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.
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.