Lights, action, strings - Psycho impresses at Harrogate Festival

Janet Leigh in Psycho's infamous shower scene.
Janet Leigh in Psycho's infamous shower scene.

Review by Graham Chalmers

Hitchcock’s Psycho Live

Harrogate Festival Orchestra

Royal Hall, Harrogate

There must be 300-400 people here in the Royal Hall to see an old black n white movie screened with live orchestral accompaniment.

I say “old black n white movie” but in this case it is Hitchock’s chilling classic Psycho, which remains as famous today, nearly, as it was when it first scared the wits out of audiences in 1960 on its original release.

This special night is one of the more unusual events to take place as part of the official summer programme of Harrogate International Festivals but it appears to have paid off, though the crowd are still dwarfed a little inside the cavernous 900-capacity splendour of the Royal Hall.

No one quite knows what to expect as the film starts to roll and the giant face of Janet Leigh appears on screen as the unknowingly doomed Marion Crane.

The Harrogate Festival Orchestra’s conductor in his blood red tie is armed with what appears to be a laptop as well as a baton, perhaps to ensure the ensemble hits its cues right on time as the film starts to roll.

The opening strains of late composer Bernard Herrman’s memorably scary score reveal two things.

Firstly, the live music and the recorded dialogue are perfectly balanced and in sync, which is the way it continues throughout the film, no mean feat by the conductor and the assembled musicians.

Secondly, performed live the soundtrack is warmer and richer with more depth but just as much razor-edged menace as the recorded version.

It’s quite a jolt, in particular, to hear those slashing chords from the mass string section boom out from the semi-darkness of the Royal Hall during the infamous murder scene in the shower.

But a couple of questions remain to be answered, ones nearly as tricky as the mystery facing the private detective in Hitchock’s film after the disappearance of Marian following her fateful meeting with Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).

Does the film still stand up more than 50 years on?

Mostly. Perhaps the firstly truly brutally ‘modern’ movie to come out of old Hollywood, Psycho is still a shocking film.

By this point, though a master showman, Hitchcock was clearly more concerned with the film’s own dark psychology than its plot which creaks with age a little in places.

Does hearing those sinister strings live improve the movie at all?

Not really. In fact, being aware that an orchestra is in front of you just below the big screen, the conductor’s lap-top letting slip a small ray of light like a distress signal, does break the spell occasionally.

A great night out, whether you think this sort of event is simply a superior gimmick like 3D, depends on whether you can still suspend your sense of disbelief, the most vital part of movie-going afterall.