Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ with Orchestra

SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE: Led by violinist Adrian Keating, and conducted by Nicholas Buc, the orchestra’s performance was sublime.
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Back in 1960, the original lobby posters read: ‘No One… BUT NO ONE… Will Be Admitted To The Theatre After The Start Of Each Performance Of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho…’ It would have been a nice touch, maybe, to have had some reproductions plastered on the doors of the Concert Hall. And that’s about at critical as this review is going to get. I mean, it’s Psycho, isn’t it?

The film begins in a cheap hotel, notably, in Arizona, with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a young – albeit not getting any younger – attractive secretary having just spent her lunchbreak with her lover, Sam (John Gavin). She wants them to get married, but he’s been married before and his debts (not least his ex-wife’s alimony) stand between them, at least in his mind. And Sam lives in Fairville, California, a long way from Phoenix. He flies home and Marion returns to the office, where, as fate would have it, her boss entrusts her with depositing $40,000 in the bank. She doesn’t, of course. Instead, she packs her bags and sets off in her car to Fairville and Sam.

She drives – and is driven, by fear and guilt – most of the night, and all through the next day. As night falls again, exhaustion and torrential rain drive her off the main road, towards the Bates Motel. There she meets Norman (Anthony Perkins), its boyishly charming manager, who lives with his sick mother in the looming old house behind it. His loneliness touches Marion, and they have supper together. Then she returns to her room, to have a shower…

…And unless you’ve spent the last 50 years in a cave – or some rundown motel in the middle of nowhere – you know what happens next.

No surprises, then. But it’s fascinating to imagine what audiences in 1960 made of the film’s ostensible star, in Leigh, being murdered in the first half. I suppose, today, an analogy would be having Julia Roberts wind up in the swamp, to have the rest of the film carried by, say, Isla Fisher. The ‘Fisher’ in Psycho is of course Vera Miles, Hitchcock’s first attempt to manufacture his own personal Grace Kelly, before – more (in) famously – Tipi Hedren. Miles was originally cast to play the Kim Novak role in Vertigo [1950], but inconveniently fell pregnant prior to production. For Hitchcock, a more appropriate adjective might be ‘inconsiderately’.

Like the lobby posters, killing off the film’s star is pure showmanship. By recognising his audience’s expectations, turning them upside down (stars, like puppies, generally make it to the credits), Hitchcock in Psycho created a shocking, genuinely interactive film experience. Similarly, hearing Bernard Herrmann’s score performed live by the specially assembled Sydney Lyric Orchestra lent the screening a thrilling immediacy. Indeed, the ‘Master of Suspense’ was so taken with Herrmann’s music, he doubled his salary and included its ‘stabbing’ violins in that iconic shower sequence, initially envisaged as silent.

Led by violinist Adrian Keating, and conducted by Nicholas Buc, the orchestra’s performance was sublime. If, as Hitchcock once said, ‘33% of the effect of Psycho [is] due to the music,’ at least 66% of its effect last night belongs to them. Having seen the film a dozen or so times, for me, they made it surprising again.

Bring on Vertigo.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with Orchestra

Venue Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
Season 5 January 2010

Season closed

Gareth Beal
About the Author
Gareth Beal is a freelance writer, editor and creative writing teacher who has written for a range of online and print publications. He lives on the NSW Central Coast with his wife and two cats.