Literature Film Quarterly (2003) - Hitchcock Without Hitchcock
- article: Hitchcock Without Hitchcock (journal article)
- author(s): Thomas Leitch
- journal: Literature Film Quarterly (2003)
- issue: volume 31, issue 4, page 248
- journal ISSN: 0090-4260
- publisher: Salisbury University
- keywords: A Perfect Murder (1998), Alfred Hitchcock, American Film Institute, Anthony Perkins, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Bernard Herrmann, Blackmail (1929), Constantine Verevis, Dial M for Murder (1954), François Truffaut, Frenzy (1972), Gus Van Sant, James Naremore, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, John L. Russell, Joseph Conrad, Joseph Stefano, Mary (1931), Murder! (1930), Paula Marantz Cohen, Peter Wollen, Psycho (1960), Psycho (1998), Rear Window (1954), Robert Bloch, Robert E. Kapsis, Robin Wood, Saul Bass, Steven Jay Schneider, The 39 Steps (1935), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Universal Studios, Vera Miles, Vertigo (1958), William Rothman
My current students' reaction to Gus Van Sant's alleged shot-by-shot remake of Psycho indicates that Van Sant's tour de force has now fallen victim to the ultimate historical irony. Universal's scheme to release the film in 1998 as a loss leader that would rekindle interest in their most prestigious property just in time for the centennial rerelease of Hitchcock's Universal backlist on DVD has now been transformed into just one more old movie, roughly contemporaneous with the Hitchcock original, which my students have heard of but have not seen. Only the Hitchcock establishment continues to keep faith with its original outrage, as the flood of overwhelmingly hostile Internet commentary on the film has sedimented into the quarterlies. I except from this general rule three critics in the 2001-02 Hitchcock Annual: Paula Marantz Cohen, who defends Van Sant's film as "a consummate hybrid of art and criticism" (132); Steven Jay Schneider, who contextualizes the film as "'a Van Sant film'" rather than "a slavish imitation of the original" (142); and Constantine Verevis, who points out that since "each and every film is remade — i.e., dispersed and transformed — in its every new context or configuration," Van Sant's film differs from the long cycle of earlier films extending or quoting from Psycho — Psycho 2, Dressed to Kill, and so on — "not in kind, but only in degree" (157). I would like, in this essay, to extend the implications of Verevis's remark by engaging with several more disapproving commentators on Van Sant's film, but the principal commentator with whom I shall be arguing is myself as I sat watching the remake on its opening night.
As soon as something like Saul Bass's credits, now resplendent in black and green, began to race across the screen, accompanied by Danny Elfman's reorchestration of Bernard Herrmann's classic score, the young man sitting next to me leaned over and murmured to his date, "I'm so scared." The implication of his remark was clear: You call this a scary movie? I'm way beyond this. Of course, the implication I drew myself was rather different: What a jerk. Connoisseurs of film fright may know of instances in which the credits manage, or for that matter intend, to scare the audience, but I doubt that such cases represent the norm. Film fright is earned by the relationship a movie legitimately develops with its audience, not worn on the credits' sleeve.
All the same, the Van Sant Psycho was trading on a relationship that made it different from all other films: its status as a remake of the father (or, more accurately, the mother) of the modern horror film, and a remake of a very particular kind. For better or worse, the detailed knowledge many audiences had already acquired about Van Sant's film before the credits even rolled marked the credits as only the latest step in their relationship to the film. These reflections did not persuade me any more completely that I ought to be frightened by Van Sant's credits, or let down because I was not, but they did make me realize that in silently arguing with the young man next to me, I was really arguing with myself. And long before the film ended, I had lost the argument, because what might have been taken to be his fundamental premise — that the remake was not nearly as good as the original — was one with which I agreed.(FN1) The two commentators I would like to use to return to this argument with myself are James Naremore and William Rothman, whom I choose because they are unusually extended and reflective, and because they are both critics I respect and in great measure agree with, even though I shall be taking issue with them.
Apart from criticizing the specifics of Vince Vaughn's performance or the cut-ins to shots of storms, cows, and near-naked women that interrupt the murders of Marion and Arbogast, the harshest judgment I can make of Van Sant's film is that it put every member of its audience in an impossible position because no matter how they reacted to his movie, they would all be in danger of becoming easy victims to curmudgeons like me. That is, no matter how they treated his remake of Psycho, they were wrong, because the remake itself was neither one thing nor another. It would be the height of na"iveté, for example, to treat the movie as if it were Hitchcock's film, since, as reviewers across the country delighted in pointing out, it obviously was not. But it would be equally unthinkable to watch it as if it were original, since it had been marketed from the moment its production was first announced on April Fool's Day 1998 as the closest remake in film history, a uniquely austere homage to its master.
Even within the special intertextual context of the remake, then, Van Sant's film was unusual in at least four ways. Instead of adopting the customary strategies designed to improve its original — readapting, updating, or rethinking the original's source material — ...
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