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Psycho: Hitchcock vs. Van Sant.

November 9, 2007

Psycho (1960).

The Scoop:
From our 21st century perspective, it’s easy to underestimate the impact this film has when it was first released. If for no other reason, it left it’s mark on film history for depicting a level of violence and brutality unseen before. Although its violent content has since been surpassed many times, Alfred Hitchcock staged it with a sympathy for the victims that is still touching. And, ever the cinematic experimenter, he and screenwriter Joseph Stefano took the bold step of murdering the main character, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), less than halfway through the film, asking the audience to transfer its allegiance from her to the shy, awkward Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Then the audience’s trust is further undermined when Norman is unmasked as the killer. Norman’s psychological underpinnings may seen clichéd now, but they were revolutionary at the time. No wonder moviegoers lined up around the block repeatedly to get in.

Coming off the successes of “North By Northwest” (1959) and “Vertigo” (1958), Hitchcock was looking for a change of pace and was inspired by the plethora of B-grade exploitation thrillers flooding the drive-ins at the time. Along came the novel by Robert Bloch, very loosely based on the infamous Ed Gein murders in Wisconsin — which have also served as the basis of other movies, such as “Deranged” (1974) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).

Hitchcock acquired the film rights and set about adapting it quickly and cheaply, so it was shot in black and white with a minimum of star power. The lesser-known actors he found give terrific performances, aided by the legendary score by Bernard Hermann (his music for the shower scene is, along with the themes from “Jaws” (1975) and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1967), one of the most instantly-recognizable pieces of film music ever). To build hype for the picture, Hitchcock made theaters not allow anyone in once the film had started. The result was one of his greatest triumphs.

Best Line:
“We all go a little mad sometimes.”

Side Note:
Among this film’s shocking “firsts” for the Hollywood establishment, it was the first to show a woman wearing only a bra, the first to use the word “transvestite” and the first to show a toilet flushing on-screen. Some other firsts were dropped because of studio pressure, including brief nudity and an implied shot of Norman masturbating.

Companion Viewing:
“Psycho” (1998) and “Homicidal” (1961).


Take a Look:
The trailer, featuring Hitch at his droll best:

The shower scene:

Psycho (1998).

The Scoop:
It’s director Gus Van Sant’s great experiment — remaking the Alfred Hitchcock classic, nearly (but not quite) shot-for-shot. And yet, for all it’s verisimilitude, this doesn’t have the same impact as the original. Some of this may be due to the ways the audience’s tastes had changed during the interval of nearly 40 years, but more of it boils down to one basic choice — the casting of Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. What made Anthony Perkins so effective in that role was his innocent, harmless quality. He seemed like more of a sweet geek than a psycho, which made the ending all that more shocking. He made both Janet Leigh’s character and the audience comfortable. Vaughn, on the other hand, is sinister from beginning to end — sinister enough to make you wonder why Anne Heche’s character didn’t run from the motel screaming the first time she saw him.

Van Sant may have recreated the visuals of the original, but there is no way anyone can recreate the experience of the 1960 movie-going public seeing it for the first time. Once a bomb has gone off, there’s no way to make it unexplode.

(And one other thing that has puzzled me — why did Anne Heche get the retro wardrobe, while Julianne Moore was dressed like an extra from “90210”?)

Best Line:
“We all go a little mad sometimes.” (C’mon… They were both working from the same script. You were expecting a different selection?)

Side Note:
The use of the knife in the shower scene is credited to director John Woo.

Companion Viewing:
The original.

A comparison of the two versions.

Take a Look:
The big basement “reveal” scene, always good for a laugh:

And finally, the two versions of the shower scene, played side-by-side (notice the subtle changes Van Sant introduced, most notably the extra doses of naked Heche):

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