Psycho, by Robert Horton

What good came from Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho? Well, it was nice to hear Bernard Herrmann’s music throbbing out of Dolby stereo theater speakers. The color design confirmed Van Sant’s talent as an inventive art director. Anne Heche was alert and vulnerable in the birdlike role Janet Leigh had played in the original version of the movie.

Other than that, Van Sant’s faithful-but-flat update mainly served as an inadvertent testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, simply by reminding Psycho fans of how good Hitchcock’s film was in the first place. Psycho has withstood critical disdain (upon its first release, anyway), three sequels and a remake, frequent lampooning, slavish imitations, and thousands of shower jokes. Its survival gives ample evidence of its status as an American classic.

One other aspect of Van Sant’s full-color, visually handsome remake is worth mentioning: its sheen throws the cheapness of the Hitchcock film into focus. Crucial to Psycho’s power is its drab, black-and-white, quietly depressed ambiance. Hitchcock’s technical mastery was not in doubt at this point, the director having just finished the impeccably-produced Vertigo and North by Northwest, so his decision to shoot the film with his TV-series collaborators, rather than his regular crew, is fascinating and defining. Supposedly Hitchcock was being a good businessman; he saw the rewards being reaped by low-budget producers of the drive-in era, and saw a chance to make a bundle on a small investment (which he did, since Psycho became an enormous hit). Another motivating factor was studio nervousness about the dreadful subject matter. Psycho was adapted from a horror novel by Robert Bloch, who based his book on the saga of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin madman whose misadventures would later inspire the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies.

Not a subject in the classy Hitchcock vein, to be sure—so, yes, the producer-director was hedging his bets with a low-budget production. But I wonder if Hitchcock also instinctively understood the perfect match of budget and story. Psycho’s world, captured in the flat light of John L. Russell’s camera (he was a regular DP for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series), is one of small apartments and shitty jobs and drab motel rooms, a series of private traps for sorry people. The movie turns a light, in a particularly merciless way, on the empty corners of the human soul; everywhere you look, it is a spiritual Phoenix, Arizona.

The story begins in a hotel room in the actual Phoenix, where secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has just had an afternoon tryst with her divorced boyfriend Sam (John Gavin). Back at her office, Marion steals $40,000 from a fatcat client, and leaves town to join up with Sam in California; the money might help him pay off his debts and divorce his wife. The first half of the film is suspense over Marion’s flight, including her encounter with the lonely manager of the Bates Motel, a shoddy inn on the old highway. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a gawky young man, checks Marion into the motel and then serves her a sandwich in the parlor. The second part of the film follows Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) as she teams up with Sam and an investigator (Martin Balsam) to uncover the levels of strangeness at the Bates place.

The scene in the parlor is the most important in the film—more important than the violent shower scene, or the suspenseful climax, or the helpful explanation by a psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) at the end. Marion, who “eats like a bird,” is surrounded by the stuffed birds of Norman’s taxidermy hobby. It’s more than a hobby: “A hobby is supposed to pass the time,” observes Norman, “not fill it.” Norman’s life is as vacant as the motel, as he has only his mother to share the creepy gothic house that looms over the motor court.

In this scene, two lonely people connect. We grasp almost immediately that Norman, who looks oddly like Sam, understands Marion in a keener way than Sam ever will. Marion is moved by Norman’s isolation and his anxiety over his mother, who is insane. With all the credit given to Hitchcock over the years, any real Psycho fan must acknowledge the extraordinary contribution of screenwriter Joseph Stefano, a man whose subsequent cinema career was maddeningly limited (though he was called back to brush up the dialogue in the Psycho remake). Nearly every spoken line in the film, including the almost subliminal jokes (“Mother…isn’t herself today”), seems loaded with more than one meaning.

Hitchcock was pursuing both the formal experimentation afforded by the film’s unorthodox structure, and the possibilities for nerve-wracking suspense. “I was directing the viewers,” he later told Francois Truffaut. “You might say I was playing them, like an organ.” Indeed, the film is a textbook exercise in how to tell a story with a camera. But Psycho feels like a genie let out of a bottle, too. Hitchcock loved to control every aspect of a film, but this movie seems to reveal more than Hitchcock ever intended. The film is a litany of fears: fear of commitment, fear of the future, fear of getting caught, fear of madness, fear of arousal, fear of being left alone. And definitely a fear of whatever lies off the main highway, where the lights are turned off.

I wonder whether Hitchcock was a little frightened by what he had made. In the aftermath of shooting, he was all good humor, playing up the role of huckster in selling the picture (he insisted on a much-ballyhooed policy allowing no one in the theater after the film had begun), and he would insist that he made the film “with quite a sense of amusement on my part. To me, it’s a fun picture.” Hitchcock even filmed a remarkable coming-attractions trailer, with himself as the attraction. Already a public figure thanks to his whimsical hosting presence on the TV show, Hitchcock led a six-minute tour of the Bates Motel and the house behind it; it’s a preview with no footage from the film itself. He strolls into the bathroom and mutters, “All tidied up. The bathroom. Oh, they’ve cleaned all this up now. Big difference.” And so on, in droll fashion.

Let me suggest a word for this impish public persona: overcompensation. Psycho takes you down to the depths (everything ultimately ends up in a fetid swamp, including the last shot of the film); although the film has rightly been called a black comedy of sorts, it seems less amusing with each viewing. Its horror comes unsoftened by period-piece artifice or gothic traditions or vampire conventions. Instead we see ordinary people in the flatlands of American nothingness (the art of Edward Hopper inspired both the Bates house and Anthony Perkins’ performance), taking up the everyday business of extramarital sex, stealing, incest, voyeurism, lying…dreary hobbies to fill the empty time. Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score provides no lush orchestral accompaniment, but harrowing strings-only arrangements; it’s music for an asylum. Psycho exists at a kind of ground zero, where even the storytelling form itself is savage, where a protagonist might be untimely ripped from centerstage forty minutes into the running time.

Surely Hitchcock’s jokes about Psycho were a kind of defense mechanism. He was a bit like Norman Bates in that; Norman, too, was able to savor the little ironies that came his way. (Sam: “You are alone here, aren’t you? It would drive me crazy.” Norman: “I think that would be a rather extreme reaction, don’t you?”) It took years for Anthony Perkins to get over Norman, as the role became something of a curse for the typecast actor. Eventually he joined in on the joke, playing Norman again in a 1986 sequel, Psycho II, and then directing himself in Psycho III. Both films were surprisingly worthwhile, and Perkins’ directing effort was very blackly funny. There was also a made-for-TV “prequel,” Psycho IV: The Beginning, scripted by Stefano.

It’s good that Perkins came to terms with the role (or said he did), because his Psycho performance is one of the greatest pieces of acting in movies. Norman’s nervous stuttering, his pathetic attempts to cover up being exposed in a lie, his friendly stabs (so to speak) at sociability, his flashes of dark rage … Perkins knew his man. In the coming-attractions trailer, Hitchcock says of Norman, “This young man, you had to feel sorry for him,” and Perkins did. Here again, the Van Sant Psycho puts the original into perspective. Vince Vaughn, a highly watchable and sometimes inspired actor, played Norman in quotation marks: a surface glide over the role, all giggles and twitches. Perkins saw the humor in the character, but he wasn’t glib about it.

The Oscars ignored this performance, although Janet Leigh picked up a nomination for supporting actress (Hitchcock and Russell were nominated for directing and cinematography, and the film was nominated for black-and-white art direction, but won nothing). The squalid subject matter may have turned off many critics at the time, but the film gradually wriggled its way to classic status; in 1998 it clocked in at an impressive number eighteen on the American Film Institute’s much-discussed list of 100 best American films.

Psycho had been “remade” countless times before Gus Van Sant came along. Ripped-off (or at least alluded to) through the decades, the children of Psycho have ranged from the ludicrous (William Castle’s outrageous Homicidal) to the spirited (Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Sisters). One amazing response is Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho, which projects the entire film at such a slowed-down speed that it takes an entire day to show it—almost frame-by-frame. (By necessity, the experience is silent.) At a London exhibition honoring the centennial of film in 1996, I happened to walk into the room showing 24-Hour Psycho just as the shower scene was beginning, so the glacial movement of the installation in general was replaced by the slashing cuts of the attack. Slowed down, the shower scene looked strange and sad and obscenely violent, like an auto accident that suspends time while you’re in the middle of it. Instead of the visceral impact of the scene in normal time, this brutal killing becomes an object—something to watch from a distance—yet still has its totemic power. Psycho is clearly unsafe at any speed.

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