24th July 2010: ‘Psycho’ With A Live Orchestra

Psycho (1960)

Music critic Alex Ross noted in a recent New Yorker interview about film composer Michael Giacchino that contemporary audiences were rediscovering old films and classical soundtracks via ‘events’ with live orchestras.

Today original geekgirl Rosie X and I saw the Bates Motel Orchestra – probably the entrepreneurial string section of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on a non-contractual side-gig – perform Bernard Hermann‘s influential score to Alfred Hitchcock‘s psychological thriller Psycho (1960). We were seated in a position to be able to watch both the Orchestra and the film. At its conclusion the theatre lights came on and the Orchestra reprised Hermann’s opening theme to several minutes of sustained applause from the theatre’s audience.

Psycho has far more than just the infamous shower murder stabbing of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) by Bates Motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The Orchestra’s most memorable playing occurred during two early scenes. In the ‘Prelude’ title sequence Marion laments her relationship with paramour Sam Loomis (John Gavin) in a Phoenix motel and then steals $40,000 from rancher Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) and her boss, real estate manager George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor). During the ‘Flight’ sequence Marion escapes and state police (Mort Mills) pursue her in a rainstorm. These scenes – and the Orchestra’s performance – underscore how Hitchcock spends almost a third of Psycho establishing Marion’s character, guilt, and psychological dilemmas.

Marion’s murder abruptly switches Psycho from a bank heist or unconventional romantic melodrama into a film noir with dark psychological undertones. As film critic Robin Wood noted, Marion’s death stunned audiences who had expected her to be the film’s main character and to be redeemed for her early transgression. The subsequent investigation by Sam, Marion’s sister Lila Crane (Vera Miles) and private investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) dominates Psycho’s last third and the Orchestra counterpointed the series of revelations about the Bates Motel, Norman’s psychological past and his mother Norma’s true identity.

In contrast, Sheriff Al Chambers (John McIntire) and Mrs Chambers (Lurene Tuttle) appear to almost collude with Norman Bates in not wanting to confront his dark id. Arbogast senses that something is not right but does not protect himself and is killed on the Bates House stairwell. Sam’s diversion tactic fails as the inquisitive Lila is drawn towards the Bates House cellar. In Psycho‘s epilogue Dr. Fred Richmond (Simon Oakland) provides a clinical, forensic explanation about Norman’s behaviour: he developed a dissociative, split personality with amnesia.

Cinema Studies scholar Geoff Mayer shaped how I first viewed Psycho in an undergraduate class about twelve years ago. Mayer observed that Leigh and Gavin have their feet on the ground during the opening scene’s bedroom talk because of Production Code restrictions about unmarried couples. Despite the confrontational nature of Marion’s shower murder the scene passed the Production Code because of George Tomasini‘s editing and due to Hitchcock’s Catholic morality over Marion’s transgressions. Hitchcock filmed Psycho using his television crew and experimented with rapid takes and other handheld-like techniques.

Psychoanalyst-influenced scholars would intensely study Psycho through Freudian, Lacanian and other frameworks in the mid-to-late 1960s and 1970s. Richmond’s testimony however also be the public’s first introduction to forensic psychiatry and psychological profiling. It is perhaps the forerunner of television dramas dominated by medical examiners and diagnosticians such as Quincy ME and House. Norman Bates’ interest in taxidermy – and Marion’s revealing interview with him about this hobby – also foreshadowed Fabian Bielinsky‘s masterful neo-noir film The Aura (2005) in which a taxidermist survives a bank heist gone wrong because of his epilepsy.

The Bates Motel Orchestra brought an emotional intensity and immediacy to Psycho. Ross is into a powerful trend here: the fusion of mixed media and live elements to reawaken historical media for new, appreciative audiences. I agree with Rosie X‘s suggestion: how about a live performance of Giacchino’s epic score for J.J. Abrams‘  Star Trek ‘reboot’ (2009)?