Jorge Luis Uzcátegui heard Psycho before he saw it. He listened to the film's iconic score and read it on paper to the point that he had a good idea what the movie was about, he says. It's a crazy contention for most to make, but not for an accomplished composer like Uzcátegui.
He'd just been tapped by the Spokane Symphony to conduct a live accompaniment to a screening of Psycho and wanted to live with the music before he even thought of watching one of Alfred Hitchcock's most memorable works. And while obsessing over the film's music, he came to love Bernard Herrmann's score. Really love it, in fact.
"The music on its own is even better than the movie," says Uzcátegui from Los Angeles, where the Venezuelan native spends about half his time.
He'll be spending more of that time in Spokane soon, as the symphony's new assistant director. He's conducted the Spokane Symphony in Moses Lake, but the screening of Psycho, billed as an anti-Valentine's Day celebration, will be his first time conducting in Spokane.
"Whatever you're conducting needs to be your favorite music, and it stands very well on its own," he says.
Uzcátegui has, of course, seen the movie, learning how Herrmann's score melded with Hitchcock's menacing visuals in a film of murder, mystery and a guy with some serious mommy issues. Herrmann, perhaps the most renowned film composer of all time (go ahead and file your complaints, John Williams lovers) used a simple, strings-only orchestra for the score, which Uzcátegui says complements the mood of the film perfectly and will stand out to those who hear the 47-piece orchestra play it live on Thursday night. "A string orchestra makes that signature sound in Psycho," he says. "The movie is in black and white and if you put too much color — like an oboe or a trumpet — that feeling would be lost."
Hitchcock said that Psycho owed a third of its success to Herrmann's score. Any college film class will tell you that. Uzcátegui argues it's a lot more than a third of the film's effect, as does Peter Porter, the director of the Spokane International Film Festival and the chair of Eastern Washington University's theater and film department.
Nowhere in the film does the score play as significant a role as in the shower scene.
"It's probably the most memorable two minutes of score ever. It ranks up there with Star Wars' "Imperial March," Casablanca, anything else. It's way, way up there," says Porter, who holds a doctorate in film.
It's impossible to imagine now, but Hitchcock actually told Herrmann not to score the scene in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is hacked up at the Bates Motel. He had an idea of that scene being impactful in its minimalism, a theme he wanted to carry throughout the film, partly due to his artistic vision and partly because of budgetary concerns. Thankfully, Herrmann didn't listen, just like he didn't listen when Hitchcock, for whom he'd already scored five films, including Vertigo, suggested the score be played by a jazz band.
Herrmann's choice of a strings-only orchestra again came from the fact that Hitchcock didn't have the sort of money he was used to tossing around. He employed a television crew to film the movie because big studios wouldn't fund something more substantial. Some wondered if Hitchcock's penchant for the macabre had gone a step too far.
"People in 1960 didn't want to put their name on the film. It was too gruesome," says Porter.
It wasn't just the actual gore — because much of the film's violence happens off camera — but rather the way in which Psycho eschews film conventions.
"I think the other part that makes people uncomfortable is that they're so shocked from the shower scene that they never recover. There's a sense of claustrophobia," says Porter. "And you attach to Marion Crane, and then feel like you're drowning in nothingness because Janet Leigh is a recognizable star, and then she's gone. You take the star system away, you've brutally murdered our hero. Now what?"
A lot of the film's menacing feel comes directly from Herrmann's score, says Porter. While movie music has changed over the years (think Trent Reznor's move into the film world) and Herrmann's influence has waned, there's no question he's one of the greats.
"Think about it like this: The first score he composed was for Citizen Kane and the last he did was for Taxi Driver," says Porter.
Uzcátegui's excitement about Thursday's chance to conduct the live performance of Psycho, which other symphonies across the country have found success with, isn't as much about taking the podium for the first time in Spokane. It's also about sharing the sort of wonder, terror and entertainment he's taken away from the film while preparing for the performance.
"It's not your typical classical music, and it's a great opportunity to see a live orchestra play [along to] a movie you love," he says. "But if you haven't ever watched it, don't watch it until you come." ♦
Psycho with the Spokane Symphony • Thu, Feb. 12, at 7:30 pm • $28-$49, $15/students • Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox • 1001 W. Sprague • spokanesymphony.org • 624-1200