Monday, June 25, 2012

Psycho Excess Leftovers [Updated]

Tonight I'll be giving my lecture on audience involvement and suspense technique in Psycho (1960). However, as usual I have aggregated far more information than I could possibly fit into half an hour. And since my lecture serves as an introduction to the screening of the full-length film, I'm careful not to reveal any twists and surprises.
So some of my excess research is turning up in this "compilation" post which also serves as a companion piece to my lecture and should not be read before seeing Psycho for the first time since it contains SPOILERS.

The Madhouse Motif
Personally I was most interested in Bernard Herrmann's experimental score, a piece of music I have known and liked for at least 16 years. It probably helped making me aware of modernist composing techniques in the same way as Stravinsky's "Rite of the Spring" to which I was introduced through Fantasia (1940).

So while I almost know the cues by heart by now, and I was delighted to discover the so called "madhouse" motif in Herrmann's Taxi Driver score last year. This connection has now spawned a whole branch of clips that even involve Star Wars and revolve around Benny Herrmann's Hitchcock scores.

Psycho's madhouse motif consists of two "unhummable" interval leaps - a seventh up followed by a ninth down. According to his biographer Steven C. Smith "it was one of the composer's favorite signatures for madness and desolation", two themes that were frequently on Herrmann's mind. It first surfaced in 1935, then in his "Moby Dick Cantata" and after that in the above mentioned films.

In Psycho's most memorable dialogue scene, Herrmann introduces the madhouse motif exactly when Anthony Perkins says "madhouse". From then on, Herrmann develops into an unsettling fugue that "echoes the third movement of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, a piece alluded to in Bloch's novel" (Smith).

Even in classically invisible dialogue scoring Herrmann does not revert to simple musical expressions like "happy" or "sad" which would keep the audiences grounded.

And here are the two madhouse-moments in Taxi Driver (1976) which deliberately ends on the motif since Benny Herrmann and Scorsese wanted to tell the audience that Travis Bickle will be doing it again. In the first clip the motif is used only seconds before Bickle is committing his first murder.

And then a year later, practically out of the blue, the madhouse-motif turns up in John Williams late-romantic Star Wars (1977)! Since it absolutely makes no sense thematically where did this "homage" come from?

Well, Paul Hirsch was the editor on Brian DePalma's two Hitchcock themed films that Herrmann scored and thus personally got to know Benny. When they were putting together the temp track for Star Wars originally consisting of late-romantic classical music, there was a scene that seemed not to work with any of the Holst or Dvorak pieces. So Hirsch suggested using Herrmann's madhouse motif instead.

John Williams reportedly liked the idea and incorporated it into his score as you can hear here:

I've taken this scene from the Special Edition DVD and accidentally stumbled over one of George Lucas' improvements of the original trilogy. Isn't it convenient that we now don't have to trust the images since he has added dialogue to the mute stormtroopers searching the Millenium Falcon? Have we really become so stupid since 1977 that we now need to have voice-over telling us what we see?

Anyway, back to Star Wars: Originally John Williams was hired to re-arrange Holst's "The Planets" to match Lucas' space saga. While Spielberg and Williams convinced Lucas to use original music instead, Williams incorporated certain characteristics of Holst's Suite into his orchestration. This is most obvious right at the beginning in the cue called "rebel blockade runner" (essentially the introduction of the "Rebel Fanfare") on the 1997 soundtrack re-issue:

Since Benny Herrmann was also heavily into turn of the century English composers, his interest in Holst is not surprising. In the words of Steven C. Smith: "That Herrmann wished to record Gustav Holst's The Planets is not surprising; it was perhaps the single work to which Herrmann was most indebted as a composer."

To finally come full circle to Hitchcock, here is a comparison of the opening bars of "The Planets'" sixth movement "Uranus" followed by the opening bars of Herrmann's The Trouble with Harry (later retitled "A Portrait of Hitch"): 

Geometric Production Design
Another observation that didn't make it into my lecture simply because it had nothing to do with suspense technique or music was the visual theme of horizontal and vertical lines throughout the film.

Many critics have pointed out the contrast between the horizontal motel and the vertical house which seems to be adopted in Saul Bass' title sequence. In my opinion however, these contrasts structure the film right from the beginning in Phoenix and especially in the hotel room scene with Marion and Sam.

Saul Bass' geometrical metal bar animation...

...dissolving into the city of Phoenix itself full of horizontal and vertical lines.

The initial love scene in the first hotel room: all vertical.

Arbogast finally enters the Bates manor: all horizontal.

Norman looks at the mess mother has created in the place where horizontal and vertical lines finally met.

Further Viewing
Finally a list of films to see after Psycho:
  • obviously Vertigo (1958) because there are so many thematic and musical elements that point towards and paved the way for Psycho, certainly the most symbiotic collaboration between Hitchcock and Herrmann.
  • The Birds (1963) because it takes the "dominant mother / bird" theme into a totally different direction. Whereas Psycho only had extradiegetic music, The Birds features only diegetic music with Herrmann coordinating the electronic bird noises.
  • Spellbound (1945) because more than Vertigo this is the mother of all movies about transfer of guilt.
  • The Wrong Man (1957) because this was Hitchcock's first attempt at telling a true story.
  • Les Diaboliques (1955) because Henri-Georges Clouzot's thriller with a famous surprise ending was one of the films Hitchcock regretted not having made himself.
  • Touch of Evil (1958) because this was the first time Janet Leigh had to stay in an off-highway motel.
  • Taxi Driver (1976) because Herrmann's approach of scoring another story about a lonesome psychopath is quite different yet familiar.
  • The Tingler (1959) because it may be William Castle's most entertaining rip-off shocker and Vincent Price's most restrained mad scientist performance. The music is hilarious Herrmann-imitation.
  • Sisters (1973) because Brian DePalma has been obsessed with Vertigo and Psycho so much that he re-imagined them throughout the Seventies (see also Dressed to Kill (1980)), here with the help of Benny Herrmann himself, later with Pino Donaggio filling in for him. Split screen meets split personality.
This may well be the first but certainly not the last post of its kind since I've always been looking for a container to "store" the excess analyses that didn't make it into straight essays and lectures.


tutorphil said...

fascinating, so thank you! :) I'm a lover of this movie - show it to my students every year and have probably seen it over 60 times now - and it never gets old, never gets tired - a lean, mean cinematic machine :)

Oswald Iten said...

Glad to see that some students still get exposed to the real thing!

After seeing it in a theater again tonight with almost 100 people about 60% of which haven't ever seen it before, I must say I still see something new no matter how well I know it.

The most satisfying part of it probably was that the audience responded exactly how Hitchcock planned it.

I myself admire Anthony Perkins' performance even more every time I see it.