Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Psycho (1960)

WHO: Bernard Herrmann wrote the music for this.

WHAT: When Alfred Hitchcock first planned out his ideas for Psycho he imagined no music at all accompany the now-famous "shower scene". But at that time Herrmann's stock with Hitchcock was such that he was allowed to persuade the director to let him score that scene with what has now become one of the all-time iconic music moments in movie history. Just hearing one note (maybe two) of Herrmann's dissonant strings is all it takes to evoke the shock and dread of this scene for anyone who has seen the film- and many who haven't. The rest of Herrmann's score, written only for a string ensemble, is brilliant as well. For more on Hitchcock & Herrmann's approach to music and sound in Psycho read this article at

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight at Davies Symphony Hall at 8:00, and at the Vine Cinema & Alehouse in Livermore at 7PM on November 7th.

WHY: Last month I attended a concert at Davies Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, in which the Symphony performed famous musical excerpts from Jaws, Star Wars, Schindler's List and other movies made during my lifetime, with their composer John Williams behind the conductor's podium. Steven Spielberg was on hand to discuss his career-long collaboration with Williams and give a cursory introduction to how music makes its mark on motion pictures. 

Most of the pieces were played without any visual accompaniment outside of the spectacle of seeing a celebrity conductor and a world-class orchestra in action, or whatever images from the films or other associations might dance in our minds' eyes. But for a few of the pieces a screen hung above the orchestra, allowing us to look at clips from Close Encounters of the Third Kind while a suite of music from the film played, or clips from a wide variety of swashbuckling adventure films from throughout cinema history while a rousing piece from Spielberg's animated The Adventures of Tintin was performed by the orchestra.

But the most unique surprise of the evening, for me, was a side-by-side comparison of one continuity-intact sequence from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade screened twice in a row. If you know the film, it was a version of the "circus train" sequence that had been specially prepared so that sound effects and dialogue were audible but the originally recorded music score had been digitally "scrubbed" out somehow. For the second viewing of the scene, the orchestra performed the music live, occasionally coming close to drowning out an individual line of dialogue or sound effect, but gloriously conveying a sense of rollicking adventure and excitement. 

If the intent was to show how 'flat' a Spielberg action scene is in the absence of his composer's contribution, it didn't have that impact on me. Williams is a terrific film composer, don't get me wrong. But I found the scene no less gripping, and indeed found more gravitas to its evocation of urgency and physicality, when stripped of its underscore. Whether or not such gravitas is appropriate for an early sequence in an Indiana Jones film is certainly debatable. I've probably seen too many Jean-Pierre Melville films to have a sensible answer, but I did very much enjoy this enhanced peek into the moviemaking process.

I'd seen entire films screened at Davies Hall before, both with the San Francisco Symphony performing (as with The Gold Rush in 2010) and with an outside group using the space (Philip Glass presenting Powaqqatsi in 2006) but these are, music aside, completely silent films. I was aware of the fact that the Symphony had in recent years performed live alongside screenings of sound-era films such as Psycho, Casablanca, and The Matrix, but last month was the first I'd gotten to see the technology in action, and was curious to learn more. Knowing there were four days of Alfred Hitchcock screenings coming up starting with tonight's reprise of Psycho and continuing with Friday night's premiere presentation of the "score-scrubbed" Vertigo with live symphonic accompaniment, I decided to inquire with the symphony about the series. Here's what SF Symphony Director of Artistic Planning John Magnum had to say about the year-long series this week launches at Davies.
We’ve been doing films as part of our Summer and the Symphony concerts for a few years now, and we’ve had a terrific audience response to them. We heard from our audience that there was an appetite for more of these projects throughout the year, and so we thought we’d pilot a four-concert series in 2013-14. To launch the series, we put together a week of performances around the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and the starting point for that was actually the world premiere of Vertigo in concert, which seemed perfect for San Francisco. 
We have a list of films that we know are out there, available for performance with orchestra. We also have some ideas of other films and projects that we’d be interested in producing. We want to have a balance between full-length films, and mixed programs with highlights from various movies – it’s half and half this season, and we’ll probably have about that mix going forward. And of course the basic criteria is that the film is known for having a great score – Bernard Hermann in the case of Vertigo and Psycho, great classical pieces for Fantasia, and so on.
There are a few producers working with the studios to create the projects, which we then license from the producer for live concert performance. In a couple of cases, we have worked directly with the studios or a creator’s estate, which basically accomplishes the same thing. This is an area that other orchestras are interested in as well – Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, for example, as well as some of the European orchestras and presenters – so there are new projects in the pipeline for future seasons, too.  
The Symphony's Hitchcock week has been recently profiled by Thomas Gladysz, The Saturday "Hitchcock! Greatest Hits" program focuses especially on Dimitri Tiomkin's music for Strangers on a Train and Dial 'M' For Murder, as well as Herrmann's for North By Northwest (including the main title, the drunk driving scene, and the Mount Rushmore finale.) It's filled out by two scenes piece from Vertigo and To Catch a Thief (music by Lyn Murray), and of course Charles-Francois Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette, which became synonymous with the Master of Suspense from its use in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series.

Unlike the Symphony's silent film presentations (such as that of Hitchcock's The Lodger tomorrow night), these programs are not ideal for purists or for newbies, but for fans of a film interested in experiencing it in part or in full again on a large screen in a unique way: with live musical accompaniment from a terrific ensemble, If you can't make it to the Hitchcock series, the Symphony will screen Singin' in the Rain with live music December 6th and 7th.

HOW: Tonight's digital presentation of Psycho at Davies Hall. will be a version with the original music recording "scrubbed" off the soundtrack while sound effects and dialogue remain. Herrmann's score will instead be performed by the San Francisco Symphony with Joshua Gersen conducting. The Vine Cinema screening will be the original 1960 version, sourced from a Blu-Ray.


  1. Brian: "Not ideal for purists" is being kind to what I see as a practice second only to that of publicly showing work shot on film via DCP as an abomination. The SF Symphony may be bringing in wads of money but is degrading its reputation in the process. A prescient piece on the phenomenon of tinkering with a movie's original sound and music is Rosenbaum's 1992 Chicago Reader "Othello Goes Hollywood,"reprinted in his 2007 book Discovering Orson Welles. A chief offender in this regard is Philip Glass who has done as much harm to several scores as Ted Turner once did by colorizing black and white.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Larry! Since I still haven't seen any of these presentations of full movies, I'm withholding final judgment on them, but I see them as concerts first and foremost. Reading Rosenbaum's article has in fact caused me to wait to see Othello (one of my last unseen Welles features along with Filming Othello) until I can get a chance to see its original version. One day I may have to give up. I know the Symphony has been holding events along these lines for a long time- do you feel the same about their past presentations of Alexander Nevsky with full orchestra and chorus performing Prokofiev's score live?

    To me these events (and even colorizations) can only do damage to an original version of a film when they (like Othello) are used as an excuse to make the originals unavailable. Psycho recently screened in 35mm at the Castro, so this doesn't seem to be the case here.

  3. Hi Brian, thanks for writing this! I kind of had the opposite feeling as the comment above, I was wondering a little more why this would not be ideal for purists or newbies? (I’ll read Rosenbaum’s article)

    I went to see Vertigo on Friday and thought it was wonderful. The screen of course wasn't as large as a theater like the Castro, but since the symphony played the same music as it is in the original film, I didn't see it as remotely damaging? Maybe I'm biased because I love the symphony on it's own, but hearing Hermann's score live with that kind of richness only enhanced the film for me. I also found it never interfered with the dialogue/sound effects, at least from where I was sitting. There was somewhat of a collective sigh when the film started and the opening sequence began. It was amazing to be able to hear such a great score live, I don’t know how it could be degrading to the symphony :(. I saw Vertigo when the restoration was shown last year at the Castro, and I think I got just as much or more out of it at symphony hall. I didn’t think that hearing the score live changed the meaning of the film, which I would understand purists complaining about.

    I also went to the pre-concert talk. One thing that surprised me was how many hands went up when the speaker asked if anyone hadn't seen the film before. There were quite a lot! The audience ranged from those people who had never seen it, to the woman who dressed up as Kim Novak in her gray suit. Another thing that was mentioned was how Hermann wasn’t that pleased with the recording due to the difficulties of actually getting it all recorded. Hollywood musicians went on strike, so they moved to England where they went on strike there also, so then they had to move to Vienna to finish the recording. If I remember correctly Hermann wasn’t even there for some/most of it. Something else that possibly made this particular film a good candidate for this kind of viewing is how Hitchcock didn’t often have too much music during major dialogue scenes. As the speaker noted, Hitchcock would plan to get all the dialogue done in one scene, and then proceed to have long sequences with no dialogue and just music (Scottie following Madeleine around, etc.).

    On my way out of the building, I eavesdropped on the already beginning “refrigerator talk” from the people around me. Lots of people questioning events in the film or expressing how much they enjoyed it. I’ve probably written too much here…just wanted to share my experience :) Symphony or not, there’s certainly no better place to watch Vertigo than San Francisco.

  4. Brian and Jessie: I'm glad this has stimulated an interesting discussion, Re Othello: It's too bad Brian you still haven't seen, I think it's the best of Welles' completed Shakespeares. It used to play regularly, in 16mm, as part of the University of Colorado at Boulder's annual summer Shakespeare festival, which is where I first saw it in the 1960s. A friend and I are on the trail of the laserdisc, which'has the unaltered track, we foolishly didn't buy it when it was issued.
    Re the SF Symphony and others' earlier live showings of Nevsky I think this is just as bad and agree with another critic I've been
    leafing through, Gilbert Adair. In his 1995 book Flickers he called the detaching of Prokofiev''s score from the track "outlandish."