Good teachers of film directing will sometimes divide their classes into groups and give each group the same script to shoot, as a way of illustrating the point that no two filmmakers can ever make the same film. And now the perfect example has come along: Gus Van Sant's remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
Van Sant knew the truth of that teaching ploy, obviously, because his Psycho turns out to be a marvelous film all on its own. He knew that a line-for-line, shot-for-shot remake of the film, from the original script, edited the same way, and even using note for note Bernard Hermann's original score, could be something more than a cheap trick, more than an homage to Hitchcock, and much more, say, than a good recent thriller like "Scream." In fact it is both the same as and very different from the original, and that is what makes it so fascinating.
How is that possible? Well, this film, by someone we're coming to realize is a very talented and subtle director -- look at "To Die For," "Good Will Hunting," and "Drugstore Cowboy" -- I excuse "My Own Private Idaho" and "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" as the kind of dreadful failures only a superb talent is capable of -- gives us an interesting insight into Hitchcock himself, both his strengths and his weaknesses.
To begin with, Hitchcock defined the word 'ominous' for all time. No scene was too unimportant not to have some shadowed overtone, no character too small to be without a flaw, no moment ever existed for itself alone. The brighter the sunlight the darker the mood. Those are some strengths, the ones that make the legend, and deservedly so. But Hitchcock -- once he got to America -- would not or could not get his actors to be human beings. They simply mouthed the lines, hit their marks, went through the action, and went home. He used to control them, insisted on their keeping all emotion in check, even writing out anything resembling depth of character in his scripts. Mechanics, wonderful as they were, became ends in themselves. Only his early, English films -- "The Lady Vanishes" and "The Thirty-nine Steps" are the great ones -- have actors whose wit and ebullience surmounted the mechanics of the plot and let them breathe like real human beings.
But Van Sant -- using the same script, the same shots, the same edits
-- has given his characters a humanity that was missing from the original. For one thing, Anne Heche is a real person while Janet Leigh was a plot device. Heche is so compelling on screen that even a blink, a gesture, a momentary hesitation, an unexpected modulation in a line reading, adds to our understanding of her as a human being. (There is a change from the original here; in 1960 Leigh stole $40,000. In 1998 Heche steals $400,000.) Her sister, Julianne Moore here,Vera Miles in the original, has a more natural relationship with Heche than Miles had with Leigh. Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates is a bit problematic. Anthony Perkins had a charming, boyish quality to him that Vaughn cannot, and fortunately does not, attempt to copy. He's big, he's powerful, he's ominous where Perkins was docile. But in his own odd giggle, his off-kilter looks, and his unnaturally soft voice, he's probably the best choice to offset Heche's strengths.
Have I forgotten to tell you the plot? If you've seen the original you don't need a refresher, and if you haven't you're much better off coming in cold. In either case, the film is a treat.