Psycho and A Perfect Murder (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Revisiting the Classics

I have no objection to the concept of remaking old films — after all, no one complains when productions of Hamlet or The Important of Being Earnest are mounted for the umpteenth time. A new production of a classic — be it a film or a play — can capture the attention of a whole new generation of audiences that might otherwise have ignored a musty oldie.

Of course, the difference with films is, the original productions are still around to be compared with the new versions, and compared they are. Rarely do the remakes hold up to the scrutiny, though often I suspect that’s simply a matter of time and film fans’ familiarity with and reverence of the originals. Maybe in 50 years, Gus Van Sant‘s Psycho will be the classic that needs protection from upstart filmmakers.
Pyscho killer, qu’est que c’est
Somehow, though, I doubt it. Not that Pyscho is a bad movie in and of itself — in fact, I think if Hitchcock’s film were not around for comparison, Van Sant’s film would be much more warmly received. But Van Sant’s insistence on not merely remaking but re-creating, on a shot-by-shot basis, Hitchcock’s film is ultimately its downfall.

The story, naturally, remains the same. Marion Crane (Anne Heche) steals a bunch of money from her employer (originally $40,000, now $400,000) so she can marry her poor-but-noble boyfriend, Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen). Driving to meet him in another city, she stops for the night at a desert motel, almost forgotten since the highway moved away, and has a fatal encounter with the owner, Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn). Norman is a guy with some problems of his own, as Sam, Marion’s sister Lila (Julianne Moore), and private investigator Milton Arbogast (William H. Macy) discover as they call in search of Marion.

As an exercise in filmmaking, this new Psycho works as a curiosity. Filmed in color (the original, of course, was in black-and-white), it nevertheless has the washed-out look of an old movie. Danny Elfman’s new arrangement of Bernard Herrmann’s classic score is brilliant. And in this era of splatter flicks with huge body counts, Psycho reminds us how much scarier a spare and ungory thriller can be.

But Van Sant’s Psycho lacks the passion and tension of Hitchcock’s. He’s assembled a fine cast — I’ve raved over Vaughn and Heche’s joint work before; Moore just about stole Boogie Nights; Macy is a veritable treasure — but they all seem so intent on copying the first movie that they haven’t let themselves make the characters their own. Remakes work when the actors can find new meaning and insight into a role that other actors have created, but it’s as if Van Sant didn’t want his cast doing that here. (Vaughn, for example, has the dead eyes of a deranged, deluded killer but can’t imitate the childlike quality of Anthony Perkins’s Norman. If Vaughn had been allowed the leeway to go beyond a mere duplication of Perkins’s performance, he’d undoubtedly have found another way to help us believe Norman’s mother fixation.) The result is a slew of studied, tepid performances from actors who can do much more.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo introduced gaggles of little girls to Shakespeare. If Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche can put Hitchcock on the radar of young moviegoers, that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, it’s about all Van Sant’s Psycho is good for.

Press the pound key for murder
Earlier this year, director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) also took on Hitchcock. Davis’s A Perfect Murder succeeds as a film but its connection to Hitchcock is much less obvious than Psycho‘s.

Based on Frederick Knott’s play Dial M for Murder (as was Hitchcock’s film of the same name), A Perfect Murder relocates the action from 1950s London to present-day New York. Steven Taylor (Michael Douglas) lives in a fantasy Manhattan: He and his wife, Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow) — half his age — live high above Central Park in a huge, gorgeous duplex (her closet is about the size of a typical NYC studio apartment). He works on Wall Street, she at the UN. Their evenings are filled with things like galas at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Alas, Emily is slumming in the bed of a downtown artist, David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen again!), spending her afternoons at his rough-and-tumble Brooklyn loft. Steven is no fool, however — he waits until he’s got something really nasty on David, then confronts the artist and blackmails the younger man into killing Emily.

A Perfect Murder works as a movie because Dial M worked as a play — it focuses tightly on a few intriguing characters, how their lives revolve around one another, and how they pull one another deeper into disaster. Douglas and Paltrow are perfectly cast, and worthy followups to their predecessors: he’s as creepy as the original’s Ray Milland, and she’s as elegant as Grace Kelly. Davis’s stylish direction and James Newton Howard’s haunting and classy score do justice to a classic film.

But the name change means that few moviegoers will realize this is a remake, so it’s less likely that those who enjoy A Perfect Murder will tune into American Movie Classics for some stodgy old black-and-white movie that they might enjoy if they gave it half a chance.

viewed at a public multiplex screening

A Perfect Murder
viewed at home on a small screen

share and enjoy