Analysis by Steve Biodrowski
“To compose Don Quixote at the beginning of the seventeenth century was a reasonable, necessary and perhaps inevitable undertaking; at the beginning of the twentieth century it is almost impossible. It is not in vain that three hundred years have passed, charged with the most complex happenings — among them, to mention only one, that same Don Quixote.”
So wrote the benighted author Pierre Menard to his friend Jorge Luis Borges, in a letter which Borges quoted in his essay, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.” Menard’s astonishing goal was to attempt a complete, word-for-word recreation of Miguel De Cervantes’ novel. Although he never finished the task in his lifetime, the fragments he left behind provide an interesting contrast with the original.
In 1998, a similar experiment was attempted by director Gus Van Sant, who managed to complete a scene-for-scene remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, reusing the old Joseph Stefano screenplay based on Robert Bloch’s novel (only a few words of dialogue were changed, to take into account thirty years worth of inflation). Fortunately for the purposes of comparison, a crisp new 35mm print of the original film began touring the art house circuit as part of the Universal Hitchcock series shortly thereafter. Seeing the Hitchcock film again on the big screen was astonishing in light of Van Sant’s recreation of it; unfortunately for the remake, the Hitchcock classic condemns the upstart newcomer without appeal.
“The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer,” Borges concluded. No such conclusion arises from a reviewing of the Hitchcock and Van San versions of PSYCHO. The texts of the two films may be almost identical, but the former is in every way more surprising, mysterious, suspenseful, and ingenious.
Take for example the 1960 film’s highlight, the death of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). Hitchcock audaciously sets the murder in the most unexpected of places, a shower. In a sequence that initially appears to be about cleansing and rebirth (the physical action being an externalization of the character’s inner state, after she decides to atone for her theft), the ultimate, shocking irony is that it leads to a horrible, unexpected death of the lead character — a plot gambit that stunned audience of yesterday and still manages to draw squirms and gasps from appreciative viewers at retrospective screenings. How does Van Sant handle the death of Marion (Anne Heche)? He resorts to the hoariest of cliches, actually setting the scene in a shower! It’s a location that has been used in numerous, forgettable slasher films. More memorably, Brian DePalma parodied the sterotypical shower scene in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and BLOW OUT; in a more serious vein, he even played off audience expectations to create suspense in a similar scene in DRESSED TO KILL (we knew what to expect, and he knew we knew, so it was a matter of how and when, not whether, he would deliver).Van Sant, on the other hand, plays the scene for surprise and shock, where there is none left for the audience, who are already two steps ahead of him. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Heche’s Marion is an obvious target whom we expect to see killed off. Hitchcock, by beginning the story with Marion, made her the character we expected to follow throughout the film; Van Sant, by beginning the film with Marion, telegraphs to us that she will be an inevitable victim.
Van Sant also falters structurally, after this point. In the Hitchcock film, the death of Marion forces us into identification with Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), an apparently innocent lad who evokes audience sympathy, even as he hides the evidence that would incriminate his mother in Marion murder. No such identification can take place with the new Norman (Vince Vaughn), a thorough creep who is obviously guilty of the crime he is hiding. Thereafter, Hitchcock built the second half of his film on the mystery surrounding Norman’s mother –who in a truly surprising twist ending turns out to be none other than Norman himself. Although hardly original (Robert Louis Stevenson had managed a similar ruse in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), the revelation was undeniably effective.
Conversely, the latter half of Van Sant’s film contains no mystery. The characters go through their obligatory paces while we wait for them to catch up to what we already know. Worse yet, Van Sant stages an unsurprising “surprise” ending in which Norman Bates is revealed to be the murderer, dressed as his own mother. The idea is so tired one can barely believe Van Sant tried to pull it off. Whereas Hitchcock made the revelation a surprise by unmasking a character imbued with traits that seemed to spell his innocence — soft-spoken, shy, nervous, devoted to his mother — Van San carelessly telegraphs the revelation by embuing the character with traits that betray his guilt — soft-spoken, shy, nervous, devoted to his mother.
If Van Sant’s film has any value, it is in proving that the much-vaunted technical aspects of Hitchcock’s film-making were not necessarily the source of his greatness as an artist. Van Sant’s film is in every way technically equal — or even superior — to its predecessor, with fine color cinematography, and stereo sound, not to mention an excellent Bernard Herrmann score. However, the Hitchcock film relied for its effects on originality and creativity. Van Sant’s remake substitutes rote repetition and cliches that have long since lost their value. Perhaps the great condemnation of the new film is that, unlike the original, it is falls lamentably short of the level of accomplishment that could inspire a remake nearly forty years later.
Psycho (1998). Directed by Gus Van Zant. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch. Cast: Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortensen, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Robert Forster, Philip Baker Hall.
–Copyright 1999 Steve Biodrowski