Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Perkins’


First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Les Miserables (1934). Directed by Raymond Bernard. Screenplay by Raymond Bernard and Andre Lang, from the novel by Victor Hugo.  Starring Harry Bauer and Charles Vanet. 280 minutes. ****

Les Miserables (1935). Directed by Richard Boleslawski. Screenplay by W.P. Linscomb, from the novel by Victor Hugo. Starring Fredric March, Charles Laughton, and John Carradine.  108 minutes. ***

Other Notable Versions: Too many to list, but we will make special reference to The Fugitive (), based on the American TV series about a wrongfully accused doctor doing good deeds while on the run from a fanatical Lieutenant Gerard; the resonances were very deliberate in the TV show, and ara ceraried over by the movie)

So here’s another slam-dunk against the argument that Remakes Always Suck, occasioning the multi-part, epic return of The Remake Chronicles after a life-mandated absence of several months.

The 1935 version of LES MISERABLES starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton – long considered the “classic” version, though we will take the position that there are several superior ones — was the *eighteenth* screen version of that story. The eighteenth. By 1935. Twelve of those were silent versions. Six were made by 1910. One film inspired by the material was early as 1897. There are over sixty screen versions in all, including multiple Japanese versions, multiple Korean versions, and of course multiple French versions. There are versions in Tamil and in Russian. Versions have been filmed in Egypt, Sri Lanka, Brazil, and Turkey. There are multiple versions filmed in India, using multiple Indian dialects. There’s a claymation version. There are a number of religiously-based versions that contract the entire narrative to the length of a short story and tell us only the memorable parable of the Bishop’s candlesticks, which is a great self-contained short story all by itself. There was an epic five and a half hour silent version, unavailable to us, which was more than an hour longer than the longest of the epic versions we’ll be covering.

LES MISERABLES the novel is a sprawling narrative detailing the travails of one Jean Valjean, tossed into prison for stealing  a loaf of bread and released on parole only to be stalked, for the next twenty years, by a police inspector obsessed with throwing him back into prison. Most people read in abridgement, and it requires further abridgement in any even epic-length film, which is why all versions streamline or omit several storylines completely (including, yes, that four and a half hour version we’re seeing). Some omit the key villains of the novel (yes, even more so than Javert), the larcenous innkeepers / petty criminals known as the  Thenardiers; others simply make them walk-ons.  Some omit Valjean’s years spent hiding on the grounds of a convent in Paris. A few give short shrift to the doomed prostitute Fantine, others to the doomed gamin Eponine, others the doomed street urchin Gavroche (and we can honestly save some time here by throwing up our hands and saying that unless we specify otherwise, the word “doomed” pretty much applies to everybody).  Many ignore the gardener Fauchelevent, who repays a vital favor to Jean Valjean at a key moment.
 
Vital connections are also usually simplified. It is possible to see most versions, including the musical, and not know that the doomed street-urchin Gavroche is Eponine’s brother, or that both are members of the villainous Thenardier clan (albeit ones who seem to have fallen from the tree).  It is possible to see most versions and not know that Marius is sole heir to a vast fortune, currently estranged from his family for political reasons. It is possible to see most versions and not know that Thernadier was once rewarded for presumed bravery at Waterloo.  It is possible to watch most versions and not know how cruel Marius is to Jean Valjean, at one point, banishing the old man from the life of the young girl he raised. It is also easy to miss just how often Valjean escapes Javert by the skin of his teeth. It happens more often than would ever guess; every version ever made has had to omit a couple of close calls and hair’s-breadth escapes, though they don’t all omit the same escapes, or dramatize them in the right order. At least one version we’ll cover deliberately doesn’t even take place in the correct century!

It’s impossible to cover the differences between all of these adaptations without going into some length describing the elements that are emphasized, or omitted, in each, but for now let’s just say that Jean Valjean comes into some serious money shortly after his departure from state custody, and decides to change his identity. He is sitting pretty as the mayor of a town when his old prison nemesis Javert shows up as local police inspector, notes the resemblance to a wanted parole violator, and starts investigating. Valjean finds himself responsible for an impoverished woman named Fantine, who is at death’s door after a desperate existence that has led to sell her hair, her teeth, and her sexual favors; at the moment when Valjean reveals his true identity in order,  to prevent an innocent man from being imprisoned in his name, he finds himself having to flee again to rescue and adopt Fantine’s daughter Cosette.

baur

The Definitive Version: LES MISERABLES (1934)

The 1934 French version, new to us, was made to be shown in three installments, each one the length of the average theatrical feature.

It’s leisurely, and a trial for the attention span and the sore posterior. However, it tells Victor Hugo’s story in far greater detail in any of the other versions we’ve seen. Only in this version do we meet the Thenardiers before Jean Valjean does, and see how deliberately they torment the anguished mother Fantine with demands for more and more money to presumably spend of her child; only here do we see how aware they are that she will soon have to descend to prostitution to afford this, and how little they care. It is also the only version we cover that shows us how, in later years, the Thenardiers stalk Valjean with an eye to extorting more money from him; and the only version with what we can only describe as Valjean’s superhero fight, in which an entire gang led by Thenadier attacks Valjean en masse, and he proves fully capable of handing them all their respective asses.

This version also introduces us to Fantine fairly early – we see her meeting the cad who will impregnate and abandon her – and then shows us the inexorable process which reduces this once vivacious young lady to a dying, toothless hag, dying in winter. It is a horrifying series of scenes. The 2012 musical does show us this part of the story, but gets it out of the way in two songs; this one keeps cutting back and forth between Fantine’s slide downward and the Thenadiers at home squeezing her for more cash, and it is horrifying. (Also, when Anne Hathaway’s Fantine sells her teeth, she sells the teeth in back, that we can’t see. Only one other Fantine of the number we cover is as VISIBLY destroyed, by the time Jean Valjean discovers her predicament, as the one in this film; that’s the one from the Richard Jordan / Anthony Perkins version, and there we only see the after, not the before).

This is one of the only films that introduces us to Marius’s royalist grandfather Gillenormand, here a vainglorious, slightly mad figure as well as snob. It is also the only the only film of the bunch that will tell you that street urchins Gavroche and Eponine are brother and sister, and that Gavroche has essentially divorced his parents (sleeping outside rather than associate with them, though he continues to keep an eye on his sisters).

It is interesting, then, that even here some elisions for dramatic flow are easy to discern.

For instance – as the protagonist of one rather self-reflexive version will someday  memorably note – the story of Les Miserables always seems to stop dead when the young couple, Marius and Cosette, fall in love. They’re a rather dull pair in a narrative overflowing with colorful and interesting characters, and few versions manage to leap the hurdle of their interminable meet-cute-and-courtship, before more entertaining intrigues return to inject energy back into the story. (Frankly, I always thought that Marius is a fool for chasing after the insipid Cosette, when the downright adorable Eponine is not only in close proximity, but in heat.) It’s a marvelous feat of compression that subsequent versions might have done well to heed.

Secondly, most versions omit the period of imprisonment, and escape, that take place between Fantine’s death and Valjean’s visit to the Thenardier’s inn to rescue Cosette; in fact, that’s a rather substantial episode in the book, but in a movie it pretty much sets the story back at square one, at the point where it really does need to be moving forward. Various versions compress this period by having Valjean overpower Javert, or escape quickly while in custody; this version reduces that to a simple delightful image, a jail window with bars twisted like pretzels. Javert wasn’t kidding when he said Valjean was strong!

As Javert, Charles Vanel does a pretty credible job doing what every screen Javert seems to do, glower and look constipated – though there’s a nice moment during Fantine’s death scene where he takes off his cap as a show of respect to a dying woman, and in context it’s downright startling. His final conversation is Valjean is also nice, in that he visibly struggles with the difficulty of accepting his old foe as a human being.

Harry Baur is an unusual Valjean in that most movies cast a conventional leading man, and this one casts a rather burly, jowly old man who a) looks persuasively grimy as a convict, and b) is just as persuasive as a well-fed faux-aristocrat either. The long running time gives him the time to play what is likely the most nuanced Valjean, ever.

Charles Dullin’s Thenardier is also the slimiest version of that character I’ve yet seen on film, an evil and malignant little man who actively likes destroying other people as long as he can profit by it. 

All in all? The best version of the novel we’ve seen.

It was followed a year later by the most famous and overpraised version.

Laughton

 The Compromised Version: LES MISERABLES (1935)

The old-Hollywood version usually praised as the greatest screen version of the tale certainly has a number of strong assets to its credit. Among them are a very fine performance by Fredric March as Valjean and an absolutely blow-the-doors-out-the-back-of-the-theatre ass-kicking version of Javert, assayed by Charles Laughton. Laughton was, of course, that very same year the screen’s definitive Captain Bligh, and his Javert shares much of that character’s DNA: an absolute devotion to regulation, divorced from all compassion even in the face of actual human suffering.

Laughton also gives us an element of Javert that most portrayals miss, much earlier in the tale: a hint of the man’s brittle self-loathing, especially in the scene where he apologizes to “Monsieur Madeleine” for denouncing him. It is all-too-easy, in some versions (notably in the Lewis Milestone film, still coming up), to believe that Javert is so nefarious and bereft of conscience that he arranges the arrest of the wrong man as Valjean, just to force “Monsieur Madeleine” into confessing; it is an interpretation of events that frankly makes no sense, since Javert believes Valjean to be utterly without virtue and has absolutely no reason to believe him genuinely capable of acts of conscience. But many versions either play this confrontation for ambiguity, leaving us to wonder how much Javert really knows…or achieve an unwanted ambiguity by failing to show us what’s really going on in Javert’s heart. Laughton’s performance leaves no doubt. He is wracked with torment over what he perceives as his tragic mistake, and comes so close to breaking because of it that his subsequent renewed hatred for Valjean, once he learns who Madeleine is, makes a terrible psychological sense.

This version also allows him to play up his horror when Valjean releases him at the barricades. This Javert is downright smug when he thinks that Valjean is about to kill him. He is happy. His beliefs have been vindicated. When Valjean subsequently lets him go, he is so shattered that, again, he almost bursts into tears. It is, until the musical, the best screen performance of that moment.

Alas, I must report that Hollywood standards of the era result in unacceptable bowdlerization. The movie is filled with what, to today’s eyes, amount to ridiculous compromises with the material, in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of its audience.

This Fantine does not sell her hair or her teeth and she does not descend into prostitution. Javert wants to arrest her because she bursts in on the mayor without permission. Her subsequent illness is just something that happens, nothing related to her economic status. She’s even well-dressed. There’s absolutely no on-screen evidence that she’s sunken to prostitution. It just doesn’t happen.

We get a glimpse of the Thenardiers, but Valjean does not have to argue with them in order to rescue Cosette. He just finds Cosette in the woods, and any confrontation with her cruel guardians is left to our imagination. He subsequently brings about the reunion of happy Cosette and her mother, a minor moment of closure that is pure stupid invention, utterly weakening the key story point that she dies waiting to see her child again.

The biggest and most offensive bit of story editing comes with the introduction of Marius, who tells us outright that he is “not a revolutionary.” Nope. Now, revolutionaries like Marius may not have been popular in 1935 Hollywood, but making him and his people mere agitators for prison reform, who in fact say that other than that they want MORE law and order – really, he says this! – does outright violence to Hugo’s story, and is downright unacceptable.  You might as well make a new version of REDS where John Reed wants to open up a McDonald’s in Moscow. It is a craven and despicable change. It ‘s worse than a change. It is a lie.

Eponine appears, giving her life to save Marius; it is a brief appearance, and we never learn who her parents are, but she is indeed present. Enjolras is played, in a brief but fiery scene, by the great John Carradine. Very little else occurs to disturb the Valjean Vs. Javert show.

At the end of the film, Valjean bids a heartful farewell to Cosette, but walks less than fifty feet before he discovers Javert’s suicide. The implication is that he will return to Cosette with a shaken, “Never mind.”  In this version, and in many others, there is no doubt that Valjean has been rewarded for all his years of selfless behavior and can now enjoy a happy-ever-after retirement.  (This is not the last movie version that will give that impression.)

It is of course inevitable that any adaptation of a very long and complex book, a third the length of the version released a year before it, will miss or oversimplify some of the elements; but this one does more than that. It downright lies about  many of the more uncompromising threads, softening Marius and bowdlerizing what happens to Fantine over and above the suggestion that once freed of Javert, Valjean will have a happy and unencumbered life.  These are not changes made to streamline. These are changes that substantially damage the story. Charles Laughton’s Javert still needs to be seen. But aside from him this version appears to have become a classic by default – an occurrence that is downright jaw-dropping in view of the wonder that was released, albeit in another language, only one year before it.

Coming Soon 

This rather epic installment will continue, soon, with examinations of the classic story as filmed with Valjeans Michael Rennie, Richard Jordan, Jean-Claude Belmondo, Liam Neeson, and Hugh Jackman! ‘Til then, if you buy bread, get a receipt!

To be Continued!


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.