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MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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There are three reasons why Universal might have withheld screenings of Psycho from critics. Either 1) they knew it was a stinker, 2) they wanted to keep secret a new shocking twist, or 3) they were merely paying homage to Hitchcock.

Thankfully, it wasn’t the first reason. Though some hard-core fans of the original may scoff at anything that tries to compete, Van Sant’s version of Psycho is actually pretty good.

It wasn’t reason two, either. There was some speculation, especially in Roger Ebert’s Answer Man column, that perhaps the secrecy was meant to disguise a new twist on Hitchcock’s original. In fact, this version is a very close remake of the original.

That leaves reason three. It appears that Van Sant and Universal were actually trying to pay tribute not only to one of the all-time great directors, but to one of his most memorable films. When the original Psycho was released in 1960, Hitchcock and Universal withheld press screenings to keep the audiences guessing. Van Sant is merely imitating the master.

For the uninitiated, Psycho follows the story of Marion Crane, a secretary in a real estate office. The opportunity to walk away with $400,000 presents itself, and she takes it. She drives for several days, trying to get far enough away to shake her pursuers. Late one night, in a rainstorm, she decides to stop for the night at the Bates Motel. The rest is history.

If you know your history, then I don’t need to repeat it for you. If you don’t know your history, then it’s better you find out for yourself. I would recommend either version to you. I won’t say this version is better; it’s not. But I acknowledge that some people have no desire to rent a black and white movie for their 15-inch monaural TV. Given a big-screen with big sound, this version may be the better way to get up to speed on your cultural awareness.

This film isn’t literally a shot-by-shot remake as some have claimed, but it is very close. In fact, this kind of near-literal remake has never been tried before. It was a fairly big gamble, especially considering the possible backlash from die-hard fans.

Nevertheless, it seems to have worked. The horrible and tense sequences are recreated faithfully, resulting in a still-satisfying experience.

Trivia buffs could spend hours at the theaters comparing differences and similarities (see “Did You Notice” on the sidebar for a handful of examples). Yet some differences were unavoidable. Casting, set design, costume design, and sound all had to be redone. Mostly, these decisions were well made.

Vince Vaughn fills the role of Norman Bates. Others in the audience were disappointed by this casting choice, but I was pleasantly surprised. Vaughn had the right speech and mannerisms to fill the part. He was meek, childish, and awkward in all the right proportions. Others faulted him for having too much confidence for the role, and they do have a point, but on the whole, Vaughn was great.

The only casting decision that I found to be a bad choice was William H. Macy as the private investigator Arbogast. Macy’s iconic face and tidy haircut were perfect in Pleasantville, where he played a 50’s sitcom father figure. But because he is such an obvious choice for an old-fashioned gumshoe, he stood out like a sore thumb. Everyone else seemed modern in a world gone retro, but Macy seemed to actually come from that era.

The set design and costume design were unavoidably modernized, but they still had the look and feel of 1960. The real estate office looked remarkably similar to the cheap set Hitchcock used in the original. The hardware store was a far cry from today’s big-box chains, and in fact it looked a little out of place after seeing a new car dealership. Dresses are loud and orange. Shirts are noisy and brash. Lamps are salvation-army chic.

Yet even if all this seems oddly outdated, it all contributes the overall style of the film. Because the dialogue is reportedly unchanged, the film was required to have a certain quaint, retro feel. (After all, who in this day and age would say to a stranger, “if it don’t gel, it ain’t Jell-O, friend”.) The decision to use anachronistic elements does a lot to support this old-fashioned dialogue and give the film a coherent feel.

Bernard Herrmann’s music from the original film was used to great effect. Of all the elements, I believe the music was the least changed. The fact that it still strikes terror in your heart speaks well to Herrmann’s talent. In addition, the soundtrack is more full and rich. At times, you can hear inaudible whispers or buzzing flies. At one point near the end, adept use of surround-sound technology enhances the picture on the screen.

This film will invite all sorts of questions: Why do a shot-by-shot remake? What was different from the original? Did the original need updating? But the most important, most obvious question should be: Does it work?

The answer is yes.

Creepiness and tension permeate this film. Even if you know the ultimate outcome, you will still find yourself telling Marion not to stop at the motel, not to change her clothes, and not to go into the shower. Even if you know who lives with Norman in that big old house, you will shrivel in anticipation as the house is searched.

Remakes of movies are always problematic: if you deviate too much, you’re open to criticism of changing the original. Yet if you follow too closely, you give up any chance of improving on it. Van Sant took the latter approach to its extreme, accepting that a close copy of the original might still be pretty good

I would have to say that he was right.