appear in professional prose. Blomkvist can be as hard to take as any, and it needs to be said that Larsson seems to have written all three books believing that he was the star attraction, not quite realizing the degree to which Lisbeth should have been; she spends much of Book Three confined to a hospital while Blomkvist and company race about trying to clear her of murder charges. If there’s anything that the scenarists of both the 2009 and 2011 films seemed to have realized right off is that the obsessive recounting of all the women the man gets to fuck – who include even Harriet Vanger, the girl whose supposed murder and subsequent discovery in hiding are the basis of Dragon Tattoo –  really did need to be brought within bearable dimensions or we’ll hate him.)

In any event, the best of the three novels is the one that only hints at Salander’s full backstory and involves her and Blomkvist in a more-or-less self-contained adventure. (Books 2 and 3, and the swedish films based on same, are really one long, convoluted narrative.) Salander and Blomkvist travel different paths that don’t converge until they meet for the first time at the halfway point.

The recently-disgraced Blomkvist accepts a job offer from retired elderly industrialist Henrik Vanger, to investigate the forty-year-old disappearance and apparent murder of one of the only members of his nasty extended family that he doesn’t despise with cause: niece Harriet,who vanished without a trace during a family gathering.    (The rest of the family, with only a few exceptions, is a nasty collection of ex-Nazis, drunks, crazy people, and assorted cads; any of them could have taken Harriet just out of spite.)

As Blomkvist gradually puts together clues establishing a connection between Harriet’s disappearance and a heretofore-unsuspected series of serial killings going back decades, Salander finds herself contending with a nasty new legal guardian, Nils Bjurman, who sees in the legally-but-far-from-actually incompetent Salander a girl he can blackmail for sexual favors.  He even rapes her, which turns out to be a colossally bad move on his part; she not only captures the crime on video, thus providing herself with blackmail material of her very own, but chains him up, sexually violates him,  and marks him forever with a chest tattoo declaring him a sadistic pig and a rapist.
  
Blomkvist and Salander meet, team up, and go after the serial killer together.

It turns out to be Henrik’s nephew and Harriet’s brother, Martin, picking up a vile trade he learned from his father; Harriet, it turns out, is still alive, having fled the madness and abuse of her family.

That’s the basic outline, but the novel is so complex, with so many twisted relationships and so much backstory – not to mention a couple of choice sexual affairs for Blomkvist before Salander decides she wants to make recreational use of him – that the respective screenplay writers had free choice of what plot elements to keep, and what plot elements to discard. (Strictly speaking, the newer of the two films is clearly less a remake of the first, than another approach to the source material.) It is instructive, therefore to note the choices they made and which ones worked better.

One note: the Swedish films were actually edited-down versions of a television miniseries, unseen by us. It is therefore inevitable that the streamlining decisions we reference with regard to the 2009 film, exceed whatever decisions were made for the somewhat more inclusive TV version. Fine. We are only talking, here, about the 2009 theatrical release. And on, at long last, we go.

Noomi

The Casting And The Dramatization of the Central Relationship

Both films feature quality performances in their galaxy of supporting roles, and it would of course be very possible to fill an article longer than even this one with extensive comparisons on a case-by-case basis; we note that the Swedish Film’s rapist Nils Bjurman is a colder and more frightening figure, while the American film’s is a more imposing one in comparison with its petite Salander; we give the edge to  2009’s Sven-Bertil Taube over 2011’s Christopher Plummer in the key role of Henrik Vanger, that rarest of all mystery characters, the likeable and sincere wealthy industrialist who is not implicated in any crimes. (For a more typical specimen of his breed, see John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown.) Plummer is excellent in his role, but Taube is given somewhat better stuff to do, and is in particular more heartbreaking in the scene where he is reunited with his long-missing niece.
  
The casting of the leads is significantly more critical and makes more of a difference.

As Mikael Blomkvist, 2009’s Michael Nyquist and 2011’s Daniel Craig seem equivalent at first glance; they even look a little alike, though Nyquist looks a little lumpier, more of an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation, than Craig does. Craig comes with the baggage of multiple action heroes, including James Bond, a past and future incarnation that makes him seem a little more indestructible than Blomkvist should probably be (even if Craig’s Bond was, like Blomkvist, capable of being driven to despairing tears when death seemed imminent.  The first film’s de-emphasis of Blomkvist as prolific cocksman-around-town also goes well with Nyquist’s less-than-Bondian appearance, and the character’s sincere astonishment when Salander leaps into bed with him. Craig can’t be entirely faulted for this, as actors always bring the baggage left over from their past roles, but it’s still there. In the remake, I particularly miss one scene of many from 2009 that establish his human limitations: i.e., when he hesitates at the wheel of their rental car, confessing to Salander that he hasn’t driven since his divorce. That’s the act of a limited man in danger of being over his head. There’s nothing in the 2011 film to keep you from assuming that Blomkvist couldn’t engage in Bondian car chases if he wanted to.

As Lisbeth Salander, 2009’s Noomi Rapace and 2011’s Rooney Mara play the same notes, but with completely different instruments that achieve much different effects.  Rapace has a lean, angular face, which emphasized all of Salander’s savagery; she’s downright fearsome, especially in the scenes where she takes her revenge on Bjurman and hops on her bike to go after the serial-killing Martin. (There is no doubt, in the earlier film, that when she pursues Martin he is in big fucking trouble, and it feels damned good.) By contrast, Rooney Mara has a much softer, baby-faced appearance; she looks smaller, and more vulnerable, more like a person who has made herself what she is as protective coloration, than one who just became that creature naturally after her life’s many traumas. This is nowhere more visible than in the scenes from both movies where Salander is resentfully dragged into her employer’s conference room to answer the client’s questions about Mikael Blomkvist; Rapace’s Salander is bored, resentful, contemptuous of the need to go through these formalities, and perfectly willing to be rude about it. She makes eye contact, angry eye contact.  During the same meeting, saying the same thing, Mara’s Salander is withdrawn, sullen, hiding her features under a hoodie. These are two different attitudes, two different damaged psychologies. Mara’s performance is a good one, but I give the edge to the original film. Salander shouldn’t be shy. She should be downright feral.

Further screenwriting decisions change the dynamic of the two scenes where Salander and Blomkvist make love for the first time. In 2009, Salander surprises Blomkvist by hopping into bed with him, then by leaving for her own bed without any genuine intimacy as soon as the sex is over. (When I saw the film for the first time, a perceptive fellow theatergoer exclaimed, “Man, now he knows what it’s like to be used!”) We should note that this all takes place immediately after Blomkvist has unintentionally alienated her by noticing her photographic memory, and tried to let her know afterward that he admired it. The sex she initiates is not just an expression of her growing attraction to a man whose decency she has come to recognize,  but is also a defiant declaration: You want to get close to me? This is how close you get – and no farther; it means nothing. A thread is introduced: Blomkvist’s attempt to know, really know, this angrily unknowable woman.

By contrast, in 2011, there are no such mixed signals. There is no immediately prior scene where Salander has reason to be mad at him, no moment where he’s been conciliatory. Salander just initiates sex with Blomkvist because it’s about the point in the story where that would normally happen. But it really comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t feel like it really goes anywhere until the coda. Again, the advantage here belongs to the 2009 film – where it really would have made sense to include the coda, where Salander happens upon Blomkvist strolling with another lover and storms away, feeling betrayed.

Oddly, the 2009 film, which needed it to set up the sequels where she is so furious at him that she refuses to talk to him even in conditions of dire personal need, omits the coda that establishes the reason for her resentment. The 2011 film, where the same moment feels forced, does not.

It’s not quite a wash. The relationship in the 2009 film feels like a dramatic arc. The same relationship in the 2011 film does not. 

The opening credit sequence of the 2011 version (sans titles)

Other Contrasting Storytelling Decisions

In the novel and the 2011 film, it is not Salander who breaks the missing Harriet’s biblical code. It is Blomkvist’s daughter, who comes by for a visit and sees Harriet’s notations for what they are. The original movie omits Blomkvist’s daughter entirely and presents the cracking of that code as more evidence of Salander’s scary competence. I like the splendid irrelevance of such a key clue being broken by a background character who otherwise doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I also admire the storytelling economy of attributing the same epiphany to Salander. In the end, the moment seems to work a smidgen better in the 2009 version.
 
In both films, Salander loses her trusted laptop to a violent incident in the subway. In 2009, she has a nasty and violent encounter with a bunch of drunks; in 2011, she races up an escalator to retrieve her snatched bag a mugger, then slides down the bannister to get away from him. The 2011 scene is a nice bit of physical business. It is not nearly as upsetting as the 2009 scene, which makes it a lesser scene.

The 2009 version relegates Salander’s relationship with her beloved previous legal guardian – who, by suffering a stroke, delivers her into the brutal hands of Bjurman –  to a mere line of dialogue, which burdens the sequels with the need to introduce him later. The 2011 version has three scenes with him, which serve the intended sequels but slow down this installment considerably.

The novel and the 2009 version both give another reason for Henrik Vanger to hire Blomkvist: he actually met the missing Harriet, when he was a young child and she was his babysitter. At least one major clue turns out to be his misunderstanding of his fragmentary memory from that time. I believe it a neat touch. The 2011 version omits this angle entirely, possibly because the makers thought it a bit much. It’s a wash, I think.

The 2009 version omits the Vanger Corporation’s offer to become partners in Blomkvist’s magazine, Millennium. The 2011 version emphasizes it. It’s an important plot point in the novels, but the 2011 movie is just complicated by it. It needed to go.

The 2009 film is better than the 2011 film in establishing just how Blomkvist pieces together sequential photos of Harriet watching a parade, to establish from her reactions that something across the street frightened her. It is also better at establishing how the two investigators establish the pattern of serial killings from past decades.
  
The novel establishes that, once she and Blomkvist find Harriet Vanger, Salander has nothing but contempt for the woman who spent decades in hiding rather than expose her brother as a rapist and serial killer. This happens to be a very legitimate moral point, one that Salander – who burned the primary abuser in her life – could hardly avoid feeling.  (Blomkvist’s subsequent affair with Harriet in this novel and the immediate sequel – of course he has sex with  Harriet – is yet another reason for Salander’s anger over the next two books.) The 2009 version omits Salander’s moral outrage entirely. The 2011 version has her angrily mutter something about Harriet Fucking Vanger but fails to establish just why she’s angry at the lady: a bizarre exercise in alluding to a point but not actually making it.  

Both films are faced with the necessity to dramatize the story’s anti-climax, where after the scary encounter with serial killer Martin Blomkvist must a) discover the missing Harriet still alive, b) engineer a tearful reunion with Uncle Henrik, c) be handed the evidence against the Wennerstrom Corporation. In the 2009 film, he must also report to serve his prison sentence. In the novel, this prison sentence takes place in the middle of the action; in the 2009 movie, after Blomkvist and Salander solve the Harriet Vanger mystery. The 2011 version omits it entirely.

(It’s not bad in a novel to have a character go away for a prison term in the middle of the action; it can be taken care of in a couple of pages, and establish the passage of time. In the 2009 movie, it helps get Blomkvist out of the way while Salander makes heroic efforts of research on his behalf. (And it adds to the effectiveness original film’s far more elegant compression of the backstory, far superior to the 2011 version’s insistence on showing us every step in Salander’s process.) 

The 2009 movie quite rightly paces everything after the encounter with Martin as a final act, but one that flows, inevitably, to the conclusion; the 2011 film gives us way too much and is so narratively lumpy it feels like the series of climaxes that had audiences revolting at the end of The Return Of The King.  It honestly does not work. Only six minutes longer, it feels almost forty minutes longer than that. On the other hand – since in both the novel and the 2009 film Blomkvist flies off to Australia where he locates Harriet Vanger in hiding – it makes precious little sense in the 2009 film to have the prison sentence delayed until after Blomkvist makes this trip; at least, not if you think the Swedish authorities would have something to say about a convicted felon jetting off to the other side of the world before he serves even one day of his sentence. Wouldn’t they prohibit him from traveling internationally until after he served his time?

The 2011 film is oddly discordant in the scenes where Salander, she of the photographic memory, makes a map documenting the movements of the serial killer. She uses thumbnails of the victims, taped to the map. She is the only one using this map, as she does this research. Why does she need it? After all, it has long been established that her memory is infallible. Is it because she knows that there’s an audience out there that requires the reminder?

Finally, both films take it upon themselves to tell us a major part of Lisbeth Salander’s backstory – her torching of her abusive father – that was not revealed until book 2, The Girl Who Played With Fire. The 2009 version presents us with a fragmentary flashback, hinting at deeper secrets; it is a powerful moment. The 2011 version? She casually reveals the secret in answer to a direct question, while in bed with Blomkvist. It’s almost a joke.

Does the 2011 version do anything substantially better than the 2009 version? Well, it benefits from having a director with a more marked touch with visuals. Certainly, the scenes set in winter feel colder, in terms of both temperature and emotional isolation, than anything from the 2009 film. It’s more adroitly edited. But if you want the version that, to this viewer’s mind, boils a long and lumpy novel into an effective, streamlined cinematic thriller…it’s the 2009 film.

And now, the wife enters, angrily gripping a tattoo needle…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009). Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson. 152 minutes. **1/2

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011). Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen. 158 minutes. ** 1/2.

Over the years, I have listened to many people warble on about how great this movie was, and how I just had to see it.  Or, how incredible this or that book was and since I read books, I just had to read it.  Well, I resisted all the Da Vinci nonsense, but succumbed to my curiosity in respect to the topic under discussion here.  Why!?!?

I’ll actually begin with the book.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an international bestseller and now I know the key to a mystery best selling novel.  Write a so-so mystery , not too tough for the average fella and then drop dead(or get killed).  The so called mystery with all the red herrings is just too easy for words.  I had it tied up before Salander makes it to the Vanger enclave.  I continued to plod on for fear that the writer may have a true surprise waiting, but alas, disappointed again!

As for either film, I prefer the 2009 original for its fealty to the book, but the bits left out still really diminish the characters.  The 2011 version seems to dote on the plot bits and diminish the characters.  Neither is satisfying as a visual meal, but either is preferable to an Adam Sandler comedy film fest.

Let’s try to remember, Blomkvist is a horndog , Salander is a psychotic genius and Vanger is a manipulative old man.  These are the meat from which these sandwiches were made, but somehow they are all served stale and cold.

  

 

 

 


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Mister Roberts (1955) is a classic wartime comedy. It was a classic on Broadway, a classic film, and a key moment in the careers of Henry Fonda (playing the titular paragon of decency) and Jack Lemmon (playing the hapless Ensign Pulver). It’s set on a navy cargo ship during World War Two, and centers on the war of wills between a tyrannical Captain (James Cagney) and his number two, Roberts, who doesn’t like how the old man treats the men under his command.

Everybody remembers how great Fonda was in it, and many will remember how great the young Lemmon was in it, but few will reflect that the story isn’t really about Mister Roberts at all. After all, he barely changes in the course of the story; he’s as good and true a man in the beginning as he is when he meets his off-screen fate, and if anything is only rendered more like himself as the events of the film unfold.

No, the story, the change in one man’s character, involves Ensign Pulver: how Mr. Roberts’s example inspires him, in the final moments, to put aside his fear and take his mentor’s place as the Captain’s next great adversary.

And so it goes.

A few minutes ago I saw a film I had always heard described as vastly inferior, but always been curious about: the belated sequel, Ensign Pulver (1964), filmed about a decade later with no members of the original cast. It is, as rumored, not even half the film the original was, and not necessarily because it has lesser players. (And, frankly, not all of them are lesser; Walter Matthau plays second lead, and he’s as good as he always is, enough to make us wish that the filmmakers had also corralled Lemmon to reprise Pulver and thus added another entry to the joint filmography of two great film personalities who made many films of varying quality from classics to duds together.) You can also find a very young Jack Nicholson, still a few years away from Easy Rider, among the supporting players.)

Burl Ives, taking over from Cagney as the son of a bitch Captain, is no replacement, but then few people would be, and you can say of him that he plays the same notes Cagney played, even if the screenplay requires him to be more of a clown. Robert Walker Jr. takes over from Lemmon, and he’s not bad either; not great, but effective enough, as one would expect from a guy who just two years later played one of the better supporting roles on the original Star Trek (he was the terrifying “Charlie X’”).

But again, none of this is the main problem.

Nor is the film’s attempt to humanize the tyrannical Captain, to show us how wounded he must have been by life, to show such petty cruelty to the men under his command. A little of this goes a long way. Thank God, he doesn’t become a better person, nor does he have any very special moments, of the sort you would find in a TV sitcom. All in all he turns out to have been one of those characters who is more satisfying when he can be hated without nuance. But that, again, is not the main problem.

We get closer to the main problem with the story, contrived as it is. It  substantially departs from the original movie’s relatively realistic blend of comedy and drama, relying on a ridiculous series of events that has Pulver and the Captain accidentally set adrift in a life boat, washing up on the same tropical island where another stranded group of service people includes the very same nurse Pulver is sweet on, and then, then, requiring that nurse to assist Pulver in an emergency appendectomy on his martinet of a commanding officer.

It is, frankly, plotting akin to Gilligan’s Island,  and not a wart on the ass of the firmly character-based shenanigans of the original…but, again, it’s not the main problem.

No, the main problem is that, like all too many sequels, it presses the reset button and contrives to repeat the very same character arc as that original.

Mister Roberts is, ultimately, about how a better man’s example and a shocking reminder of the realities of war lead Ensign Pulver, a fellow who talks big but has never really been serious about anything in his life, to belatedly grow up and become a substantial person. It is the very point of the story, and the reason the story resonates after the last laughs have faded, the reason audiences who see it for the first time in a theatre still erupt in tumultuous applause in the final moments, when Pulver finally stands up to the Captain who terrifies him.

Ensign Pulver all but forgets that happened at all, and begins again with Pulver a big-talking ninny under the Captain’s thumb. It puts him back at the beginning of his journey and then forces him to take the journey again, but gives him a stupider route to the very same epiphanies that his character arrived at back when he was played by Jack Lemmon.

It follows a much better story and says, “Remember all the great stuff you saw before? Well, it turns out that none of that matters at all. This stuff, this much stupider stuff, is the stuff that changed Ensign Pulver.”

And in so doing, it spectacularly fails the sequel test. Nobody who loved Mister Roberts could possibly buy this as an accurate account of what happened to Pulver next. It is a base lie, Pulver apocrypha. We shall not speak of it again.


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.