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A Cut Above: SLSO celebrates Alfred Hitchcock's masterful "Psycho"

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 27, 2010 - On Oct. 29-30, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (www.stlsymphony.org) commemorates the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" with screenings that feature live performances of Bernard Herrmann's score. I wrote about the film for the SLSO Playbill program that previewed the concerts, but space limitations forced me to take a knife to it. (Hitchcockian pun very much intended.) Here's the unexpurgated version, with cuts restored:

If he were still among us - and he's still very much preserved as a plump mummy in the basement of our collective unconscious - Alfred Hitchcock would likely give a mordant chuckle at the notion of "Psycho," his disreputable, down-market shocker, screening in the grand, high-culture environs of Powell Symphony Hall. Not that Hitchcock was uncomfortable with the concert hall - one of the director's most memorably gripping set-pieces, in the 1956 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," actually unfolds in London's Royal Albert Hall.

And films are certainly appropriate fare in Powell, which began its life in 1925 as a movie palace, the St. Louis Theatre, and is thus equally amenable to cinema and symphonies. In that sense, "Psycho" and SLSO's two other filmic offerings this season - Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" on Dec. 29-30 and "The Fellowship of the Ring" on April 1-3 - are entirely in keeping with the building's legacy.

When it was released in 1960, however, "Psycho" was clearly not intended for tony road-show venues like the St. Louis, which specialized in exclusive, reserved-seat runs of Hollywood's glossiest, most expensively mounted spectacles. "Psycho" was the antithesis of those extravaganzas: a low-budget, black-and-white horror film shot by an efficient but largely anonymous crew from Hitchcock's TV show.

For Hitchcock, "Psycho" represented a deliberate break from the plush, star-driven productions that immediately preceded the film ("Vertigo" with James Stewart in 1958, "North by Northwest" with Cary Grant in 1959). Hitchcock, of course, was infamous for once claiming that "actors are cattle" (he later humorously amended the quote, averring that he merely said "actors should be treated like cattle"). By dispatching Janet Leigh, its top-billed star, a third of the way through the film, "Psycho" can thus be read - albeit on its most superficial level - as Hitchcock's perverse revenge on all those pesky thespians who insisted on sullying the perfect movie he'd already finished in his mind before shooting.

Both a reflection of changing societal mores and a response to Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Les Diaboliques" (1955) - an envelope-pushing, jump-inducing French thriller that many critics heretically declared superior to the work of the Master of the Suspense - "Psycho" was also designed as a less genteel, more graphic film than Hitchcock's previous work.

The director had always taken delight in tweaking the censor's blue nose - the seemingly endless clinch and kiss of "Notorious," the train-in-the-tunnel visual double entendre of "North by Northwest's" conclusion - but "Psycho" is Hitchcock's most outrageous provocation, a viciously potent cocktail of illicit sex, semi-nudity, voyeurism, bloodletting and cross-dressing. And perhaps most transgressive of all: a clearly visible (and audible) toilet, a then-unheard-of affront to moviegoers' allegedly delicate sensibilities.

None of which should be interpreted as criticism; for however modest its means and original ambitions, "Psycho's" accomplishments are vast. The last of Hitchcock's masterworks - though some will champion "The Birds" or spiritual kin "Frenzy" - "Psycho" approaches perfection. Although flawed by an unnecessary and overlong summation scene - in which a psychiatrist tediously explicates the obvious - and diminished in impact by the pallid, exploitative imitators that followed, "Psycho" still manages to shock, provoke and entertain with its mixture of pitch-black comedy and agonizing suspense.

The film's best known for its bold, entirely unprecedented narrative reversal and the dazzlingly edited shower sequence on which it pivots, but even if you know all of its surprises, "Psycho" holds your interest in a viselike grip with careful foreshadowing (a showerhead glimpsed through a doorway, windshield wipers tracing the same arc as the killer's knife), brilliant use of the subjective camera (especially during Lila's terrifying exploration of the Bates' gothic home), and fine performances by Leigh, Martin Balsam, Vera Miles and, of course, Anthony Perkins as the bizarrely sympathetic Norman.

For all of its deviations from the filmmaker's usual patterns, "Psycho" is also quintessentially Hitchcockian, featuring such signature elements as staircases, knives, blond heroines, oddly attractive villains, serial killers and dominant mothers. From a larger thematic perspective, the persistent influence of the dead on the living - their seemingly palpable presence - was explored by Hitchcock not just in "Psycho" but also in "Rebecca" and, most devastatingly, in "Vertigo."

"Psycho's" connection to the rest of Hitchcock's oeuvre is further tightened by his decision to rely on trusted collaborators rather than inexpensive substitutes in a few key roles. Among the most important was Saul Bass, who designed the striking titles of "Vertigo" and "North by Northwest." Bass produced similarly evocative work in "Psycho," and he was additionally retained as an ambiguously defined "visual consultant." (Over the years, Bass has actually laid claim to the shower sequence, but though his detailed storyboards undeniably provided a precise map, Hitchcock was sitting solo at the directorial steering wheel when bringing the scenes home.)

But the reason SLSO is celebrating "Psycho's" 50th anniversary isn't Bass or even Hitchcock: It's composer Bernard Herrmann, who contributed the most indelible aspect of the film's overall design with his insistent screeching-violins score.

Herrmann began his film-composing career auspiciously, contributing the score to what most consider the greatest film ever made, "Citizen Kane" (1941) and winning his only Academy Award(R) the same year for "The Devil and Daniel Webster." He ended on a similar high note in 1976, with the lush orchestral score to Brian De Palma's "Obsession" and the moodily evocative jazz horns and martial drums of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver."

Although at times a contentious, difficult artist, Herrmann established a close working relationship with Hitchcock that extended over eight films, only ending when Hitchcock rejected Herrmann's score for "Torn Curtain" at the studio's behest. The composer's work on "Vertigo" - so essential to establishing the narcotizing, dream-like mood of the film - is arguably his finest work for Hitchcock, but the "Psycho" score is no doubt his most famous.

Herrmann claimed that "Psycho" was the first film score to rely exclusively on strings, and he wrote in the liner notes to the London Philharmonic Orchestra's recording of the music: "I felt that I was able to complement the black and white photography of the film with a black and white sound." Few would dispute its stark, chilling effectiveness.

Regrettably, the groundbreaking nature of Herrmann's score was not recognized at the time, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failing even to nominate the composer for an Oscar. A rueful Herrmann wrote to Hitchcock: "Composing music for films (and television) is in many ways a very unrewarding artistic endeavor. So often one's efforts are scarcely even noticed, not because the music is unworthy, nor that the picture may be more or less successful, but because it is frequently just taken for granted."

Fifty years later, Herrmann finally receives his rightful due with SLSO's live performances of his still-innovative, ever-astonishing score for "Psycho."

For more on "Psycho," consult Stephen Rebello's essential "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho,'" Raymond Durgnat's "A Long Hard Look at 'Psycho,'" and David Thomson's recent "The Moment of 'Psycho.'"

Cliff Froehlich is executive director of Cinema St. Louis.