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Halloween, Hollywood, Hitchcock & Herrmann Get the LA Opera Treatment

Ed Rampell: Seeing/hearing Psycho this way during LA Opera’s Off Grand annual live “Symphonic Night at the Movies” during Halloween greatly enhanced the motion picture experience.
Psycho

Conductor Louis Lohraseb leading the LA Opera Orchestra ensemble.(Photo Credit: Lawrence K. Ho)

PSYCHO LIVE Film/Opera Review

Let me just start by clarifying that this review of Psycho should not be confused with a biopic somebody’s bound to make about Trump called Psychopath. Rather, this is a review of an exceptional Halloween screening of the 1960 classic movie Psycho directed by Alfred Hitchcock, accompanied by LA Opera Orchestra performing composer Bernard Herrmann’s eerie, sometimes screeching score.

Psycho is widely considered to be a movie masterpiece, largely because of its striking visuals organically linked to Herrmann’s music which brilliantly (and terrifyingly!) expresses the story of psychotic mama’s boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) running amok at a moody motel and California Gothic house of horrors (which you can actually see at the Universal Studios tour). According to LA Opera’s publicist Vanessa Flores Waite, the Orchestra (which has up to 61 core members) performed Herrmann’s chilling score live as a “special version of the film that doesn’t include the soundtrack” was projected onto the screen above the dimly lit stage of the Theatre at Ace Hotel where Louis Lohraseb conducted his “macabre” musicians.

Seeing/hearingPsycho this way during LA Opera’s Off Grand annual live “Symphonic Night at the Movies” during Halloween greatly enhanced the motion picture experience.

Seeing/hearing Psycho this way during LA Opera’s Off Grand annual live “Symphonic Night at the Movies” during Halloween greatly enhanced the motion picture experience. LA Opera Orchestra’s rendering of its scintillating score heightened the movie-going ambiance, especially since Herrmann is one of the greatest composers ever in terms of dedicating himself to writing music mainly for the cinematic medium. Herrmann scored an Oscar for 1941’s All That Money Can Buy and was nominated the same year for Orson Welles’ piece de resistance Citizen Kane. Herrmann received three more Academy Award noms, including another doubleheader for 1976’s Hitch-like Obsession directed by Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. He composed at least seven Hitchcock movies, including 1956’s Vertigo and 1959’s North by Northwest, as well as episodes of the Master of Suspense’s TV series.

The versatile, prolific Herrmann also created music for various genres, including 1951’s sci fi epic The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1961’s Jules Verne adaptation of Mysterious Island, 1962’s Cape Fear, 1963’s version of Greek mythology’s Jason and the Argonauts and Francois Truffaut’s 1968 Hitch knockoff The Bride Wore Black. (The French director, who was also a great film critic, did a landmark book of interviews dissecting Hitch’s movies entitled Hitchcock/Truffaut, which Kent Jones turned into a 2015 documentary that could serve as a filmmaker’s primer.)

The Hitchcock-Herrmann collaboration is among the silver screen’s greatest pairings of a director and composer, perhaps only matched by Sergei Eisenstein’s teaming up with Sergei Prokofiev, co-creating frame-by-frame, note-by-note 1938’s Alexander Nevsky, as well as 1944’s Ivan the Terrible. Like Hitch, Eisenstein was a maestro of montage, and Nevsky’s famed battle on the ice is comparable to Psycho’s shower scene. (Some cineastes may also compare the Hitch-Herrmann partnership to that of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone’s sixties Spaghetti Westerns.)

Given all this watching/hearing Psycho with a live orchestral accompaniment can deepen one’s appreciation and change the perception of this suspense classic. Although all of the dialogue and sound effects were audible with the special print screened at the Ace, I nevertheless had the sense of watching a film from the silent era, when before the invention of synchronized sound movies were often accompanied by live music - whether performed by a sole pianist, organ play or for an epic adventure such as a Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckler, a full orchestra. This sense was amplified by being screened at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, which originally was the 1927 ornate, 1,600-seat movie palace the United Artists Theater, established by Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

Strangely, LA Opera Orchestra’s playing of Herrmann’s score, which is very heavy on the strings and I believe minus woodwinds, placed renewed emphasis on Hitchcock’s eye-popping visuals. The black and white film has a low budget indie sensibility. The casting of 33-year-old Janet Leigh instead of a 20-something as Marion Crane - a woman desperate to marry her entangled lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) as her proverbial biological clock ticks - was clever. Showing the well-endowed Leigh in a bra during the opening hotel room shots was daring for 1960 and helped set the scene of thwarted love and sex. Listen closely as Marion moans about “your time being up” - truer words have rarely been spoken onscreen. Poor Marion is driven to a desperate act that leads to her horrific doom.

Psycho
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Hitchcock’s Freudian symbolism is unmistakable - the famous shower scene has a huge close up of a drain with swirling water, and is then followed by a similar close up of the drain in the bathroom sink as Norman cleans up “Mother’s” mess. Hitch’s Freudian visual vaginal reference is stark and I couldn’t help but wonder if the close up of the license plate of Marion’s vehicle with the letters “ANL” was the old master’s sly reference to “Anal”??? Inquiring minds want to know.

During the early Phoenix sequence, look for Hitch wearing a cowboy hat in one of those beloved cameo appearances he frequented his films with. When viewers get past Psycho’s initial shock value, the discerning eye may find a very black comedy full of dark humor and gallows humor. (Alfred must have been a barrel of monkeys around the house and at cocktail parties!)

In retrospect, the most disturbing shot in Psycho isn’t the shower sequence but at the very end as the car of one of Norman’s victims is hauled up out of the swamp where he had sunk his prey’s autos. Only four years later this scene was re-enacted in real life, when the vehicle bearing the Civil Rights workers Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney was pulled up out of a Mississippi swamp. Like poor, poor Marion Crane, the three young men were butchered by American madmen. Viciously murdered for the crime of registering Blacks to vote, killed by psycho Klansmen - you know, the type of people another psychopath would today call “very fine people.” In a strange way, Psycho can be seen as a sort of motion picture prophecy of that American psychosis of racism.

Childhood chums from New York's Forest Park Co-Op, Skip Sussman as Fred Flintstone and author Ed Rampell as a Polynesian, at the "Psycho" red carpet during the post-screening Halloween party in the lobby of the Theatre at the Ace Hotel. (Photo Credit: Norman Bates)

Childhood chums from New York's Forest Park Co-Op, Skip Sussman as Fred Flintstone and author Ed Rampell as a Polynesian, at the "Psycho" red carpet during the post-screening Halloween party in the lobby of the Theatre at the Ace Hotel. (Photo Credit: Norman Bates)

Be that as it may, the final night of LA Opera Off Grand’s screening of Hitchcock’s bloodcurdling masterpiece took place on Halloween, and after the movie a costume party took place in the lobby of the Ace’s Spanish Gothic-style theater. Many Trick or Treaters came dressed up - there were devils, a Popeye and Olive Oyl, at least two males dressed as Mrs. Bates, etc. But my favorites were a woman dressed as Psycho’s bloodstained shower curtain and my childhood pal Skip Sussman, who wore a hilarious Fred Flintstone costume, complete with wig and gigantic faux feet. He went from Hitch and Herrmann to Hanna-Barbera. When Skip-cum-Flintstone parked his car at the Ace the witty valet asked him if there was “a hole in the bottom of his car?” Funnily enough, the costume Skip ordered especially for the event came from Rubie’s, a store in Richmond Hill, Queens near where we both grew up.

A great Halloween night was had by all at “Psycho Live” and it was enough to make us shout: “Yabba Dabba Doo!”

LA Opera returns to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a cinematic version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute Nov. 16-Dec. 15. For info see: https://www.laopera.org/performances/201920-season/the-magic-flute/.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer/film historian Ed Rampellco-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.