Psycho is a 1960 American suspense/horror film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Janet Leigh. The screenplay by Joseph Stefano is based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. The novel was loosely inspired by the crimes of Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein, who lived just 40 miles from Bloch.
The film depicts the encounter between a secretary, Marion Crane (Leigh), who goes to a secluded motel after embezzling money from her employer, and the motel’s disturbed owner and manager, Norman Bates (Perkins), and the aftermath of their encounter.
Psycho initially received mixed reviews, but outstanding box office returns prompted a re-review which was overwhelmingly positive and led to four Academy Award nominations. Psycho is now considered one of Hitchcock’s best films and is highly praised as a work of cinematic art by international critics. It is often ranked among the greatest films of all time and is famous for bringing in a new level of acceptable violence and sexuality in films. After Hitchcock’s death in 1980, Universal Studios began producing follow-ups: two sequels, a prequel, a remake, and a television movie spin-off. In 1992, the film was selected to be preserved by the Library of Congress at the National Film Registry.
Hitchcock insisted that Bernard Herrmann write the score for Psycho, in spite of the composer’s refusal to accept a reduced fee for the film’s lower budget. The resulting score, according to Christopher Palmer in The Composer in Hollywood (1990) is “perhaps Herrmann’s most spectacular Hitchcock achievement.” Hitchcock was pleased with the tension and drama the score added to the film, later remarking “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” The singular contribution of Herrmann’s score may be inferred from the film’s credit roll, where the composer’s name precedes only the director’s own, a distinction unprecedented in the annals of commercial cinematic music. Herrmann used the lowered music budget to his advantage by writing for a string orchestra rather than a full symphonic ensemble, disregarding Hitchcock’s request for a jazz score. He thought of the single tone color of the all-string soundtrack as a way of reflecting the black-and-white cinematography of the film. Hollywood composer Fred Steiner, in an analysis of the score to Psycho, points out that string instruments gave Herrmann access to a wider range in tone, dynamics and instrumental special effects than any other single instrumental group would have.
The main title music, a tense, hurtling piece, sets the tone of impending violence, and returns three times on the soundtrack. Though nothing shocking occurs during the first 15–20 minutes of the film, the title music remains in the audience’s mind, lending tension to these early scenes. Herrmann also maintains tension through the slower moments in the film through the use of ostinato.
There were rumors that Herrmann had used electronic means, including amplified bird screeches to achieve the shocking effect of the music in the shower scene. The effect was achieved, however, only with violins in a “screeching, stabbing sound-motion of extraordinary viciousness.” The only electronic amplification employed was in the placing of the microphones close to the instruments, to get a harsher sound. Besides the emotional impact, the shower scene cue ties the soundtrack to birds. The association of the shower scene music with birds also telegraphs to the audience that it is Norman, the stuffed-bird collector, who is the murderer rather than his mother.
Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith writes that the music for the shower scene is “probably the most famous (and most imitated) cue in film music,” but Hitchock was originally opposed to having music in this scene. When Herrmann played the shower scene cue for Hitchcock, the director approved its use in the film. Herrmann reminded Hitchcock of his instructions not to score this scene, to which Hitchcock replied, “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion.” This was one of two important disagreements Hitchcock had with Herrmann, in which Herrmann ignored Hitchcock’s instructions. The second one, over the score for Torn Curtain (1966), resulted in the end of their professional collaboration. A survey conducted by PRS for Music, in 2009, showed that the British public consider the score from ‘the shower scene’ to be the scariest theme from any film.
To honor the 50th anniversary of Psycho, in July 2010, the San Francisco Symphony obtained a print of the film with the soundtrack removed, and projected it on a large screen in Davies Symphony Hall while the orchestra performed the score live. This was previously mounted by the Seattle Symphony in October, 2009 as well, performing at the Benroya Hall for two consecutive evenings.
Several CDs of the film soundtrack have been released, including:
Bernard Herrmann born Max Herman (June 29, 1911 – December 24, 1975) was an American composer noted for his work in motion pictures.
An Academy Award-winner (for The Devil and Daniel Webster, 1941), Herrmann is particularly known for his collaborations with director Alfred Hitchcock, most famously Psycho, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo. He also composed notable scores for many other movies, including Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Cape Fear, and Taxi Driver. He worked extensively in radio drama (most notably for Orson Welles), composed the scores for several fantasy films by Ray Harryhausen, and many TV programs including most notably Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and Have Gun–Will Travel.
Herrmann is most closely associated with the director Alfred Hitchcock. He wrote the scores for almost every Hitchcock film from The Trouble with Harry (1955) to Marnie (1964), a period which included Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest. He oversaw the sound design in The Birds (1963), although there was no actual music in the film as such, only electronically made bird sounds.
The music for the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was only partly by Herrmann. The two most significant pieces of music in the film—the song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”, and the Storm Clouds Cantata played in the Royal Albert Hall—are not by Herrmann (although he did re-orchestrate the cantata by Australian-born composer Arthur Benjamin written for the earlier Hitchcock film of the same name). However, this film did give Herrmann the opportunity for an on-screen appearance: he is the conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in the Albert Hall scene.
Herrmann’s most recognizable music is from another Hitchcock film, Psycho. Unusual for a thriller at the time, the score uses only the string section of the orchestra. The screeching violin music heard during the famous shower scene (which Hitchcock originally suggested have no music at all) is one of the most famous moments in film score history.
His score for Vertigo (1958) is seen as just as masterful. In many of the key scenes Hitchcock let Herrmann’s score take center stage, a score whose melodies, echoing the “Liebestod” from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, dramatically convey the main character’s obsessive love for the woman he tries to shape into a long-dead, past love.
A notable feature of the Vertigo score is the ominous two-note falling motif that opens the suite — it is a direct musical imitation of the two notes sounded by the fog horns located at either side of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (as heard from the San Francisco side of the bridge). This motif has direct relevance to the film, since the horns can be clearly heard sounding in just this manner at Fort Point, the spot where the character played by Kim Novak jumps into the bay.
However, according to Dan Aulier (author of Vertigo : The Making of a Hitchcock Classic), Herrmann deeply regretted being unable to conduct his composition for Vertigo. A musician’s strike in America meant that it was actually conducted in England by Muir Mathieson. Herrmann always personally conducted his own works and while he considered the composition among his best works, regarded it as a missed opportunity.
In a question-and-answer session at the George Eastman Museum in October 1973, Herrmann stated that, unlike most film composers who did not have any creative input into the style and tone of the score, he insisted on creative control as a condition to accepting the film’s scoring assignment:
I have the final say, or I don’t do the music. The reason for insisting on this is simply, compared to Orson Welles, a man of great musical culture, most other directors are just babes in the woods. If you were to follow their taste, the music would be awful. There are exceptions. I once did a film The Devil and Daniel Webster with a wonderful director William Dieterle. He was also a man of great musical culture. And Hitchcock, you know, is very sensitive; he leaves me alone. It depends on the person. But if I have to take what a director says, I’d rather not do the film. I find it’s impossible to work that way.
Herrmann stated that Hitchcock would invite him on to the production of a film and depending on his decision of the length of the music, would either expand or contract the scene. It was Hitchcock who asked Herrmann for the “recognition scene” near the end of Vertigo (the scene where James Stewart’s character suddenly realizes Kim Novak’s identity) to be played with music.
Herrmann’s relationship with Hitchcock came to an abrupt end when they disagreed over the score for Torn Curtain. Reportedly pressured by Universal’s front office, Hitchcock wanted a score that was more jazz- and pop-influenced. Hitchcock’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, stated that Hitchcock was worried about becoming old fashioned and felt that Herrmann’s music had to change with the times as well. Herrmann initially agreed, but then went ahead and scored the film according to his own ideas in any case.
Hitchcock listened to only the prelude of the score before turning off a recording of the music and angrily confronting Herrmann about the pop score he had promised. Herrmann, equally incensed, bellowed, “Look, Hitch, you can’t outjump your own shadow. And you don’t make pop pictures. What do you want with me? I don’t write pop music.” Hitchcock unrelentingly insisted that Herrmann change the score, violating Herrmann’s general claim for creative control that he had always been maintained in their previous films. Herrmann then said, “Hitch, what’s the use of my doing more with you? I had a career before you, and I will afterwards.”
According to McGilligan, Herrmann later tried to patch up and repair the damage with Hitchcock, but Hitchcock refused to see him. Herrmann’s widow disputes this, painting a somewhat different picture, of two friends whose egos were in the way. In a 2004 interview with Günther Kögebehn for the Bernard Herrmann Society (titled Running with the Kids: A Conversation with Norma Herrmann), she states:
I met Hitchcock very briefly. Everybody says they never spoke again. I met him, it was cool, it was not a warm meeting. It was in Universal Studios, this must be 69, 70, 71ish. And we were in Universal for some other reason and Herrmann said: ‘See that tiny little office over there, that’s Hitch’. And that stupid little parking place. Hitch used to have an empire with big offices and a big staff. Then they made it down to half that size, then they made it to half that size… We are going over to say hello.’ Actually [Herrmann] got a record; he was always intending to give him a record he just made. But it wasn’t a film thing. It was either Moby Dick or something of his concert pieces to take it and give to Hitch. Peggy, Hitchcock’s secretary was there. Hitch came out, Benny said: ‘I thought you’d like a copy of this.’ ‘How are you?’ etc. and he introduced me. And Hitchcock was cool, but they did meet. They met, I was there. And when Herrmann came out again he said: “What a great reduction in Hitch’s status.”
In 2009, Norma Herrmann began to auction off her late husband’s personal collection on Bonhams.com, adding more interesting details to the two men’s relationship. While Herrmann had brought Hitchcock a copy of his classical work after the break-up, Hitchcock, in fact, gave Herrmann an inscribed copy of his Hitchcock-Truffaut interview book, signed “To Benny with my fondest wishes, Hitch.” The Orson Welles website, wellesnet.com, mentions this in an article written Sunday, April 12, 2009, along with a bit more information, giving the impression that Hitchcock, more and more, wanted to patch up the damage done as his Hollywood power waned:
Of course, once Herrmann felt he had been wronged, he was not going to say ‘yes’ to Hitchcock unless he was courted and it seems unlikely that Hitchcock would be willing to do that, although apparently Hitchcock did ask Herrmann back to score his last film Family Plot right before Herrmann died. Herrmann, who had a full schedule of films planned for 1976, including DePalma’s Carrie, The Seven Per Cent Solution and Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To, was reportedly happy to be in a position to ignore Hitchcock’s reunion offer.
At any rate, Herrmann’s unused score for Torn Curtain was later commercially recorded, initially by Elmer Bernstein for his Film Music Collection subscription record label (reissued by Warner Bros. Records), and later, in a concert suite adapted by Christopher Palmer, by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Sony. Some of Herrmann’s cues for Torn Curtain were later post-synched to the final cut, where they showed how remarkably attuned the composer was to the action, and how, arguably, more effective his score could have been.
Ironically, Herrmann had composed some jazz for the “picnic” scene in Citizen Kane and he later used some jazz elements (much in the vein of Maurice Ravel’s two piano concertos) for The Wrong Man when he scored the nightclub scenes showing Henry Fonda as a double bass player in a jazz band, and for Taxi Driver’s saxophone-driven theme which recalls Charlie Parker’s rendition of “Laura.”
Herrmann subsequently moved to England, where he was hired by François Truffaut to write the score for Fahrenheit 451 and, later, for The Bride Wore Black. (During this period, there was some confusion between him and another conductor of the same name who worked with the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra.) His final work, the score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), received high acclaim.