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Saturday, 14 November 2015

They moved away the highway : Hitchcock and Herrmann in Psycho (1960) (work in progress)

This reviews Psycho (1960), with live score from Britten Sinfonia at Saffron Hall

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
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13 November




This work in progress is a review of a film, with its score played live, at Saffron Hall (Saffron Walden, Essex) : Psycho (1960), performed by Britten Sinfonia, under the baton of Anthony Gabriele, on Saturday 10 October 2015






To be truthful, Psycho (1960) had not seemed Saffron Hall’s (@SaffronHallSW’s) ideal choice for World Mental Health Day (#WMHD = 10 October) – even if a colleague, in mental health, thought it a hoot (rather than a dire mistake that was likely to give rise to great offence)…

In the event, and in crucial respects (to be explored further below), Psycho was not the film that one remembered – as many a film may prove to be, when watched again… ? What the sum of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, Joseph Stefano’s screenplay, and Robert Bloch’s original novel did and does is much more nuanced than a merely reductive recollection wanted to say – all of those things make the film far more about culpability / criminal responsibility than about a stereotypically negative view of people in states of mental ill-health. (Does Hitchcock feel much nearer to what he believes in, about the mind, with Marnie’s (Tippi Hedren’s) motivations, and with her being mistrusted and misinterpreted by Mark (Sean Connery), in Marnie (1964) ?)


This part is intended to be non-spoilery*

Seeing a film after more than thirty years, but having seen clips from it at Cambridge Film Festival (@Camfilmfest) in 2011, when Neil Brand (@NeilKBrand) presented his illustrated talk Knowing the Score, about Bernard Herrmann and his film-scores, one was surprised both by how much, and how little, was recalled :

As well as the major crime, and what happened in the Bates house towards the end, one recollected well the apparent dénouement, the lengthy exposition by an expert (or an imagined one ?*) just before the closing sequence of shots. However, maybe its significance - in relation to those same shots - had been missed, at the time, or overlooked by more vividly remembering an explanation for what Norman Bates did, and who he was, that seemed tenuous… ?

Indeed, it is tenuous, but in fact that is rather the point of it, and why we might be interested in what follows it in the film. Looking at Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho (first published in 1959**) confirms that he intended something loose and artificial about understanding Bates in that way, because Bates’ view of himself, and how others will see him, from the start pervades how it has been written (which leads up to Chapter Seventeen, the three-page conclusion to the work that the film parallels) : the exact level of Bates' self-awareness (which we might gloss as ‘insight’) may be uncertain, but that of his self-reflexiveness is not.


The film with its score played live

Psycho (1960) is introduced by music that serves as an overture (over the title-sequence), and which is not only full of swirling motifs (which are suggestive of the hesitation and guilt that are to wrack Marion in the opening part of the film [one notes that, in the novel, she is not Marion, but Mary]), but also presents the pattern of strokes that we are to hear later, when she showers. In this way, Herrmann is (as is so often his way – which is, of course, not to suggest that is not also that of Hitchcock) aurally preparing us for what is to come, just as does the inspired, but frenzied, title-sequence (we may remember the energy of that of Vertigo (1958)).

Just being aware throughout of Britten Sinfonia’s (@BrittenSinfonia’s) skilled string-players, arrayed below the screen, we could already sense Herrmann’s work of composition far more immediately than through any sound-system (although the soundtrack, with the music-tracks stripped out, continued to be heard through the speakers). The ensemble normally has a leader (or director), rather than a conductor, but being under the very experienced baton of Anthony Gabriele (@MaestroGabriele) was needful : having the instrumentalists and him before us really heightened our appreciation of how the film had been scored, both when they were playing, or, by being in waiting, thereby making us aware of how Hitchcock and Herrmann (the man, par excellence, of beautifully disconnecting harmonic progressions) had let silence speak. (One important unscored moment is when Marion has been forced to rest – please see below.)


It is a story which begins, at least, with immense specificity (as a crime-story might ?) : we have panned, and homed in on that building in Phoenix, Arizona, and that very room within it – a precise, named Friday (Friday, December the Eleventh - the year will come later), and even the time in the afternoon within it (Two Forty-Three p.m.). (Perhaps Hitchcock, too, when we are still in the mood for expecting when and where he will make an appearance himself, prepares us for Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates : just in one shot, at the window of the hotel-room, does he momentarily give us a premonition of Perkins ?)

From Marion Crane’s conversation with her lover Sam (John Gavin), who will be flying back out of her life soon, we judge that (whatever the passion that they have just indulged) they are in an affair that does not seem to be going anywhere : the nearest suggestion (itself prescient ?) that we have that he will ever really be with her is when, referring to the question of alimony, he suggestively says I’ll lick the stamps. (Despite the tawdriness of having to be together in this room, they are dogged by the question of what is respectable - which really means ‘affordable’, because he cannot see any way to afford to leave his wife for Marion.)

Dogmatically, if not purely fatalistically, these establishing sequences of the film have Marion saying that one cannot buy off unhappiness with pills (and we also hear views about what happens When your time is up). All very relevant to society's life since influential books such as Prozac Nation (published by 1995), and yet with increasing numbers of prescriptions of such so-called anti-depressants, for patients expecting to escape ‘unhappiness’. When we meet the client of Lowery Real Estate, the dandy with the boot-lace tie and so significant for the plot, he even declares Unhappiness ? I buy it off ! (whose, one might ask ?) : already, Psycho (1960) has so much to say, for 2015, that we may have overlooked before…


We need to pass over the flirting at Lowery Real Estate, and its connection with power and money (though it is relevant to how Norman perceives / chooses to perceive [the character of] Marion Crane - not least as an ornithological taxidermist). In showing the temptation, and the distinct tease, of the cash in the envelope, which sits on the bed where Marion lives (as if it were a person or a lover : Sam, but suddenly become ‘affordable' ?), Hitchcock – excusably, because inexplicitly ? – plays with us just as much with her, as he also does with and through Alice in Blackmail (1929), and the question whether, if we could, we would try to distance ourselves from the scene of a crime…

What turns out to be Marion’s crime is one thing, and that of Norman Bates another (quite other), but Hitchcock involves us, and engages us, with what possibly connects them. For he keeps unravelling the skein of guilt, but keeps something back – because somehow one is reminded of Macbeth, and Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, in a film where Sleep has a role to play. An idyll of just silence comes when Marion has had to pull over to rest – and, when she awakes to find that she has succumbed to sleep, everything is suddenly tense, because she also finds a traffic-cop looking in at her : he is in intense close-up, and with his expression impenetrably uncertain behind large, dark shades.


This moment, too, serves to set up eventually meeting Perkins, and how he interacts with Marion as Norman, and to inform their conversation both when she is first at the motel, and then in Norman’s parlour, as typified by this exchange :

Traffic-cop : May I see your license ?

Marion : Why ?

Traffic-cop : Please...


Before this moment, arguably the most prominent visual – though much else may have distracted our conscious attention from it – has been Janet Leigh’s (Marion’s) very alert and wide eyes in the car***, intensified by her lashes as we watch her drive. This was in the montage when, over and over, she imagines what has been happening since she left town, which we hear in the intensity of the score, and as voices that are talking about her : an embodiment of a guilty conscience, for her and for us. Almost inverting how, in life lived outside the construct of a film, trying to sleep may be a time when memory crowds in and prevents it from happening (we can find ourselves tired, but not sleepy ?), Hitchcock gives us Marion, needing to press on in the dark, but dispirited and discouraged by these night-time thoughts, which sap her energy and resolve – that is a representation of depression and its exhausting effects (apt for #WMHD2015).


Far, far more could be said about the unfolding of this day on screen, with Marion’s seeking to escape the attentions of the cop (and, thus, her guilt personified), and finally arriving where she does, 15 miles from Fairvale : in all this, Herrmann’s score is naggingly there, with worrying how will what she did with the car help, and how much is she torn – by driving on, and by the darkness and the rain – as to whether she can do, or wants to do, what she is attempting. (In fact, is stopping at Bates Motel just fatigue again, or is it partly that she might plan to contact Sam and ask him here… because she does say to Norman about going into town to eat ?)

Having arrived here, though, there was delicacy now brought out in the Sinfonia’s playing, and also a depth of intonation and feeling : unlike those first audiences of Psycho, probably we know where this is going to unfold towards, but that is not important to watching Hitchcock, because following the craftsmanship in how he takes us there is part of the journey, and the mood of the music is tender, as Marion is shown to her room.



More to come...


End-notes

* In a section to come (which may end up as a separate posting on Unofficial Cambridge Film Festival), quotation will be made from Robert Bloch's novel Psycho**.

** First published in Great Britain in 1960 (Robert Hale Limited, London).

*** They will remind us of Perkins' eyes, right at the end of the film, as well as of when we last see Marion...




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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