Saturday, October 30, 2010

Psyched about PSYCHO with Live Orchestra!

(SPOILERS!!!)

PSYCHO
is one of my favorite movies of all time by one of my favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock, and is one of my favorite films score by one of my favorite film composers, Bernard Herrmann. And it was one of a small number of films that motivated me to get into the film industry and film music specifically.

I've seen the film numerous times. I remember the first time I saw it in high school, on WSBK in Boston. I saw it again in a film class at MIT, for the first time on the big screen. And it is a different film on the big screen; as Goddard says, films on TV *are* TV. A simple close-up of a police officer wearing sunglasses becomes much more intimidating on the big screen.

I saw it again when the DVD came out, and once again with my wife a few years ago on Halloween. It is one of those rares films that stands up to many viewings. Just about everything about the film is perfect. The story by Robert Bloch, the script and dialogue by Joe Stefano, Hitch's brilliant direction, the art direction, and of course the score.

It was tonight that I saw it first with a large audience with the Colorado Symphony here at Boettcher Hall. People laughed in all the right places, where humor was intended. People also were clearly shocked at (SPOILER!!!) Arbogast's death. I had forgotten that this was a surprise. It was also clear that some people did not know the ending. I remember that naivete the first time I saw it. It's a very different film when you don't know what's coming.

The editing is excellent. One of the reasons the shower sequence is so effective is that the jump cuts come from out of nowhere. The rest of the movie uses a lot of master shots and long takes, and traditional coverage. Also the editing on Arbogast’s murder is very effective. Hitch threw out Saul Bass’s storyboards for that sequence because he felt that cutting to his feet walking up the stairs would tell the audience that something was going to happen. He wanted to catch them by surprise on this murder. And it worked!

I’ve heard people complain about the optical shot in that sequence looking phony. To me, I don’t think that’s supposed to look realistic. It’s supposed to represent Arbogast’s physical disorientation as he falls down the stairs. Like Scotty’s POV of the stairs in VERTIGO, it’s his psychological mood.


There’s a lot of great acting in the movie. If anyone doubts that, go watch Gus Van Sant’s awful remake. Anne Heche does not understand the character at all. Janet Leigh understood that she needed to care about Norman to make the characters interesting. Heche reacts like Norman is a nutbar from the minute she sees him. It telegraphs the ending of the film halfway through.

Hitch always told actors he would only direct them if they did not bring enough, brought too much, or needed help finding motivation for doing something at a specific moment that he had requested. When he had great actors (like Tony Perkins) he probably had to do almost nothing. In my limited experience, I always felt the right casting made the director’s job easy.

The movie was projected on a giant video screen above the orchestra. The resolution was excellent. I'm not sure why, but they screened it in the wrong format. They screened it at 1.66 when it was shot at 1.33.

Perhaps my expectations were too high with a live orchestra; perhaps it's because I know the score inside out, but the orchestra's performance was lackluster. This score is one of the most contemporary scores ever written, it should NOT sound musical or melodic. Remember, both Hitch and the studio were shocked when Herrmann announced that he was doing an all-string score. At that time, an all-string score was used for a love story, like "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" or "Theme from a Summer Place."

This is practically a master class on string writing. I remember seeing a performance of a suite from the film and remarking how physical an act it is to play this difficult music correctly. In the film, every tempo seems rushed and uncomfortable. It's supposed to do that. The music should not sound pretty, it should be grating. And the orchestra tonight did not understand that. Of course there is only the conductor to blame.

Also, there were no program notes about the film, music or composer… at all. Lame.

Nonetheless, it was fun to see it with a full house and a live orchestra.
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