Psycho is one of the handful of most important films ever made. That is hyperbole, but the film invites hyperbole. And just because it's hyperbole, doesn't mean it's not also accurate: we need to divide classic from modern cinema somewhere, and the astounding structural gamesmanship of this 1960 thriller makes it as good a candidate as anything else (the only other film I'd seriously consider for the honor is also from 1960: Antonioni's L'avventura, which is certainly as revolutionary in its style and structure, if not even moreso, but has almost certainly influenced a smaller pool of subsequent filmmakers).
And it's probably not very becoming to start out by talking about structure, because it's so far and away the most obvious thing there is to talk about - by the way, if you have somehow managed the Olympian feat of getting to this point in your life without learning what happens in Psycho, then quit reading NOW and don't risk talk to any human being until you've had a chance to see it - and there's so much else that one could talk about, from the film's two most extraordinary performances, or Hitchcock's beyond-revolutionary staging of the murder scenes, or Bernard Herrmann's score, revolutionary itself and key to the film working a swell as it does (frankly, I think that Herrmann arguably contributed more to the film's success than Hitchcock himself: even the best-directed moments of the film are vastly improved by the composer's twitchy, strings-only music). But structure, among all the film's taboo-busting gestures, is the one that seems most vital and important, easiest to spot and thus easiest to be blindsided by. No, Psycho was not the first movie to trick us with a false protagonist, but nothing before it and nothing after it did so to such damnably unsettling effect.
Besides, it's not too much to say that the fake-out involving Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh) is the most important element of the whole plot: it is the only thing that Joseph Stefano's screenplay changes from the 1959 Robert Bloch novel, really (along with, randomly, Marion's name - she starts out as Mary). The structure of scenes, considerable stretches of dialogue, damn near every story beat, and in order, after Marion's watery demise; even the unpleasantly exposition-y chat with the psychiatrist that pretty much everybody agrees is the worst part of the whole movie (it's even worse in the book, where it gets reported secondhand); all of this is imported with change from the novel. The only significant alteration is that, in Bloch's book, we are introduced to Norman Bates in the very first chapter, and to Marion in the second; she is dead at the end of the third. In the movie, of course, we don't meet Anthony Perkins's Norman until Marion herself does, and all of the things that make Psycho the movie such an unnerving, disorienting horror movie, instead of just a dirty, effectively little shocker like the book, come from that one change. For the movie, unlike the book, thus starts out with a clear, certain protagonist in Marion, and the unspoiled viewer has no reason to doubt that she is the main character in a tautly-made little crime thriller right up until that sequence in the bathroom. The book never has a protagonist; four different characters get limited third-person narration throughout, but since we can tell even from the beginning that Norman is rather too weird and delicate to be our hero, it never seems like any of those four are the main character. But the movie doesn't act that way - it promises that it will be a film about Marion and then sucker punches the viewer, and never permits us to recover our footing.
The reverberations of this one trick play throughout the entire movie: and again, a comparison to the book is instructive. After Marion's death, as the action switches to her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) and sister Lila (Vera Miles), in the book it just reads like another shift in perspective, like we've already seen happen twice. This is not what happens in the movie at all. In the movie, we have effectively three "movements", as far as our POV is concerned.
-Marion-as-protagonist: we see and hear things exactly as she does.
-Norman cleaning up "mother's" crime scene: we stand apart from him, but not in a position of authority or judgment; we are, in effect, voyeurs to his actions, just as we were voyeurs when Marion was stabbed to death - it is as harsh an implication of the audience's desire to watch evil things as Rear Window, though less systematic.
-Lila and Sam investigating the crime and finding out what Norman and his mother have been up to.
Of course, in this third sequence, a bit less than half of the movie, we're not really able to identify with Lila and Sam's POV, because we know a great deal more than they do: Marion is dead, Norman sank her in a swamp to hide the evidence, he never even knew that she had $40,000 wrapped in a newspaper currently mouldering in the back seat of her also-swamped car. It's shot and edited and performed like we don't know this about them, though, and that leads to an extreme disconnect between the movie that we are being shown (the mystery of what happened to Marion) and the movie we know ourselves to be watching (the psycho at the Bates Motel). We are never able to grab onto another protagonist after Marion dies, in fact, and this dislocation ends up making the rest of Psycho a much more unnerving experience: it's certainly not as focused, its momentum is all gone to hell, and it's honestly not as much fun as it was in the beginning. But this is all because it has made the turn from being a Hitchcockian thriller, to one of Hitchcock's very few outright horror movies (indeed other than The Birds and arguably Frenzy, did he make another?), and the essence of good horror is a constant sense of unease; the brilliance of Psycho's second half is to use the rules of cinema against the viewer, making something seem tremendously unsettling about the narrative development, just as in the shower scene, the film uses the rules of cinema against the viewer to score one of the all-time great shock moments.
Now, that's a lot of chattering on and on about just the narrative structure of a movie that is, as we all know, a titanic masterpiece of visual storytelling: there might not be a more fully dissected and discussed sequence in all of motion pictures than the shower scene that cuts the movie in half. But it's not like the rest of the movie fails (the only point where the directions sags, I'd say, is in the murder of Arbogast: an awkward overhead shot that cuts right into one of the worst process shots in a directorial career full of clumsy rear-projection), or is even less than brilliant: the shower scene itself comes only right after a sequence of the most precise filmmaking, in which this quick-moving crime thriller suddenly jams to a halt in a series of moments - undressing, flushing paper down a toilet, hiding the money - that include a measure of prurient voyeurism but also play as being curiously uncinematic in their presentation, and in addition to flattening the momentum simply don't make sense as anything we'd expect to watch in a movie; and thus we head into the shower having already been knocked a bit off-kilter. There are dozens of other moments that are brilliant, and I could happily turn this into just a list of wonderful technique, and wonderful moments of performance, but really, is there any point? This is Psycho, a film we've all seen and most of us, I assume, love: it's not hardly Hitchcock at his most flawless, but not a single film he ever made, and very few movies every made by anyone, is so absolutely flattening as a total experience. It is great filmmaking as done by one of cinema's top masters in full command of his art.
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Psycho is not, in fact, a shot-by-shot remake, nor even a line-by-line remake. It cleans away some of the more rickety dialogue, and replaces a dirty joke that the original film was obliged to censor ("Bed? Only playground that beats Las Vegas"). It is an extremely faithful remake, you understand, and if you didn't watch the two movies right in a row, as I did in preparation for this essay, I imagine you'd have a hard time pointing out any more than the two scenes where Van Sant obviously breaks with the original (the shower scene, and the reveal of Norman's little secret). Because the differences in framing and blocking are very often very subtle, and much of the film is shot-for-shot identical to the earlier film, with a different cast and sets and costumes, and in full color. What this means is not that Van Sant's film is utterly pointless, as is almost always said; but that things like the cast, sets, costumes, and color are the point.
I do, however, take it as given that Psycho '98 is basically "pointless" as a thing unto itself, and my suspicion is that Van Sant never intended it to be taken that way. The idea of coming to the film cold is virtually impossible for me to even conceive of; it is a film that exists almost entirely in respect to an early version of the same story told in very much the same way, and rather than trying to make a movie that works by itself, Van Sant made a movie that works (by which I mean the way it functions, not the way it succeeds; the concept of "success" is sort of immaterial to this exercise) because it calls upon the viewer's awareness of the 1960 film. Indeed, to a very distinct degree, what Van Sant's Psycho does, is to freshen up material that had long since grown too comfortable to shock us - after all, the mere fact that people who have not seen the original Psycho, and wouldn't bother with a black-and-white film anyway, still know that Marion Crane is killed violently in a shower, and that Norman Bates goes crazy and dresses as his mother, is all the proof we need that Hitchcock's film has been so thoroughly absorbed into culture that its groundbreaking technique and structure have lost most, if not all, of its taboo power. What Van Sant's film does, tremendously well, is make the material foreign again: the same lines, story beats, and images, only done with different people in sometimes very different performing styles, and especially done in color, become suddenly disorienting and new by virtue of being distractingly different. Van Sant, in essence, has made the material seem current and alive again, rather than safely couched away in classic cinema; it's like a really bold cover song or a terrific new staging of an old play, and I think it's because cinema is so unlike popular music (in that its audience typically has a greater understanding of the medium's history) or live theater (which cannot be reproduced) that the 1998 Psycho was received, at the time, with such disgust and horror. We have no framework for "covers" of movies, except in things like Quentin Tarantino's pastiches, which are different anyway (though it's surely no accident that this Psycho came out in the '90s, when pop-culture regurgitation was at its height).
The key difference between the two, I have indicated, is that Hitchcock's film was in black-and-white and Van Sant's is in color: this is the chief way that the later film completely shifts our understanding and appreciation of the original film, and if I airily assert that Hitchcock's film is "better" in this regard - which it fundamentally, absolutely is - that's missing the point to a degree; sure, the film's success as a genre work plummets from the change, particularly in the shower scene, which becomes garish, silly, and ineffective with the cherry-red stage blood (augmented by computers) that seems to coat the bottom of the tub: I would say that being shot in color is far more deleterious to the scene's effect than the odd use of slow-motion and the outlandishly dumb insert shots of thunderstorms. Anyway, there's something irreproducible about the texture of late-'50s black-and-white stock, something that makes the whole project seem grimy and low (perhaps this is merely the critic's overwhelming attachment to the films noirs of the period coming out), and perfectly serving its story. Van Sant's candy-colored aesthetic, filtered through the oh-so-distinct sensibility of Wong Kar-Wai's cinematographer Christopher Doyle, is not conducive to a horror film, and thus Van Sant's Psycho proves to be a wholly unsurprising failure at horror.
On the other hand, because there's nothing in the film more obviously different from Hitchcock's film than the color palette, there's also nothing that creates that fascinating feeling of new vitality more effectively, double so since the film is so intoxicated with color: between Doyle's camera and Beatrix Aruna Pasztor's almost glowing costumes, Psycho is a dazzling spread of eye candy.
Did I not say that the cast, sets, costumes, and color, are the reason the film exists? And I hope I have done some little work to explain why I hold it so: those are the things, chiefly, that give the material a jolt in the arm, thereby making Van Sant's film seem alive and independent, even while also having the gratifying effect of reminding us what makes Hitchcock's film work so well by somehow managing to knock the familiarity out of it (in truth, it was hoping to find that this would be the case that I decided to watch the '98 film in preparation for reviewing the '60 version). And thus we come to the acting, which might not be as fundamental a difference between the two films as the color palette; but oh, is it ever a difference. And not entirely to the old film's benefit: Viggo Mortensen's Sam Loomis is a far more credible character, a laconic Texan with a lusty streak a mile wide, than John Gavin's, and if Julianne Moore's Lila Crane isn't necessarily better than Vera Miles's, it's certainly just valid a take on the character and much more '90s in its spiky anger and energy.
But nothing can show off just how much wonderful work Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh were doing in the original as comparing them to Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche in the key roles of Norman Bates and Marion Crane: they are magnificently terrible, Vaughn in more interesting ways than Heche, for his attempt to synthesise the cloddish Norman of the book (Vaughn is much closer to the physical character described by Bloch than Perkins) with the fragile, nervous Norman of the 1960 movie is a complete failure that nevertheless, by accident reveals quite a lot about how the character works as a character. Vaughn's great mistake is to play up the nervous energy, making a version of the character who is constantly tittering and laughing - it's impossible to imagine anybody thinking for even two minutes that he's sane - but listening to him flatlining on the same lines that Perkins made so sad and creepy actually serves to call attention not to Vaughn's weakness or Perkins's strength, but to the fact that Norman, himself, is a performance, an attempt to present to the world a facade of normalcy by somebody who doesn't quite get what normalcy is. Heche is less interesting because she is merely bad, doing that thing she always did in her brief stint as a leading lady, where she looks really pointy and alarmed and attempts to mimic human behavior without getting there; but the contrast between her own unpleasantly mannered, false acting and Vaughn's demonstrates just how good Leigh's own naturalism in the part was, and how essential to the movie's success.
If I have not made the case for Van Sant's Psycho as a movie by itself, that's because I honestly don't see that case exists to be made: everything it does well (except for the costumes and Mortensen), the original did better, sometimes vastly better, and the one thing the remake should have fixed, the psychiatrist scene, it only manages to shorten up to lessen the pain. But at the same time, it's too bright and attractive to discard it entirely, as everybody did in 1998, and it serves as a terrific palette cleanser - in fact, my response after watching it was not, "I'm glad they never did that again", but "I wish they'd do that again", make even more of these super-faithful, not-quite-shot-for-shot remakes of other classic, over-familiar films: for even if I still can't understand why Van Sant wanted to make this Psycho, I'm glad to have seen it, for the energy it provides the material is totally different and refreshing, and in truth, having seen this film makes me more excited about both it and its august predecessor than I had been for the original after years and years of watching and re-watching. The remake's appeal, paradoxically, is that of unbridled novelty, and that's something we could do with more of.