Hitchcock Vs Hitchcock

Psycho Vs Psycho (25/10/2012)

Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh as Marion Crane

Julian Jarrold’s made-for-TV The Girl and Sacha Gervasi’s middling feature Hitchcock (both 2012) may have gone head to head in their attempts to provide definitive dramatisations of the Master of Suspense, but they also come across as mere making-of mimesis (with added splashes of panto) compared to the real thing.

So it seems as good a time as any to post the full script for my on-stage introduction to Cigarette Burns Cinema’s Psycho Vs Psycho event which took place Thursday October 25, 2012 at the Leicester Square Theatre in London. There, thanks to the efforts of Josh Saco and Paul Martinovic, Hitchcock’s 1960 original Psycho and Gus van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake were played simultaneously on an array of screens, allowing both versions to be seen in light of each other, with the viewer’s attentions and allegiances as split as Norman Bates’ personality.

The results were a memorably heady blend of blondes and blood, never to be repeated. Nor, frankly, was my introduction, which, part-improvised in the absence of (legible) notes, is here imperfectly reconstructed.

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Janet Leigh as Marion Crane

It is no longer really possible to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – only to rewatch it.

Even if you haven’t yet actually seen it with your own eyes, Psycho is a film you already know. Its tropes, once so shocking, have become ossified in the giallo and slasher genres that it inspired, while its shower sequence, amongst others, is now so iconic – and so frequently parodied – that no-one can possibly be caught off guard any more when the film’s apparent protagonist Marion Crane, who is the anxiety-riddled focus of the entire first act, is suddenly cut off midstream. The element of surprise is long since gone.

It wasn’t always thus. Hitchcock had his production assistant buy up all existing copies of Robert Bloch’s 1959 source book, he refused to allow his cast to give the usual media interviews, he denied the press any preview screenings, and he imposed a “no late admissions” policy at public screenings, all in an attempt to ensure that the audience came to his film as innocents, unaware of the twists and turns in the bumpy road along which he was about to take them. But that time is past. Now the cat is out of the bag, the bird has been stuffed, and there can be no going back. Our innocence as viewers has been lost forever.

In fact Marion’s innocence – and with it that of Hitchcock’s viewers – is already lost in the very opening scene. As we peep voyeuristically through a hotel room window, there Marion is, on her lunch break, lying on a bed in her underwear, unmarried but no virgin, as her lover Sam dresses before returning to her side on the bed – all of which marks an erosion of the contemporary morality then enshrined in the Motion Picture Production Code.

Marion’s moral decline will continue as she embezzles money from her office and flees cross-country to Sam, pursued by a highway cop and her own noisy conscience. Then she stops at the Bates Motel, and while chatting with its eccentric owner Norman Bates, decides then and there that she is going to return to Phoenix and make amends for her theft before it is too late. Yet it is already too late, and there can be no going back.

There’s no going back for the viewer either, made first to ogle Marion voyeuristically through a peephole, and then to witness her being frenetically stabbed, in a sequence that pushed the limits of how sex and violence could be represented at the time. Just before Marion steps into that fateful shower, trying in vain to wash away the taint of her sin, she discards some incriminating notes down the loo – and so Hitchcock gives us the first flushing toilet seen in the history of mainstream American cinema. It is as though, as Marion’s life is shown going down the drain, so too are the moral standards of her time. Cinema itself had just changed forever, before the viewer’s eyes.

No wonder Hitchcock’s home studio Paramount was so opposed to making the film. In the end Hitchcock produced it himself for under a million dollars, working with a television crew, and shooting in cheap black-and-white. Early reviews were not positive, especially in Britain – and the Observer’s long-serving critic C.A. Lejeune actually retired from film journalism altogether, so great was her moral disgust at Psycho. Yet as audiences flocked to see the film, critics came to reassess their views. It would ultimately prove the most successful of all Hitchcock’s films at the box office, and is now regarded as a timeless classic.

Well, not entirely timeless. Now, you can still admire Hitchcock’s immense craft and the nervy slipperiness of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates – but in the meantime the narrative surprises and moral outrages have been neutered in our own rather different, fallen times. Watching Psycho today can be, to borrow metaphors from the film itself, a bit like driving a used car, or addressing an embalmed corpse.

Anne Heche as Marion Crane Psycho
Anne Heche as Marion Crane

And so, for his 1998 remake, Gus van Sant fully embraced his role as used car salesman and taxidermist, reproducing and preserving the original largely shot-for-shot. Still, even as he digs up Hitchcock’s corpse, he is also revivifying it, and filling it with performances that are often, if we’re honest, more lively than those in the original (the peerless Perkins aside).

Van Sant plays a postmodern game, showing the traffic between then and now. On the one hand, the setting is explicitly updated to 1998, the cash that Marion embezzles has been inflated from $40,000 to $400,000, Marion’s sister Lila now comes with a thoroughly modern attitude (and a personal stereo), and the sex is all a little bit more explicit, in keeping with Nineties sensibilities; but there are also incongruous throwbacks to the age of the original – like the deliberately clunky back projection in Marion’s car, or Arbogast’s outmoded noirish costume.

Tonight, for the first time you’ll be able to see these two films side by side – which is exactly how they should be seen. Van Sant’s film is not just a remake, but a dance, a dialogue, a graphic commentary. It will immediately become apparent just how closely, how slavishly, Van Sant follows Hitch’s original, turning the mother film into an object of unhealthy veneration and fetishisation. Yet seeing the two films in parallel also brings into sharp focus the significant differences and deviations in Van Sant’s film.

The bright, beautiful colours are the most immediately obvious addition. There has also been a shift in pace and a reduction of dialogue, with Van Sant’s film some ten minutes shorter than the original. (At times during this screening, Van Sant’s version will be paused to ensure that the two films remain in synch). While Van Sant sometimes painstakingly mimics Hitchcock’s composition, at other times he reverses it, creating a mirror effect that becomes a visual metaphor for what a remake is.

There are other self-conscious reflexes, serving as assertions of Van Sant’s authorship and appropriation. In the early scene where Hitchcock had appeared in cameo outside Marion’s office, Van Sant also appears in his own cameo, in conversation with a figure resembling Hitchcock – and now we can see both scenes side-by-side in their own conversation across the decades. The sign outside the Bates motel now reads, “Newly renovated” – as indeed it has been by Van Sant. And in the two murder scenes, Van Sant has inserted strange and disquieting cutaways. These cutaways allow us to see the scenes as we have never seen them before, but they also mock us for our errant desires, forcing us in effect to look away precisely when we don’t want to, like a director-induced blush. Most infamously of all, the voyeuristic gaze that we are made to share with Norman is now explicitly converted into a masturbatory act that was merely implicit in Hitchcock’s. It is an extraordinary and jarring moment, renewing the shock impact of the original by exposing our own hidden arousal, hungry for a kill that this time round we know full well is, er, coming.

I’ll leave other differences for you to discover, but one thing is clear – this ‘double take’ on Psycho doubles the madness, fetishising Hitchcock’s artistry while revealing van Sant’s own obsessive psychosis. Enjoy!

© Anton Bitel