Posts Tagged ‘Henry Fonda’

Can we just talk about this a little more? Please?

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Twelve Angry Men (1957). Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, from his prior teleplay. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, others. 96 minutes. ****

12 (in Russian with Subtitles Available; 2007). Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexander Novotsky-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseenko, based on original screenplay by Reginald Rose. One third of the actors on the jury have the first name Sergei, and two others are named Alexei; it must have been fun whenever one got a phone call. 157 minutes. **

Others Mentioned Here But Not Discussed At Length: Twelve Angry Men (TV-movie directed by William Friedkin, 1997).

Other Known Versions: The original TV production (1954); Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (Hindi, 1986); many many other parodies and imitations.


The boy is on trial for his life. He has been accused of the brutal stabbing death of his father, and though he maintains his innocence, almost no exculpatory evidence has been introduced, and he is almost certainly facing a trip upstate. It’s a foregone conclusion. For the most part, the all-male jury looks forward to a quick vote, an immediate return to the courtroom,  and from there a quick return to their everyday lives. But one juror isn’t so sure. He thinks that the matter is too serious for such casual disposal…and as he persuades his resentful fellow jurors to take a second look, more and more cracks appear in the prosecution’s case. It begins to look like the boy might be innocent after all. But some members of the jury are emotionally invested in a guilty verdict…and it becomes unclear whether justice, of any kind, is at all possible.

This was the premise of Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay Twelve Angry Men, and of the classic 1957 film directed by Sidney Lumet. A financial disappointment for star and co-producer Henry Fonda, it built its reputation with later TV showings and is now considered a major, influential classic. It was also the first theatrical film of the towering Sidney Lumet, who was among other things one of the great New York City directors and who, over the next fifty years, managed the admirable feat of directing at least one, and sometimes more than one, capital-G Great film per decade. (That list of one great film per decade would, according to this lifelong admirer, include Twelve Angry Men in the 1950s, The Pawnbroker and The Hill in the 1960s, Serpico, Murder On the Orient Express,  Dog Day Afternoon, and Network in the 1970s, Prince of the City in the 1980s, Q & A in the 1990s, and his last movie Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead in the 2000s…and that’s before you start listing films that miss greatness by a hair or those like Fail-Safe or The Verdict that are merely very, very good.) It is part of our culture, and the latest word has it that it’s about to be remade again. We therefore take this opportunity to discuss both the original, which can be seen as a dramatization of what’s so great about America…and a recent version that can be seen as a dramatization of everything that’s gone wrong in Russia.

One point before we continue: readers of these essays always risk being exposed to plot spoilers, but this is especially true of what follows, and particularly in its coverage of the 2007 film. Beware.

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Movie fans who want to know the difference between what a screenwriter does and what a director does could be profitably directed to this film.

The story, essentially a two-hour argument where the jurors supporting a not guilty verdict gradually break down and overcome the opposition of those who want the kid to go to jail, was all on paper long before Sidney Lumet ever got involved; what he added in this, his very first theatrical film, was a superb mastery of the form that over the course of 96 grueling minutes gradually moves the POV of most shots closer and closer to table-level, increasing the tension and the sense that all of the jurors are stuck with one another. He’s the one who makes this an astonishingly fluid and stylish film for one largely set all in one room, and it manages the trick long before the days of queasy shakicams and swooping, spinning, 360 degree pans. That is all Lumet, with his cinematographer Boris Kaufman and his editor Carl Lerner. Please note that it is not showy direction; the average moviegoer will never be consciously aware of Lumet’s craft. But it’s there. It can be felt, and it ratchets up the suspense to the breaking point.

Similarly, movie fans who want a primo demonstration of the importance of star power need look no further than the introduction of Juror #8 (Fonda), initially the only one who even wants to subject the evidence to discussion. He is the last one whose face we see, after the jury files into the room and everybody else expends the next few minutes in idle conversation and joking around; at the moment when he’s called to the table for deliberation, having spent the last few minutes gazing out the window in silent contemplation, he turns around and reveals himself for the first time as Fonda, from The Grapes Of Wrath and The Ox-Bow Incident onward an icon of American rectitude, and instantly the guy the movie audience wants to win. (Jack Lemmon, who played the same role in William Friedkin’s 1997 TV version, played decent men as often as Fonda did, and for all his talent couldn’t match the impact of Fonda’s big turn-around.)

The movie also benefits from being superbly cast. Any list of who’s superb here will amount to a simple recitation of the entire jury, but special attention should be paid to Lee J. Cobb, as the bullying juror #3, who is just as quickly the guy the audience will want to see lose; and to E.G. Marshall, as Juror #4, another antagonist who happens to be the most level-headed, logically-driven person in the room; he never raises his voice and, until a memorable moment late in the film, never sweats. (There’s also Jack Klugman, who just a few years later played tribute to this movie with another deadlocked-jury story on an episode of his sitcom, The Odd Couple.)

The movie is filled with cheer-worthy moments. What audience doesn’t feel tremendous satisfaction when the old man changes his vote to support Juror #8?  What audience doesn’t cheer when  Juror #4 interrupts another’s bigoted rant by telling him to sit down and not open his mouth again?

One of the best shut-up moments in any movie, ever.

Really.  It’s like an action movie, with arguments instead of gunfights, so pleasurable with every frame that some viewers, this essayist included, can see it dozens of times with undiminished appreciation.

It’s so very terrific, in toto, that just making this next observation is extraordinarily painful.

It is also incredibly contrived.

It has to be. All courtroom dramas are. It’s one thing if they’re based on actual court cases, where the transcripts exist; but if concocted, they by necessity compress into an hour or two or at most three the high points of what is, in real life, often a mind-numbingly dull process, with testimony given in monotones and long stretches spent in wrangling over evidentiary minutiae. Creating an effective courtroom drama almost always depends on the careful concealment of, and timely unveiling of, straw men:  obstacles that seem fatal but aren’t, evidence that seems iron-clad but isn’t, a closing argument that seems to put the final nails in the opposing side’s coffin but nevertheless leaves room for a rhetorical flourish that makes everything before it seem flimsy and stupid. In Twelve Angry Men, it’s the pile of evidence implicating a kid in the stabbing-death of his father – a case that Reginald Rose carefully designed to look air-tight at first, but to which he also carefully attached serious reasons to doubt.

Everything depends on the writer’s deliberate placement of these straw men; if Henry Fonda’s character had not been able to buy an identical switchblade after the police failed, if the elderly witness had not been dragging a leg, if the woman across the street not rubbed the bridge of her nose in court, or even if the jurors had not changed their minds with the regularity that they did, the defendant would be on the first train upstate.  In that sense, at least, Twelve Angry Men functions not as  an indictment of our legal system, but as a fond tribute to the efficacy of having the case against you designed by an omnipotent screenwriter who wants it to fall apart at the first gust of strong wind. This has been discussed, at length, but Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who as an educator also characterized the independent investigation of Juror #8 as likely grounds for a mistrial. (And, by the way, if you want another case of a courtroom drama artfully hiding the fact that it all depends on a screenwriter carefully hiding straw men – in this case evidence that’s been squirreled away by the culprits, that the defense attorney protagonist uncovers at the last minute — look no further than that other Lumet drama, The Verdict.)

None of that matters all that much. The case may be designed to fall apart, but it’s designed to fall apart in a suspenseful manner, driven by the characters of the jurors; and it’s designed to fall apart in a manner than remains inconclusive at the end, leaving open the possibility that the kid might have killed his Dad after all.

William Friedkin’s 1997 version pretty much hits the same story points, with a just-as-impressive cast that included in addition to Lemmon such powerhouses as George C. Scott and Ossie Davis; it is effective enough, but lacks Lumet’s brilliant staging. On the plus side, we are no longer talking about Twelve Angry White Men, and indeed one of its more audacious touches is casting a young Black man, Mykelti Williamson, in the role of the film’s vengeful bigot. On the negative is the one reason we bring it up, the odd casting glitch that presents us with a large number of elderly men among the jurors, not just Lemmon and Scott but also Ossie Davis and Hume Cronyn. This is only an issue because, as in the original, much is made of Juror # 3 being scolded failing to show the proper amount of respect toward the frail and lonely retiree, Juror # 9. That makes a small degree of sense when Lee. J. Cobb, circa 1957, is being upbraided for the way he treats the “old man,” Joseph Sweeney;  less so when George C. Scott, circa 1997, is told off for the way he treats old men like Hume Cronyn. They’re both old men, and it’s downright surreal when another old man, Ossie Davis, makes noises that  seem to regard Cronyn, who’s admittedly somewhat older, as ancient by comparison. Look around you, people. If you count Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was 67 at the time and the youngest of this group by several years, almost half the jury is eligible for social security.

12 (2007)

This award-winning Russian remake, which intends to be not just an examination of the elusiveness of justice in a system that depends on the fairness of human beings serving on juries, but also a harsh examination of the current state of Russian society, is a full hour longer – and a slog even for those of us who normally have little problem with lengthy films. Things just take longer they need to, and many of the jurors stop everything in order to regale everybody with long, dramatic soliloquys about their backstories, a number of which end with the jaw-dropping conclusion, “And that’s why I’m changing my vote to Not Guilty.” (Really? You rip off mourners at the cemetery where you work, use the money to fund schools, and that’s why you’re changing your mind? Really? That’s…um….different.)

Nobody in the film reacts to these extended personal monologues the way human beings would. Oh, sure, the other jurors ask leading questions like, “Why are you telling us this?”, but that just gives the speakers an excuse to continue talking. In real life, one or two of these might be tolerated, but as the tension level rose, somebody would react to the latest with an exasperated, “Oh, great. Now he’s starting.” Instead, everybody always freezes and allows the soliloquys to play out. I can’t be any clearer than this: in real life, eventually, they wouldn’t.

Also taking up time: a substantial number of flashbacks to the childhood of the young defendant, a Chechen orphan accused of killing his Russian stepfather.  It is a past that includes huddling in a dark basement filled with corpses, and for what it’s worth these war scenes are both horrific and well-staged…but even the best-staged scenes can be tiresome if they interrupt the story we care about, and these serve to dilute the overpowering narrative momentum of the original, which takes place in something resembling real time. In 12, we leave the jurors regularly to  catch up on some more images from the defendant’s tragic life, and return to clear indications that substantial time has passed for the members of the jury and that we’ve missed some of their deliberations. (If what we’ve missed amounted to more monologues, then this can be counted as a mercy.) As an extra added treat, we are shown a skirmish from the war in Chechnya, where many rounds of automatic weapons fire are exchanged between two buildings while the boy presses himself flat in the rubble-strewn street between them;  thus making this the last thing anybody ever expected in this universe, a somewhat defensible remake of Twelve Angry Men with explosions in it.

That deserves repetition. This is a defensible remake of Twelve Angry Men with explosions in it.

Not exactly claustrophobic.

That’s a remarkable achievement. I guess.

The sacrifice of the original’s claustrophobic setting extends to this film’s jury room, the gymnasium of a run-down high school. The jury members have plenty of room to move about, and sometimes wander far from the central table. This, surprisingly, works, and not just because the basketball tossed by one near the beginning, that refuses to fall through the netless rim and instead just lodges against the backboard, as clear a symbol of the belated verdict as anybody could have ever arranged. Much is made of the exposed heating pipe in the ceiling, and the broken window temporarily blocked off by a cement bag that, one juror discovers, has been there for decades. All around them sit manifestations of a nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and the widespread corruption that permits it. One juror, screwing around, discovers a hypodermic needle in a kid’s locker, while another discovers and oohs over an abandoned brassiere, and yes, both discoveries are part of it. There’s another nice touch involving the school’s upright piano, which is stored behind iron bars, and which a couple of the jurors manage to play anyway; you couldn’t buy more potent symbolism than that.

We must also give props to this film’s bailiff, who unlike the glorified prop of the original film is actually a living and breathing personality, who uses the jury’s confiscated cell phones to make his own calls, and reacts with open, comic, and a precisely modulated level of confusion to the antics going on in the jury room. We don’t get any more of the him than the film needs, just enough. And that is a plus.

The murder, and the means by which the various members of the jury poke holes in what had seemed an airtight case, are similar to the ones originally posited by Reginald Rose. We get the supposedly unique knife used in the crime, the limping old man from downstairs who says he witnessed the boy’s flight but couldn’t have, the unlikelihood of the boy blithely returning to the scene of the crime hours after the killing, and even the woman with compromised eyesight who claims to have witnessed the murder from across the street. There is no passing elevated train, but that’s a difficult story element to translate to Moscow and a loud construction site works just as well. The unlikelihood of a boy used to handling knives stabbing a much taller man with a downward thrust also comes up, and that scene is, here, wonderful; the proper method of knife-handling is demonstrated by a surgeon among the jurors who happens to be a Chechen himself and who turns out to be a frightening wizard with a blade. Some of the dramatics work identically, as well; for instance, the main antagonist is a bully of a juror who has issues involving his relationship with his own son, though the details are very different (and are related in the last and best of the film’s many extended monologues).

Some of the character stuff is genuinely hilarious. The cemetery guy is eager to get back to his hot 21 year old wife, who according to him looks like Angelina Jolie. He has had three wet dreams in three consecutive nights, thinking of her. He demands to know of his fellow jurors whether they still have wet dreams at their age. (To the film’s credit, this results in helpless laughter on the part of everybody.)  The film’s bully keeps attacking the film’s elderly Jew, who just takes it with a knowing amusement that would infuriate any bigot more than any tirade. This is good stuff.

But that’s all before we get to some of the strangest and most extreme departures from Reginald Rose’s original story.

You have already been provided with a spoiler warning. Proceed past this sentence at your own risk.

One juror puts together the evidence and comes up with an alternative theory that not only fits the facts, but seems to be the story’s objective truth: i.e. the father was murdered, the boy framed, and the elderly witness downstairs paid off, by the construction company working on the building next door, that wanted to force them all out of their homes. The police and the prosecution have been paid off to see to it that the boy is railroaded.

Again, that deserves repetition.

This is a version of Twelve Angry Men where the jurors actually solve the crime.

Subsequently, the foreman, a retired ex-intelligence officer who has said almost nothing during the film, reveals that he put together this theory almost immediately and still intends to vote guilty, as the boy has nowhere to go and will certainly be assassinated by the true culprits if freed. In prison, at least, he will live longer. He asks the others if they’ll take responsibility for the boy’s future now, knowing what they know. They all demur, as they all have lives to live. He reluctantly joins them in a Not Guilty verdict. At the end, post-trial, he not only tells the defendant that he knows what really happened and that he will not rest until the true killers are exposed…he tells the kid to come home with him.

That also deserves repetition.

This is a version of Twelve Angry Men where the foreman of the jury adopts the defendant.

I can’t be any clearer than this. 12 is a well-meaning and in many ways admirable version of the basic story, that tries to adapt the story skeleton for its own entirely defensible purposes. But  The film’s several cogent observations about life in modern-day Russia notwithstanding, these touches make 12 about as ludicrous a re-imagining as we’ve seen at any point, even in the age of remakes.

The Verdict

Twelve Angry Men: an incredibly contrived, but brilliantly told film. 12: a lumpy and ludicrous but frequently powerful report on the state of life in Russia today.

And now, the wife produces an identical switchblade from her jacket pocket and stabs it into the table…


Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Twelve Angry Men (1957). Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, from his prior teleplay. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, others. 96 minutes.****

12 (in Russian with Subtitles Available; 2007). Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexander Novotsky-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseenko, based on original screenplay by Reginald Rose. One third of the actors on the jury have the first name Sergei, and two others are named Alexei; it must have been fun whenever one got a phone call. 157 minutes.**1’2

Other Known Versions: The original TV production (1954); the William Friedkin TV-movie remake (1997); Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (Hindi, 1986); many many other parodies and imitations.

In my nearly 30 years working in and around court rooms and juries, I could never imagine a juror able to bring a weapon into the jury room.  That being said, I have seen many odd bits of evidence in both civil and criminal trials. (OK, for you dying to know, everything from a human leg to a 1960’s era VW Beetle, not to mention a life size replica of a male plaintiff’s genitalia with removable parts to demonstrate his injuries!)  But, after viewing these films, I wonder if screenwriters have a clue how juries really work.

I have seen the group who just want to get it over with, the group who want to sock it to the insurance company, the group who actually care and the jury that can’t understand a darn thing!  The twelve men in our tales all begin as the primary and in the 1957 actually come full circle back to that with only their verdict changed.  The jurists in the Russian film not only want the whole deal over with, they obviously also want group therapy.  It seems the 2007 theme was we can heal ourselves by freeing the boy.

The Lumet-directed piece plays tight and tense, the climate in the room mirroring the temperament and tenor of the deliberations.  The claustrophobic conditions only add to the exquisite morality play we witness.  But, alas, it feels like a play.  In my reality, the single hold out would have either been abused verbally and possibly physically, or requested to be excused before the abuse could begin.  Seldom will one person be persuasive enough to sway eleven others,  and in this case his opening gambit would never have been able to work.  This is an idealization of the jury process, not the truth of the fallibility of our justice system.

The Russian piece, while hitting all the salient points, doesn’t have the edge to make it work.  Again, we are dealing with prejudice and poverty, but this version needs to show us the depravity that the accused boy has lived through and the ongoing horror of his continued existence.  Ok, great, but that’s not the story of justice served.  The added sequences (including the repetition of the wet dog) do nothing to move the story forward and in my opinion bogs it down enough to cause serious  breaks in what should have been some decent dramatic scenes.  Yes, we are dealing with these twelve guys trying to work out their own problems through this deliberation, but the sense of urgency, the need to get this right, just doesn’t feel present here.  The very fact that life or death is not only based on the verdict, but what happens afterward, blows the premise of the play to shreds.

I have been the fool left “babysitting” the jury.  Hours spent sitting, running questions to the judge, getting evidence and meals. But, I have also been a juror. These idealized versions of courts and juries just don’t cut it, but then, truth is much more boring than fiction (in most cases).

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.