Few, if any, films have a more memorable score than Hitchcock's Psycho. Now 50 years old, the original slasher movie was screened at Davies Symphony Hall with live accompaniment by the San Francisco Symphony, led by conductor Donato Cabrera last night to a sold-out, extremely enthusiastic and appreciative audience. It's been 30 years or so since I've seen Psycho with an audience, and never with one this large. Being San Francisco, certain lines elicted laughter from the audience where they may not have in other cities, most notably toward the end where someone bluntly states "He's a transvestite" during the "What's the matter with Norman" discussion. When it was all over, the applause was the loudest I've heard in the hall since Martha Argerich was on the stage a couple of seasons ago.

So why the fuss?

No doubt as time passes composer Bernard Herrmann's stature only grows larger. The man who penned the scores for Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Taxi Driver (talk about longevity) may have hit his peak with Hitchcock's critically panned shocker, creating one of the most recognizable motifs in film history, perhaps only surpassed by John Williams' shark motif from Jaws (another horror movie, btw). Certainly the music stands on it own as masterful, but does it merit that kind of response?

Yes, but only because of what it contributes to the film- which, as Jack Sullivan recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, is more than substantial. In fact, many have argued that without Herrmann's score, Psycho would have been a failure.

Then again, there's the film itself- a nasty thing, full of Freudian nooks and crannies, that imprints itself upon the brain like few others. Recalling seeing it for the first time, my mother swore Janet Leigh's blood was red as it flowed down the drain. It wasn't of course, but that's how potent the images (and sound) are. You think you see things in Psycho that aren't really there. Still, is the film itself worth paying a lot more money to see than you would at the Castro during a Hitchcock retrospective? Of course not. It's combination that makes it work.

Being able to see the film on a large screen with a couple of thousand other people while the Symphony performs the score live underneath is a rare opportunity. Few films justify such extravagant treatment and generally they aren't horror movies. Actually, with the exception of Psycho, they're never horror movies unless we're taling about silent classics such as Nosferatu, the original Phantom of the Opera or Caligari and even these are more likely than not to get a live organ accompaniment in a revival house rather than a full orchestra in a concert hall. Orchestras typically save this kind of treatment for The Battleship Potemkin, Modern Times or the "Qatsi" films scored by Philip Glass, or they make a a more calculated commercial move and create programs around Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings, John Williams' Star Wars or the Final Fantasy video games soundtracks.

Psycho doesn't fit either of those categories. Its merit derives from something else. When they are well-executed, horror movies elicit a response from an audience unlike other film genres- they are threatening and yet cathartic. When it's over, we've survived and can walk out of the theater, or the concert hall in this case, leaving our fears behind us in the dark. At least until we have to get in the shower. After fifty years of slasher films which followed in its wake, what's still unique about Psycho is its score, which elevates it to something beyond a genre film. There are few films I consider perfect enough in every aspect to be called a work of art, and I wouldn't consider Psycho to be one of them, but it is a masterful fusion of sound and vision and thus the true legacy of the film's power probably belongs more to Herrmann than to Hitchcock.
Kudos to SFS for putting this on and for the orchestra for doing a magnificent job. In hindsight, considering the audience, this would have been a perfect evening to hold a Davies After Hours event. In any case, given the success of the evening, one can only hope for more programming like this in the future.