The combination of film screenings and live orchestras, whose members play the scores in perfect time, has become quite the attraction at the Walt Disney Concert Hall where the intimacy of the venue lends itself to an immersive, multisensory experience. While it’s been some months since audiences were entertained by LA Phil’s trio of Home Alone concerts last December, another — and very different — film took centerstage on Friday, May 12th in Alfred Hitchcock’s genre-defining Psycho. With the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra seated under the screen, and led by conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, a viscerally matter-of-fact statement was made: The 1960 masterpiece owes its legacy to American composer Bernard Herrmann, whose strings-only score resonates chillingly even 63 years later, just as much as it does to the legendary English auteur.
Of course, the film’s narrative, which was written by Joseph Stefano and based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, remains indelibly etched in the memories of those who have experienced the movie, especially among the throngs who saw it in its original theatrical run. Hitchcock, for good reason, insisted that theatre managers not admit anyone once the projector started rolling and to certainly not admit anyone too soon before any successive screenings lest the ending get spoiled. Regimented countdown announcements for each showing, and the earnestness with which these rules were enforced, minimized disappointment and distractions. More importantly, they helped maximize the impact of each plot advancement overseen by Hitchcock and the tense forebodingness conveyed by Herrmann’s score.
Funny enough — although not that hilarious given Psycho’s well-earned reputation as a horror classic — the stripped-down and modest presentation of the movie as a black-and-white visual with a streamlined score can be traced to budgetary constraints at the time. Nevertheless, the surmounting of these challenges led to a perfect storm of desired screams, immortalizing a motion picture that in plain terms sees a young real-estate secretary named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steal $40,000 to offset her boyfriend Sam Loomis’ (John Gavin) debts only to find herself on the run during a torrential downpour and have no choice but to stay the night at a mysteriously off-the-beaten-path motel run by its equally inscrutable owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
Psycho, which was earmarked for preservation by the Library of Congress in 1992, is as educational as it is enthralling. This again became abundantly clear on the big screen inside the Disney Concert Hall, where Hitchcock’s pioneering camera techniques were on display, particularly his ingenious use of 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras to replicate the closest approximation to how the human eye absorbs light and consequently images. With Kitsopoulos guiding the orchestra with every cue to mutedly bow their violins, violas, basses, and cellos, the use of distinct timbres and the interplay between major and minor intervals resonantly spelled out Herrmann’s 40-part portfolio in a manner that aurally exceeded what any movie house could do, from 1960 up until now.
As the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra demonstrated, Herrmann’s score, appropriately characterized by harmonic absolutes, is the stuff that dreams, or nightmares, are made of. Hitchcock, who was renowned for his micromanaging, deferred a considerable amount of creative control to Herrmann whom he had worked with on The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and North by Northwest in the preceding four years. As such, Herrmann went ahead and scored the now infamous shower scene despite a decision by the “Master of Suspense” to have it be musically bare. Hitchcock was immediately swayed and was later quoted as saying that “thirty-three percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” It’s unknown how Hitchcock mathematically arrived at that percentage but people to this day can, with little provocation, still recreate in their mind’s eye the 45-second spectacle where Leigh’s Marion abruptly finds herself having to stave off an assailant.
The terrifyingly beautiful harshness of the violins during this scene — a momentous passage in the score that rings out profusely — induces a panic that shoots right up the spine as if one were on the receiving end of an intoxicating corticosteroid injection. The string-fashioned shrieks are precisely so unnerving because of their anthropomorphic effect; they might as well double as human vocal cords. And what makes this moment in the film reverberate even more is that Herrmann hitherto sprinkles his score with a myriad of persistent tonal motifs that simmer in anticipation of a volatile boil.
What is, furthermore, exceptional about Herrmann is that he didn’t need tympani to make percussive exclamation points throughout Psycho; he was able to accomplish just as much using strings that impeccably complement each frame rendered by Hitchcock. The dissonance in Herrmann’s music is ironically more conducive to a harmony with Hitchcock’s intent given that the psychological ramifications are plentiful and were felt right away upon the release of the film. Leigh herself, upon seeing Psycho, reputedly only took baths in lieu of showers; this fear-based response, due to a striking amalgamation of what is seen and heard, is arguably matched only by Jaws, which was released 15 years later.
Throughout its 109-minute runtime, the orchestral-supplemented film screening of Psycho at the Walt Disney Concert Hall underscored why the flick ended up being a runaway hit 63 years ago — defying Paramount Pictures’ tepid expectations — and is now a crucial part of cinematic and musical history. It was one of those rare occasions when two artists, who are at the peak of their professions, unite to produce a work for the ages. Much credit also goes to Kitsopoulos and the Hollywood Bowl musicians who, with the film being projected without a single pause, had absolutely no margin for error and yet still turned in an extraordinary performance that elevated Psycho to a metaphysical level.
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