Saturday 7 March 2015

Psycho Live - Review

Dominion Theatre, London


Screenplay by Joseph Stefano
Based on the novel Psycho by Robert Bloch
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Orchestral score by Bernard Herrmann
Performed live by Cinematic Sinfonia
Conducted by Anthony Gabriele

Janet Leigh takes a shower in Psycho

It’s been a long long time since the opening bars of a movie’s score have made the hairs on the back of my neck prick up. But sat in the Dominion Theatre, as Psycho’s split-text title lines slid across the screen, to listen to Bernard Herrmann’s strings-only orchestration played by the Cinematic Sinfonia orchestra was to truly experience the magic of the movies.

The likes of Netflix and Apple have gone a long way to neuter the majesty of cinema. Imagery that  was once beautifully photographed for the vast expanse of cinemascope is now routinely streamed to our eponymous tiny telephones and tablets and one can fear for a generation currently growing up, who may well consider a trip to a local cinema’s full sized silver screen to be an unnecessary and expensive chore. So whilst this (partly premium-priced) event may well have been one for the fans, it was worth every penny.

Another feature of the evening was in actually seeing and hearing  the film's music played live, giving rise to a strange sense of witnessing the re-creation of what used to be a fundamental component of any movie’s construction. When any original score was recorded, it would have demanded a conductor facing the screen as he conducts his studio orchestra in time with the action – just the scenario that the Dominion audience were privileged to witness for themselves.

It was of course also a treat to re-visit a movie classic and one can forget quite how groundbreaking Psycho's 1960 release was to prove, shaking up many of the movie-industry’s accepted protocols. Intermingling sex with violence and deviancy – even the opening scene of Janet Leigh, bra-clad and in bed with her unmarried lover pushed the envelope of its time. And the dialogue is just so deliciously dated too. When Leigh’s Marion Crane tells Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates, who has just explained to her the gruesome yet mundane details of his interest in taxidermy, that “a man should have a hobby”, a comment so simple and genteel and so firmly fixed in a time gone by.

Shot in black and white by Hitchcock's TV series camera crew rather than a feature film unit, the production budget was a squeeze. In fact, so tight were the movie’s finances that Herrmann, who resolutely refused to cut his own fee, was forced to trim his orchestra to strings only. Has necessity ever been proved to have been the mother (no pun intended) of such ultimately rich invention? Some years back The Observer published its list of the 50 film scores. Psycho was ranked #2 and the paper wrote:

Hitchcock, who had originally planned to play the shower sequence without accompaniment, later admitted that '33 per cent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music', and doubled the composer's salary as a reward. Herrmann studiously matched the black and white visuals of Hitch's masterpiece by draining the 'colour' from his orchestrations, stripping away all but the stringed instruments to create a monochrome wall of aural unease.

And remarkably for a film that was to achieve iconic status, amongst that season’s major gongs Psycho was to only pick up a Golden Globe for Leigh, winning nothing at the Oscars. But as the years have proven and as modern-day horror director Eli Roth recently commented, “..time is the only critic that matters”.

Hitchcock’s assessment of the music’s contribution was sage. So much of the story’s drama, and in particular its opening chapters, homing in on Marion’s anxiety after she has stolen the cash from her boss, play out with an absolutely excruciating intensity. The performance and the photography are first class, but it is Herrmann’s relentlessly jarring strings with their harsh minor-key harmonics, that seal the woman’s anguish into our watching psyches. And for a feature film that was to give the world the slasher-movie, Herrmann’s jagged chords as Crane is stabbed to death in the most famous shower scene ever, only heighten that moment’s timeless terror.

Conductor Gabriele knows both movie and score intimately, with this having been the fourth occasion that time he has brandished his baton in time with Bates’ bread knife. Gabriele is one of London’s finest stage-conductors, adept at seamlessly linking an orchestra to the ebb and flow of a live production. But there is no scope for fluid flexibility in conductiong in time to a movie. The imagery and dialog are fixed in time and it is Gabriele’s responsibility to ensure that his musicians maintain pinpoint co-ordination with the screen. It is a massive task and it is a mark of Gabriele’s consummate skill that he makes it look so effortless – and a credit too to the Cinematic Sinfonica orchestra for delivering such an immaculately rehearsed sound. 

Gabriele has a passion for film and music, telling me post-Psycho of plans (and dreams) to conduct future movie scores by the likes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer, as well as other Herrmann offerings. Personally, I long for Ennio Morricone’s work for The Mission and Once Upon A Time In America to be given the Gabriele treatment. Maybe one day…

Until then, the sheer musical excellence of Psycho Live, wedded to Hitchcock’s masterclass in film-making will stay with me for a long time. And in a further thoughtful touch, possibly barely noticed by many in the audience, how considerate of the Dominion to screen the movie in the run up to Mother’s Day!

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, missing his mother 

To find out about more Cinematic Sinfonia screenings, follow them on Twitter @cinesinfonia

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