It's pretty much an even bet that, when I introduce myself to someone as an Alfred Hitchcock Geek, the first thing he or she will say is, “What do you think of Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho? My answer is always the same: I love it. I love the fact that he tried to recreate a great film, shot for shot, and I think he broke new ground in how we experience classic films. His 1998 recreation has been unfairly chastised, and I feel the need to defend it when few others will.
Classic movies are often regarded as sacred cows, off limits to the supposedly dexterous, yet maladroit mitts of (insert scornful tone) film school graduates – and it isn't limited to Hitchcock. (I'm reminded of how similar contempt was once heaped upon Julliard or Berklee-bred jazz musicians who performed songs written by older musicians who'd paid their dues the old-fashioned way.)
Classic films will be enjoyed long after you and I are gone, and from that perspective, Hitchcock's movies – along with those of William Wyler, Orson Welles, etc. – are still very young. Perhaps they (or their late makers) are too freshly ensconced in the can to be exhumed and reanimated. But, really? Is there a statute of limitations on remaking films, that they can't be remade until a certain, respectful time period has elapsed? Maybe there is. It's unseemly to speak ill of the freshly deceased; but at a certain point their memory becomes fair game and we can relax the rules of respect for the dead. I don't know where that line is drawn, but while the recent remake of Hitch's early classics The Lodger (1926) and Easy Virtue (1928) irked only the staunchest Hitchcock geeks, even the most casual moviegoers have deemed Psycho to be forbidden territory – and the controversy surrounding the potential remake of The Birds has ruffled more feathers than those possessed by the film's principle actors.
Van Sant's remake pissed a lot of people off. And I don't think that can only be chalked up to its iconic status. I think it had something to do with the fact that his version was too faithful, too uncomfortably close to the original, in the way that a prosthetic hand ought not imitate too closely the original it's replacing. People see it and don't know what to think, so they reject it.
I say that Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake was a real tribute, the way a remake ought to be done. As the independent director once told an audience at BFI Southbank, “I was sort of angry at Hollywood trying to remake movies, because it seemed like they would rob the screenplay and … actually change the script. So I said, 'Why don't you just shoot it exactly the way it is, because it's a great movie?'” His intent was to honor the film, not desecrate it by changing the movie with arbitrary updates. He was genuinely surprised when it failed to be the blockbuster hit he'd hoped it would be. (In a note of poetic symmetry, Hitch was flummoxed when Psycho turned out to be such a worldwide phenomenon.)
When a chamber ensemble redoes Mozart, it's usually expected to faithfully recreate the original note for note. From this perspective, Van Sant's faithful-to-the-original approach would place him squarely in a conservatory camp, preserving the original “score.”
That said, there's plenty in the film to make you scratch your head. The casting was all wrong. Macho, fast-talking Vince Vaughan is about as far away from the birdlike adolescent Norman Bates as you can imagine, and Norman's lines – halting and stuttered in the original – come off flat in Vaughan's verbal waterfalls. Likewise, girlish Ann Heche, with her pixie hairdo, is no voluptuous, maternal Marion Crane. (Personally, I think the two actors should have switched roles, performing in drag. Imagine this: Heche playing Norman, with a wink to the Peter Pan tradition.) Van Sant himself admits that there are problems with the movie and has contemplated remaking it again. Now that's sure to get the old school critics talking!
Still, he corrected a few matters with regard to Hitch's original, while adding touches that enhance it. Regarding the murder in the shower, sharp observers have noted that Marion's pupils contracted as her life went out of her. In reality, her pupils would have dilated – a detail that Van Sant fixed with a cutaway shot (though they do return to their contracted state, a consequence of the studio lighting.) Hitchcock also envisioned the scene as a veritable slashing at the film and the screen itself – Van Sant enhances that impression, interjecting a few frames of the gleaming-white knife as it consumes half the frame; the effect is that the film appears to have torn inside the projector.
Screenwriter Joseph Stefano had written into the screenplay that there would be an overhead shot of Marion, her buttocks and legs exposed, her beautiful body laid waste. Hitch cut that shot on the grounds that censors would disapprove, a decision that Stefano always resented; Van Sant returned Stefano's shot to the sequence.
Then there's the final scene. In the original, we see a close-up of the rear of Marion's car as it is being pulled out of the swamp. In the remake, the camera pulls back to reveal a swarm of news crews and police investigators taking over the scene of the crime. The impression is that, though the movie has ended, the story has just begun. In a sense, that is true, for in retrospect, Psycho, the movie, took on a life unlike that of just about any other movie, period. I tip my hat to the director for not giving in to the cliché impulse by pulling back to reveal a movie set and camera crew.
The main point is, however, that it got people talking. Prior to 1998, when average moviegoers asked me about Hitchcock, it was as a subject of middlebrow Hollywood fare. Since 1998, even if people know little else about the maestro, they often know about Van Sant's version of Psycho; such knowledge invariably launches questions about the ideas behind Hitchcock's films. And that puts our conversation off to an infinitely more interesting start.