Alfred Hitchcock and “The Moment of Psycho”

3 02 2013

Alfred Hitchcock may be the most influential film director of all time, but choThe Moment of Psychoosing which is his most important film is not quite so easy. The British Film Institute clearly favor “Vertigo,” as I wrote about here. And other filmmakers never seem to tire of making references to “North by Northwest.” But for influence that encompasses both film and society itself, nothing surpasses “Psycho.” Writer David Thomson looks at Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece in his 2009 book “The Moment of Psycho.”

The book begins with think piece on the state of the cinema circa 1960, and how “Psycho” transformed both the growing awareness of serial killing and Robert Bloch’s book of the same name into an unsettling film that was unlike anything else in theaters at the time. It had more in common with Roger Corman’s low-budget shockers, which played mostly in drive-ins, than with other films of the time. Indeed, to keep the studio off his back, Hitchcock invested his own money, with a controlling ownership of 60 percent of “Psycho.” As the majority shareholder, he was beholden to no one in his choices. Filming quickly, in black and white, with every scene carefully storyboarded and working with his television series crew, the shoot accomplished a hat trick that is usually considered impossible: It was fast, cheap, and good.

And it was Hitchcock’s control of “Psycho” that made it what it was. At the time, he was still seen by Hollywood as a talented journeyman director, but the French saw him differently. In the pages of “Cahiers du Cinema,” the case was being made that Hitchcock was something else: an auteur, someone whose work as a director transcended the limits of Hollywood backlots to bring a unique vision to the screen.

The real horror of “Psycho,” Thomson argues, is not mere murder and mayhem, but the way in which that bloody moment that shocked audiences follows forty minutes of the banal, depressing life of Marion Crane. It’s a life of furtive, go-nowhere affairs, sleazy clients, ill-conceived and impulsive thievery, an interminable drive, a vaguely threatening cop (whose mirrored shades force Marion to see herself), used-car salesmen and, finally, a rundown roadside motel. And while the young manager is welcoming and sweet, the motel is a place of shadows, stuffed birds and a shrill, unseen mother who’s “not herself.” Marion’s redemption is short-lived; she convinces herself that she can just return the stolen money, writing the sums earnestly, childishly, on a scrap of paper, before she takes the symbolically cleansing shower that seals her fate.

Thomson makes the case that Hitchcock planted the seeds of the story and its real intent from the very start of “Psycho,” when the credits read “And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane,” as though she were a featured player and not the star. Marion’s story is the prologue to the film’s actual story, just as the tale of the stranded passengers in “The Lady Vanishes” is the prologue to Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave’s search for the missing Dame Mae Whitty. Anthony Perkins gets top billing, even though he doesn’t show up in the film until Marion reaches the Bates Motel. And after all, the movie is called “Psycho,” not “Marion.” A few years later, Hitchcock would film a tale of a female thief and give it the more appropriate name of “Marnie.”

To Thomson, “Psycho” presages a decade of the horrors of war and the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. Popular entertainment moved away from musicals and biblical epics and toward tales of crime and violence. Following the 1940s and 50s, during which Hitchcock had kept violence at arm’s length and relied instead upon veiled threats and creeping suspense, “Psycho” pulls back the curtain on a new decade of frank sexuality and explicity violence. Hitchcock would see out the remaining years of his career with films that followed in the footsteps of “Psycho,” serving up violence and sex in differing ratios in “The Birds,” “Marnie,” “Torn Curtain” and “Frenzy.”

If you’ve just seen the movie “Hitchcock,” which of course focuses on the making of “Psycho,” “The Moment of Psycho” would make a great postprandial refresher. Rather than looking at the struggles of making “Psycho,” David Thomson takes the long view on its impact. You can order your own copy of “The Moment of Psycho” here.

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“Psycho” Comes Alive with the Minnesota Orchestra

1 11 2010

A special report by Keating DuGarm, our midwestern Foreign Correspondent:

On October 30, 2010, the Minnesota Orchestra performed for one time only the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-year-old “Psycho,” which was composed by Bernard Herrmann. By the time of “Psycho,” Bernard had already scored five Hitchcock movies including “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.”

This score was written for just the string section consisting of violins, violas, celli and basses. I counted 54 string musicians on stage this past Saturday night. Seeing this live production reminded me of viewing a larger version of a chamber orchestra. No brass. No percussion. No woodwinds. Since for this film Hitch confined his palette to black, gray and white, his composer chose to limit his music choices to strings alone. By 1960, When “Psycho” premiered, virtually all important films were made in color. Bernard Herrmann stated, “In using only strings, I felt that I was able to complement the black-and-white photography of the film with a black-and-white sound.”

Joseph Stefano, the film’s screenplay writer, said he had asked Bernard Herrmann what the soundtrack would be like. When Bernard told Joseph that he was only using the string section, Joseph had “never heard of anybody doing a movie score with all strings.” After Stefano saw the finished film with the music, he “realized what he (Herrmann) had done. He had just taken everybody’s guts, and used them for music.”

In the years before “Psycho,” strings were usually reserved for love scenes. The “Psycho” score, with its throbbing and screaming sounds, changed all that forever. The aggressive pluckings and bowing of the strings in this concert perfectly underscored the tension, mystery and emotions of the movie. In fact, when one considers the physical motion of the bow on string, one is reminded of a stabbing motion. A whole stage of bows moving while a giant knife moved toward flesh on the big screen above the orchestra proved to be quite an experience for the audience at Orchestra Hall. The orchestra did a fine job with their string work suggesting the shrieking of birds, the slashing of blades and frenetic action.

Arguably, this score and the one for “Jaws” by John Williams are the most well known and quoted movie soundtracks in history. In fact, John Williams used a motif from the “Psycho” score as an homage in his “Star Wars” soundtrack. According to film editor Paul Hirsch, Williams used a three note motif from Psycho at the point in “Star Wars” where Luke, Han and the others pop up through a hatch after not being discovered by storm troopers who had just searched the Millennium Falcon. Hirsch worked with both composers and he states that Williams and Herrmann were friends and colleagues.

One would think it is safe to assume that someone reading a blog called “Hitchcock and Me” would have some idea about what the film “Psycho” is about. Adam will be reviewing this film soon, but suffice it to state that “Psycho” involves killing going on in a lonely house and motel in the middle of nowhere. Major characters include motel owner Norman Bates, his mother, and Marion Crane.

Sarah Hicks conducted the piece. Surprisingly, Sarah first took to the stage dressed in seemingly nothing more than a towel when she first stepped on the stage. She then dropped the towel to reveal herself dressed as the Marion Crane character (played by Janet Leigh in the movie.) Maestro Hicks spent the first half dressed as Marion in a sleeveless shirt, blonde wig, and pants. After a twenty-minute intermission, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal conductor of pops and presentations came back dressed as Norman Bates’ mother with old lady dress and grey wig.

Sarah had her own flat-screen monitor on which to follow the film in order to synchronize the live string players with the action on the screen. This she and the orchestra achieved extremely well. For a conductor used to slowing down and speeding up an orchestra during a symphony, conducting music for a movie being shown live is a technical challenge. To this listener, Sarah Hicks and the Minnesota Orchestra met and exceeded the technical and the musical challenges inherent in such an undertaking.

Many members of the orchestra also eschewed their normal formal dress to don Halloween costumes including clown suits and psycho killer outfits. Of course, those costumes are not mutually exclusive. A model of the corpse of Norman Bates’ mother sat on a rocking chair in the lobby of Orchestra Hall where fans lined up to take her picture. At least, I assume it was a model . . .

Keating DuGarm (right) with Mike Callies and . . . Mrs. Bates, is that you?

In addition, snacks and beverages including movie fare such as popcorn and candy were sold in the lobby and patrons were encouraged to bring these in to Orchestra Hall. Fans even laughed and gasped throughout the movie at the appropriate points. Patrons crazily crunched and munched on their snacks. This is not normally allowed during normal concerts where silence until the maestro puts down her baton rules the Hall.

The huge screen showing the film above the orchestra on the stage could be seen easily even up in the third balcony where I was. My brother and sister-in-law (Katy and Delano DuGarm) and I subscribe to a series of orchestra performances cheap seats close to these every year. After all, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis was built to have great acoustics no matter where one sits. Normally, going to a symphonic concert is not much of a visual experience. Seeing the string players lit up below the screen from my perch on high reminded me of seeing documentary footage of soundtracks being recorded while a given film was being screened.

Next up for Bernard Herrmann fans in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area will be the staging of his opera “Wuthering Heights” this coming April by the Minnesota Opera company at the Ordway Center in Saint Paul. More details can be found at www.mnopera.org.

Meanwhile, Hitchcock fans in this area can attend the just-started Guthrie Theater production of “The Thirty-nine Steps” which runs October 30 to December 19, 2010 in Minneapolis. More can be found at www.guthrietheater.org.

Sources:

Royal D. Brown, “Herrmann, Hitchcock and the Music of the Irrational,” Cinema Journal, Spring, 1982 p. 35.

“The Making of Psycho” documentary film, 2008

Thanks to Mike Callies for attending the concert with me and making suggestions after reading a rough draft of this piece. Also, Martin Simmons for attending and for taking the picture, above.








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