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101 Ways to Tell Hitchcock’s Psycho from Gus Van Sant’s

Literature/Film Quarterly, 2000, Vol. 28, No. 4 (2000), pp. 269-273

The publicity from Universal claimed that Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho was a line-by-line, shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film except for changes in casting and color, and hints that the representations of sex and violence might be changed to appeal to a more jaundiced ‘90s audience. If that’s the case, however, some gremlins must have sneaked onto Van Sant’s set and into his cutting room, since even apart from inevitable differences (e.g., the prominence given to the shower scene in the remake’s publicity, Vince Vaughn’s lack of the specific prior screen credits that made Anthony Perkins such a deceptive choice to play Norman Bates), the remake differs from the original in more ways than you can wave a butcher knife at. Here’s a guide to some of the most important (and mostly unacknowledged) differences that can be observed even by color-blind audiences who don’t notice actors and actresses.

Some of these differences are rooted in casting changes, though they go beyond the way different performers inevitably look different:

1. Anne Heche’s rose-colored dress, her frequent joking, and the absence of a serious quarrel make the tone of the first scene playful, not tense.

2. Janet Leigh looks daggers away from the oilman Cassidy after his crude sexual overtures; Heche simply rolls her eyes.

3. Marion is less visibly shaken by her encounters with the police officer and the car salesman; unlike Leigh, who maintains an air of constant wary detachment, Heche smiles repeatedly, even when she’s dining with Vince Vaughn’s Norman.

4. Marion doesn’t eat any of the sandwich Norman offers her, or anything at all after he starts talking about stuffing things. Instead, she holds her noticeably untouched half-sandwich at arm’s length.

5. Norman snorts humorously at the end of almost every speech he makes.

6. When he first discovers Marion’s corpse and several times while he is cleaning up in the bathroom, Norman seems about to throw up.

7. Norman makes as if to open the money-filled newspaper just before he tosses it into the trunk of Marion’s car.

8. In general, Viggo Mortenson’s Sam is a lot more laid-back than John Gavin’s. For example, Sam seems relaxed, almost joking, when he tells Lila on her entrance to his hardware store, “I can only take so much more of this.”

9. As Sam signs the register at the Bates Motel, Lila winks at Norman, and he winks back.

10. All Van Sant’s stars affect southwestern vowels.

11. The acting throughout, whether it involves Heche, Viggo Mortenson, or Julianne Moore, is more naturalistic, less stylized and deliberate.

Some changes are dictated by the attempt to bring the material up to date:

12. Lila’s job has moved from the Music Makers’ Music Store to the Hardcore Vinyl Record Store.

13. Cassidy suggests that Lowery tum on his secretaries’ air-conditioning instead of having air-conditioning installed for them.

14. Marion trades her Ford in for a Volvo rather than another Ford.

15. With the important exception of Marion’s original Arizona license plate; which is identical in every detail but color to her 1960 plate, all the license plates in the remake are 1998 models, even though the number on Marion’s 1989 Volvo, NFB 418, is the same as it was on the 1957 Ford she traded for back in 1960.

16. Norman masturbates as he watches Marion undressing in Cabin 1, literalizing what the original had expressed metaphorically.

17. Lila wears jeans, boots, and a Walkman rather than a sensible suit.

18. Instead of telling Norman, “If it doesn’t gel, it isn’t aspic,” Arbogast says, “If it don’t gel, it ain’t Jello.”

19. Arbogast phones Lila from outside a noisy dance hall rather than a quiet service station.

20. Instead of cowering helplessly, Lila kicks Norman before Sam disarms him.

Although Van Sant’s remake is better described as following the original line by line than shot by shot, there are still some important changes in the dialogue:

21. Van Sant deletes Sam’s motivic line, “I’m tired of sweating for people who aren’t there”—one of Hitchcock’s clearest portents of Norman Bates—as part of his strategy of making Sam sound less angry and truculent throughout this scene.

22. As she leaves the office, Cassidy now describes Marion’s bed as the “only playground’ll beat Las Vegas”—a line deleted from Joseph Stefano’s original screenplay before shooting began.

23. Marion no longer tells Caroline that she “can’t buy off unhappiness with pills,” softening the original film’s subtext about the futility of attempting to buy off unhappiness with stolen money or a sharp knife.

24. The police officer who grills Marion now tells her to “have a nice day” at the end of the scene.

25. As he leaves Cabin 1, Norman now tells Marion, “You have something most girls don’t have It’s something that puts a person at ease.”

26. Sam no longer tells Lila to go back to town without him if she learns anything from Mrs. Bates.

Of all the inevitable differences in mise-en-scène whenever a remake follows its original by nearly forty years, some are particularly telling:

27. Van Sant adds the year to the date shown over the opening shot: “Friday, December 11, 1998.”

28. A new cut-in in the opening scene, the third shot of the film, shows a fly Marion watches on the hotel wall in the fourth shot, portending the film’s closing scene.

29. The figure outside Mr. Lowery’s real estate office is not Hitchcock but Van Sant, costumed and made up to look like Hitchcock—the only attempt to duplicate the particular look of anyone in the original film.

30. Marion shows Cassidy’s photograph of his daughter to Caroline (and incidentally to the audience).

31. Once home, Marion changes not from light to dark clothing, but into an orange patterned sundress even more perky and gamine than her original rose-colored outfit.

32. On the used-car lot, Heche carries a prominent orange parasol which she handles flirtatiously.

33. Norman no longer strokes a stuffed crow as he talks to Marion in the parlor behind his office.

34. The painting whose framed reproduction hangs over Norman’s spyhole is not “Susannah and the Elders” but “Venus with a Mirror.”

35. Norman now has to pass through an interior screen door to enter his kitchen.

36. After subtracting $4036 ($4000 plus, presumably, a California registration fee) from $400,000, Marion now adds $897.65—perhaps the amount she has in her bank account, since it seems too high to be her weekly take-home pay.

37. The tiles in the shower are horizontal rectangles rather than squares, and the shower curtain is now patterned with a refractive design.

38. Mrs. Bates’s face is obscured in the shower scene by long gray hair rather than heavy backlighting.

39. The remake adds two cut-ins of stormy skies outdoors during the shower murder.

40. The overhead shot of Marion falling out of the shower now shows two long knife wounds in her back.

41. A new cut-in shows Marion’s eye dilating in death.

42. Van Sant shows Norman standing in the doorway of his house as he delivers his first speech indicating his shocked reaction to Marion’s murder.

43. At the beginning of the bathroom cleanup, Norman pauses to wipe a smudge of blood he has just left on the sink—a moment that seems to indicate that the full gravity of his situation is just hitting him.

44. A new series of closeups in this scene emphasizes the blood the original clean-up sequence generally shoots around.

45. Norman leaves on the exterior lights of Marion’s car when he sinks it in the swamp.

46. The car (perhaps because it’s a Volvo) now sinks at a forward pitch, with its trunk and glowing taillights rather than its roof being the last part to sink.

47. Unlike Anthony Perkins’s Norman, who never seemed to change his clothes except to take off his jacket, Vince Vaughn is wearing a new outfit practically every time we see him.

48. The Bates Motel is more frequently shown in a straight-on master shot that gives special prominence to the pink neon sign “Motel.”

49. When Arbogast quizzes Norman at dusk, Hitchcock’s match cuts show the scene getting progressively darker. Van Sant shoots the scene in uniform interior light; it’s not until the characters go outside that he shows how dark it has become.

50. As Arbogast pulls up to the motel on his clandestine return visit, Norman is clearly visible (and audible) walking along the verandah, evidently ignoring his approach.

51. Van Sant adds two cut-ins, one of a nude woman, the other of a sheep, to Arbogast’s murder scene.

52. Sam kisses Lila’s cheek and invites her to “have another beer” when he leaves her to check out the Bates Motel.

53. Sam touches Lila more often than in Hitchcock. He puts a hand on her shoulder at the sheriff’s house (where she shakes it off) and does so again as they talk to Norman before entering the office, and a third time as they walk away toward Cabin 10.

54. Except for the bathroom, Sam and Lila use flashlights to search Cabin 1, even though it’s the middle of the day.

55. Norman’s room is full of toy soldiers and a black-and-white photo of Norman holding two live hawks instead of a stuffed bunny.

56. The record on Norman’s turntable is not Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony but George Jones’s and Tammy Wynette’s duet “The World Needs a Melody.”

57. Hitchcock lets the audience imagine what is in the book Lila is reading in Norman’s bedroom that makes her eyes widen; Van Sant briefly shows one of Norman’s skin magazines directly.

58. Norman attacks Sam with a golf club (already shown in Arbogast’s visit) rather than a coffee can full of something heavy.

59. Instead of a skull, Mrs. Bates now has a mummified face shown with a spider crawling over the mouth and eye.

60. The psychiatrist’s explanation at the police station is preceded by a new high-angle shot of Norman and a police officer in a separate room as the officer says, “So. Norman.”

61. The remake omits the calendar in the 1960 film prominently displaying the wrong date (“17,” even though it’s clearly December 20, nine days after December 11).

62. The police officer who gives Norman a blanket is now shown entering and leaving the room through a wide-angle lens parodying Norman’s point of view.

Other differences involve Van Sant’s handling of the camera:

63. The opening shot, whose upper and lower halves echo the preceding credits by sliding from the left and right respectively to join in the middle, is now a single helicopter shot, not a series of dissolves.

64. The opening scene between Marion and Sam shows them as acting consistently more intimate with each other. As it begins, they are still in bed together; as it continues, they are framed together in nearly every shot (and in a mirror behind Marion) instead of isolated by separate shots.

65. In the supper scene in Norman’s parlor, Van Sant smooths the transition to the most disturbing new framing of Norman by a tracking shot rather than a cut from an earlier framing.

66. The shots of Norman throughout the second half of this scene are consistently eye-level rather than low-angle.

67. The new shower scene includes two additional close-ups of the shower head before the murder.

68. This scene no longer breaks continuity by matching on Marion’s turning head while crossing the line; instead, it shows her first from outside the shower, then from inside, then from outside again, and finally from inside in the moments just before the attack.

69. The dissolve from the bathtub drain to Marion’s dead eye rolls almost twice, rather than once, as it dollies out.

70. Van Sant omits an establishing shot of Sheriff Chambers’s living room.

71. In the scene between Sam and Norman in the parlor, the camera, which is held in the same position for all three shots until it tracks over to the back room midway through the third shot, consistently works further away from the two actors.

72. Lila’s entrance to the fruit cellar, where she pauses to tum on the lights, is shown in a longer shot and a longer take.

73. The psychiatrist’s explanation is interspersed with several more reaction shots of the police brass.

Still others involve sound:

74. The remixed music is less loud throughout, compared to the dialogue, than in the original film, and Danny Elfman’s scoring of Bernard Herrmann’s score is consistently faster and lighter.

75. As the opening helicopter shot approaches Marion’s hotel window, Van Sant reproduces background traffic noises from the street below.

76. Bird sounds can be heard (and bird movement glimpsed) outside Marion’s bedroom window as she packs.

77. The voices Marion hears as she drives along now begin to overlap and echo in her mind.

78. The knife makes sounds of metal scraping and striking flesh during the shower scene.

79. Music now plays as Norman waits for Marion’s car to sink, de-emphasizing the long moment, held without music in Hitchcock, when it stops sinking.

80. As Lila approaches the Bates house, insect and bird noises are featured prominently on the soundtrack.

81. The fruit cellar is full of bird noises.

82. Music plays behind the psychiatrist’s climactic explanation.

83. In Norman’s final scene, his mother’s voice is overlapped with its own echo, then with Vince Vaughn’s voice repeating some of the same words.

84. After the original string music ends, a guitar fantasy on Herrmann’s themes accompanies the end credits.

85. Except for this guitar music, all the rest of the film’s background music is still scored for string orchestra. But Van Sant includes diegetic snatches of several non-string tunes, from “Indian Love Call” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” to “Weepy Donuts” and “Put It On.”

A few important differences involve the pace of the remake:

86. In general, every scene is played faster, so that the film is shortened from 109 to 103 minutes, four minutes of which are now end credits.

87. On arrival at Cabin 1, however, Marion now takes several shots, and the better part of a minute, looking for a place to hide the stolen money, and registers distinct satisfaction when she finds one, even though it’s the same hiding place as in 1960.

88. In the biggest departure from his original, Van Sant omits the entire scene in front of the Fairvale Church.

89. The fight between Sam and Norman takes longer and requires more shots.

90. The psychiatrist’s speech is considerably abridged. He no longer answers the question of whether Norman killed Marion by saying, “Yes—and no”; no longer discusses the difference between copping a plea and laying the groundwork; no longer asks about unsolved disappearances of young girls; and no longer distinguishes between Norman’s psychosis and transvestitism.

The credit sequences incorporate several differences:

91. In the opening credits, composer Bernard Herrmann is now the first person listed after the casting director, and screenwriter Joseph Stefano is the last person listed before Van Sant.

92. Van Sant’s film ends with a slow crane-up and -out from the original tight framing of Marion’s car being pulled from the swamp, a shot held for three minutes on its final framing of the vista behind the Bates Motel.

93. While this shot is running, Van Sant’s extensive end credits include references to bird, fly, and spider wranglers, and an acknowledgment to “John Woo, for his kitchen knife.”

94. Robert Bloch is now credited after the film rather than before, though he’s the first person listed in the end credits after the cast.

95. Hilton Green, assistant director of the 1960 film, is listed as a technical advisor in the 1998 credits.

96. The remake ends with a new final credit, “In memory of Alfred Hitchcock,” though the final shot is held without text or sound for thirty seconds after the credit crawl is complete.

Of course, there are a few details that come across differently precisely because they’re the same as they were in 1960, but we’re not the same audience anymore:

97. Since Sam doesn’t even begin to get dressed, Marion’s closing line—“You have to put your shoes on”—is turned into a joke in Van Sant.

98. Oddly, despite Hitchcock’s avowed wish that he could have showed Janet Leigh’s breasts and the much more permissive social climate of the 90s, Van Sant accords Anne Heche an even greater level of modesty throughout, even showing very little of her in a bra in the opening scene, although he does show Viggo Mortenson’s bare butt as he opens the blinds.

99. Arbogast continues to wear a hat, an anachronistic navy fedora with a broad brim and a white band. But since no one else but the police officers wear hats, this detail, along with several others (e.g., the casting of William H. Macy instead of Martin Balsam), makes him look distinctly less menacing.

100. As in Hitchcock, Marion and Arbogast slide over to the passenger side of their cars to get out at the motel—a gesture virtually unthinkable in the culture of ubiquitous bucket seats.

One final difference indicates the folly and futility of attempting to be consistent in your fetishism:

101. Inflation has come to the Bates Motel, but at a different rate than to the production itself. A room at the motel now costs $36.50 a night, up from $10.00 (an increase of 365%); Marion now needs $4000 for her trade-in, up from $700 (an increase of 571%); the house Cassidy plans to buy for his daughter—and the amount Marion accordingly steals—now costs $400,000, up from $40,000 (an increase of 1000%); and Van Sant’s announced budget is $20 million, up from Hitchcock’s announced $800,000 (an increase of 2500%). If inflation had hit the Bates Motel as hard as the production itself, a night of Norman’s unique hospitality would now cost $250.00—about as much as the Plaza in New York or the Ritz in Paris.