Last night, Liza and I went to the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco to hear Donato Cabrera conduct the SF Symphony as they performed Bernard Herrmann’s riveting score for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 suspense classic, Psycho, accompanying a full screening of the film.
Having only ever seen the film on television, with commercials, I had never even remembered to rent it on DVD so that seemed reason enough to see an unedited (save for the prescribed Intermission) print of this iconic film, which I’m afraid had been so iconic that I had neglected to examine it fully. Until last night, that is. Forgive me being late to the party, but what a masterpiece! Tony Perkins was masterful as the titular psycho, Norman Bates, his dancing eyes and quivering jaw only hinting at the murderous delirium of his tormented inner dialogue, in contemporary comparison, his look is a cross between Eric McCormack and a Mark McKinney characterization from The Kids In The Hall. You cannot take your eyes of his for the whole time he is on screen. Janet Leigh, also, wowed with her sharp eyed frowns and longing stares, in fact, her Marion Crane spends a great deal of her screen time staring at mirrors or looking out windows, wordlessly conveying a lonely, desperate woman in need of an exit strategy. Sadly, in lieu of a strategy, Bates helps her with the exit part. Martin Balsam expedites the pace as a nosey Private Investigator and Simon Oakland is (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious as an overly expository police psychologist whose post mortem analysis fills in any of the remaining blanks for the audience in a speech that goes on and on but never seems less than entertaining. About that unintentional humour. The campness of some dialogue, or at least their perceived irony owing to the changes in times and the stilted tones of movie acting, give the film some unexpected comic relief but the tension builds and builds and even though we all know what’s going to happen (shower? Why not?), it’s still shocking by the time the main plot points are unraveled. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay, adapted from Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel (a fictionalization of the crimes of real-life serial killer Ed Gein) moves along perfectly, and Hitchcock knows how to pace everything masterfully (of course, we now expect that of him, but its nice to know he actually earned his reputation!). He works in tandem with cinematographer John Russell and their use of full screen facial closeups and intrusive camera angles, and the revolutionary idea to shoot in black and white so that the blood would be more evocative than gruesome, add up to a visual treat. But that’s just the pictures, what of the sound? Academy Award winning composer Bernard Herrmann, of course, was one of the great innovators in the field of film music and, in addition to Psycho, he worked with Hitchcock on North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo, but he also lent Orson Welles some sonic majesty for Citizen Kane and scored The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Cape Fear, and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. I would venture that his tendency toward stabbing cellos inspired John Williams in his own iconic score for Jaws.
One thing I noticed last night, with the San Francisco Symphony, was that no matter how chaotic Hermann had written certain dramatic sections, there was still a lot of space and minimalism. Tension and dynamics. The mark of a composer in control, who knew not to overwhelm the image on the screen. Note how Hermann holds back the music entirely in the famous “shower scene” until the entry of the killer, before it’s suddenly all shrieking violins and funereal cellos…
I now want to go out and get the DVD of Joshua Waletzky’s documentary Music For The Movies: Bernard Herrmann , which was on sale at Davies last night but which I decided to wait and see later. Here’s a clip of that documentary, where other composers discuss the genius of Herrmann’s work.