AOM Logo September 2003

The Film Music Pantheon #3

Bernard Herrmann: Psycho

National Philharmonic, conducted by composer

Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD 2021

David Aspinall

Cover ImageWhen it appeared in 1960, Psycho promptly became Alfred Hitchcock's greatest popular hit. On an investment of $800,000, Psycho brought in a phenomenal $15 million. Its success with the public became a bragging point for the director, in his mind a confirmation of Psycho's artistic success.

The critics were decidedly less impressed. The film received generally negative, nay hostile, reviews both in the popular press and from the critical establishment. Typical of the latter was Dwight MacDonald, who called Psycho 'a reflection of a most unpleasant mind, a mean, sly, sadistic little mind'. That then-prominent pundit of the left, screenwriter and film historian John Howard Lawson, thought it 'a cold and brutal film, almost devoid of human feeling'. Considering Hitchcock's publicly stated goal, it is not too surprising that such socially conscious critics were disappointed, even disgusted. 'I don't care about the subject matter', Hitchcock would later tell François Truffaut, 'I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound track and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this.' As if to rub the critics' noses, as it were, into the bourgeoisie arm pit, Hitchcock added, 'It wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.' 1

Even the critics who, whether at the time or in retrospect, enthusiastically embraced Psycho, expressed a certain reluctance to hug Hitchcock's aesthetic agenda. Richard Corliss, for example: 'For Hitchcock, the challenge of filmmaking seems to be that 'the Japanese audience should scream at the same time as the Italian audience' - hardly the most exalted of cinematic ambitions.' 2 But Hitch, sensitive perhaps to the common criticism that his films lacked 'redeeming social value', discovered some 'higher' ambition even in his audience titillation: 'I am to provide the public with beneficial shocks. Civilization has become so protective that we're no longer able to get our goose bumps instinctively. The only way to remove the numbness and revive our moral equilibrium is to use artificial means to bring about the shock.' 3

Indeed, it does seem that for Hitch, to elicit shock and surprise was the highest good in the hierarchy of aesthetic virtues. But if Hitchcock's work before Psycho could be accused of social indifference, Psycho was something else again. Far from 'exalting' the common man, à la Capra, or at least attempting to elevate society, Hitchcock was undermining not merely the conventions of narrative cinema, but the human race itself. But did Psycho's maker even realize the Pandora's box of demonic forces he was unstopping, poking his camera into toilet bowl, shower drain, swamp and dank cellar? Robin Wood, one of Hitchcock's most astute admirers, thinks not: 'he himself - if his interviews are to be trusted - has not really faced up to what he was doing when he made the film.' Wood is right. Everything indicates that Hitchcock viewed Psycho as a black comedy - a very black comedy, something akin in tone to his then-successful TV show, only, of course, exploiting the movie medium in a way that the TV censors would never permit. In his interviews with Truffaut, Hitch indicated he would have gone much further with the sexual content had the day's standards permitted. He would not, it seems, have deemed it necessary to go further with the violence. His 'cinematic art', apparently, demanded that the violence, even the shower scene, be more of a confidence trick than a capitulation to a base appetite for explicit gore.

Original UK posterBut in his self-congratulation over Psycho's technical achievement and cinematic sleight-of-hand, Hitchcock seems to have been blinded to the very things that ultimately make the film more than a mere horror milestone. We note, first of all, the performance of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Have any other characters from Hitchcock films grown to the status of cultural myth? There have been other films based on the Ed Gein mother's corpse/cannibalism case, but it is Perkins who makes the audience care about this story at all. For all that is written about the director's subversion of film narrative in making us identify with Marion Crane, then killing her off, transferring our affections to Norman in his concern to protect 'mother', then again transferring our identification from Norman to Marion's sister and lover - through all these plot permutations it is Perkins' Norman who is the heart of Psycho, if we may appropriate an inappropriate metaphor for 'a cold and brutal film, almost devoid of human feeling'. And I'll go further and suggest that, contrary to the flow of critical consensus, we do not transfer identification from Marion to Norman after the murder, but rather during the previous supper scene, as the self-confessed mama's boy ruminates on the customized traps we all construct for ourselves. Marion, at least, can climb out of hers. Norman doesn't mind his any more. Or, is he divided? Like the stuffed birds all around the room, Marion does not seem really alive. Her conversation betrays no concern beyond her own predicament. Norman, at least, loves his mother. With all this preparation, we are surprised, perhaps, at her sudden exit, but, despite the director's intent, prepared to root for Norman by more than plot necessity.

I would suggest that Perkins has even more to do with the film's success than Hitchcock's 'pure cinema', far more than Hitchcock's auteurist acolytes will allow. There's something helpless, childlike about him to which we subliminally respond. Marion and her lover and her sister are more normal - and much less interesting. Norman, despite Hitchcock's asseveration that he does not care about actors, is one of the most pathetically sympathetic characters in world cinema. Therefore his loss - when 'mother' finally takes over for good - is a much more devastating climax than the 'shock' anticlimaxes for which the film is famous, Marion's murder and the staircase dispatching of the detective Arbogast.

Just as Perkins is, in this writer's view, ultimately responsible for the dramatic superiority of Psycho, so the composer Bernard Herrmann must be accorded the praise for transcending the film's purposely distracting plot detours and red herrings (in Hitch's thesaurus, macguffins) and creating a unified work of art. Marion enters and exits, mama falls and rises and descends again, Norman disappears, presumably for good, at the end - but Herrmann's score is eternal. The darkest spectre ever to haunt a film soundtrack. Hitchcock may have actually seen Psycho as a black comedy, but Herrmann shows us only the black. The ardent, aching string line which is characteristic of Herrmann's most romantically rich scores (The Ghost and Mrs Muir, Vertigo, Marnie) is gone, replaced not by resignation, but by dread. One could make the case that the contributions of Saul Bass - the titles and perhaps the shower scene concept -- together with Herrmann's music, changed the tone of Psycho enough to mutate the material from camp horror to the apotheosis of film noir. Even the confessional supper scene, with its potential for mirth, what with an attentive audience of stuffed birds and Perkins' tightrope walk dialogue ('a boy's best friend is his mother') - even this scene is turned into something quite sublimely creepy by Herrmann's subtle counterpoint (The Madhouse cue). As the conversation leads us to a false anticipation of Marion's redemption, the violins ascend ever higher, attenuated finally into the ether, while the lower strings are pulled by terrible, inescapable gravity yet deeper into the abyss. A potential for camp as outré as the Roger Corman/Vincent Price oeuvre is turned into one of the most chilling scenes in all cinema. No jarring cuts, no camera calisthenics, just civil, almost intimate conversation between two strangers - and Benny Herrmann.

Bernard HerrmannIt is worth noting that the Oscar crowd stood up Herrmann, like Perkins, that year. Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director (he never won one, unbelievably). Janet Leigh was nominated for her Marion. Herrmann was ignored. This may have been a judgment on his popularity in the Hollywood community - after all, he was not nominated for any of the Hitchcock scores, indeed not at all between 1946 and 1976. But just as likely the composer fell victim to the sensational impact of his most famous virtuoso effect - the shower scene. For likely the only conscious impact Herrmann's music made, at least on a first viewing, was in that scene. Indeed so informed a film historian as Leslie Halliwell pays a back-handed tribute to Herrmann's 'screechy score ... a classic of its kind' .4 In so describing BH's contribution, a famous film critic makes an unconscious compliment as well - to Herrmann's subtlety everywhere but in the shower. Most of the Psycho score is hardly 'screechy'. The (birdlike!) screech effects occur only twice again, at Arbogast's murder and the climactic cellar scene. Together these scenes comprise less than two minutes of screen time.

As Hitchcock usually left his favourite composer his own head, the decisions that determined Psycho's musical direction were in all likelihood Herrmann's own. There would be no humour, though BH had shown himself quite equal to Hitchcock's comedy of death approach with The Trouble with Harry. No passion, let alone romance, not even for the early love (sex?) scenes, even though Herrmann has written that Hitchcock was a 'great romantic director, his films allowing enormous scope for sensual and lyrical musical treatment'. 5

There was no musical mirth, but BH had his own joke for the connoisseur of the traditional Hollywood film score. Were strings, particularly violins, the preferred tool for conjuring screen romance? Psycho would make his strings the messengers of mayhem. Like the film, shot in monochrome by Hitchcock's TV crew, Herrmann's score would be 'black & white music' - strings only - by Herrmann's norm an incredible self-emasculation; nevertheless the self-sacrifice seems to have forced the composer to probe more deeply than was his wont. Perhaps too reliant in his habitual technique upon colouristic effects - he was at that very time in the middle of his Ray Harryhausen/fantasy period - Herrmann, by his Psycho self-limitation, probably because of the same, has given us a glimpse of the shadow areas of the psyche unequaled in the history of motion picture composition.

Original Phase 4 cover artThe main title wastes no time. Over the plain titles against black background, Herrmann's music leaps upon us with jolting suddenness. Fear, even panic, is the intent of this churning, ferocious prelude, fiercely jabbing accents premonitory of things to come. (By the way, Herrmann's own performances of the title sequence, both his Phase 4 and Unicorn recordings, must give way to Salonen's [Sony SK 62700], which conforms to the urgent tempo of the original soundtrack.) Yet this famous prelude, and the shower scene, is not the dominant style of the score. The following scene - the only time we see the lovers together - is far more typical of Herrmann's approach, if not of the subsequent scenario. In the words of Christopher Palmer, 'This melancholy music exemplifies Herrmann's tuneless approach - no melody, no clearly defined motifs - only an oppressive atmosphere created by the slow descent and ascent of the divided strings. This music will reappear in other scenes, usually associated with the hopelessness of Marion's situation, and the melodic contours of the lovers' music move continually downwards in quiet despair, never upwards in aspiration or ecstasy.' 6

Some will be surprised to know that Hitchcock's original intent was to leave the shower scene without music. While the 'pure cinema' crowd may well have stayed with that option, the director, after a week's shooting, over 100 angles tightly edited, was still dissatisfied. Herrmann suggested he be allowed to try background scoring. Even phlegmatic Hitch was astounded at the final result. When the composer later reminded Hitchcock of his original conception, the director replied tersely 'improper suggestion'. Pressed once to reveal what he thought about when composing this most famous of all movie music cues - kitchen knives? bird shrieks? a woman's screams? - Herrmann replied in one word, 'terror'.

But the terror of Psycho's score, for the most part, is not horror - that is, on screen mayhem and gore as in the murder sequences. The film's unique achievement, rather, is the terror of anticipation, and the principal contributor to that terror is Herrmann. His most characteristic technique, the obsessive repetition of motifs, never was more apposite, nor more disquieting. Some of the least horrific scenes are accompanied by some of the most unsettling cues: one thinks, for instance, of the late scenes of the sister simply perusing mother's bedroom, and then Norman's room (still a nursery!). Here is the composer's colleague and friend, David Raksin, on Herrmann's technique: 'Remarkable composer that he was, he was that despite a rudimentary sense of melody, which he sought to remedy by repeating short phrases in sequences - meaning that he would state a brief musical phrase and then repeat it, and repeat it again and again in other positions. One of my students asked me after viewing Vertigo whether I could identify a fragment played on an organ as Kim Novak walks through a church. I answered that I could not, but that I knew the name of the church: Our Lady of Perpetual Sequences.' 7

HitchDue at least partly, no doubt, to this device's unique usefulness for depicting obsessive mental states, Psycho achieves oppressive weight, the dread accumulating scene by scene through its length. And the dread never dissipates, is never released. Richard Corliss, in his excellent essay on the film entitled 'Psycho Therapy', ends with the assertion that the film is 'exaltingly therapeutic'. I doubt if anyone except the auteur critic goes to the bathroom a more cheerful soul after Psycho. In Rebecca, the first of Hitchcock's American films, the ghost of Rebecca was finally exorcised. In Foreign Correspondent and Notorious those nasty Nazis got theirs. Even Bruno, probably Hitch's most memorable villain, got clobbered on the carousel in Strangers on a Train. So too the neighborhood wife dicer was no match for Grace Kelly and a crippled photographer in Rear Window. But at the end of Psycho we are cosy under a blanket with Norman, not the 'hero' and 'heroine'. Except Norman is no longer Norman. And though Norman/Mother is smiling at us - an almost subliminally-perceived skull fleshing (!!) out Norman's sly grimace - still Herrmann shows us a final 'face' too (to quote Christopher Palmer): he 'fades out on a low, heavy, acidulous dissonance - a chord without a resolution, a finale without an ending'.

Marion was in a trap long before the trunk and the swamp. Norman, too, in his mansion with mummy. Marion and Norman, by implication, were never really alive. Like the stuffed birds and 'Mother', they had only a semblance of life. Hear Norman's description of the universe, which, for a moment, offers a glimmer of hope to Marion: 'You know what I think? I think that - we're all in our private traps - clamped in them. And none of us can ever get out. We - we scratch and claw, but - only at the air - only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch.' So it is with Marion's brief resolution. A few minutes later she is scratching and clawing at Death himself, her blood washed down the drain with the shower water. Blood and water - unlike the gospel, no redemption symbolism here. In Palmer's words, when Marion - and Herrmann - arrive at their resting place, the swamp, 'the tortured, convoluted lines seem to draw us ever deeper into the twisted depths of Norman's mind, into unending darkness.'

After Psycho, as the '60s wore on, Bernard Herrmann was in a trap, too, somewhat of his own making. His relationship with Hitchcock had soured. He had been reduced to 'sound consultant' on Hitchcock's next film, The Birds. There was one more golden moment, the sunset splendour of Marnie. Then Herrmann was removed - with his score - from Torn Curtain. A victim of his own uncompromising standard, which would not capitulate to the mid-sixties obsession with 'popular' soundtracks. (The fact that there were no soundtrack recordings for North by Northwest, Psycho, and Marnie is enough to damn that decade to the compartment of hell reserved for rude, recalcitrant lovers of 'good tunes'.) Thus ended BH's Hollywood career. Herrmann was now in his 50s, his ambitions as symphonic conductor on hold, his 'serious' music aspirations fast fading. He had a few less than illustrious commissions in the next decade, mostly in Europe, and some satisfaction recreating his film music for Decca/London - but merely in suite form, there was still no audience, it was thought, for complete scores. Even his Hollywood 'comeback' was bittersweet. For the first time in 30 years, the Academy nominated a Herrmann score for the Oscar - two, in fact, for the year 1976. The ultimate irony, however: The bulky shadow of Hitchcock was hard to shake - one nomination was for Taxi Driver, with its own resident psycho; the other was for the aptly-titled Obsession, Brian DePalma's deliberate homage to Vertigo. The Oscar for Best Score, though, went to a film more typical of '70s horror - Psycho seed, you might say - The Omen. But even this bittersweet triumph was denied Bernard Herrmann. He had died in London the previous Christmas Eve. A New Yorker in exile in the Old World.

1 François Truffaut, Hitchcock, Simon & Schuster, 1967, p. 211

2 Richard Corliss, Psycho Therapy (in Favorite Movies, ed. Philip Nobile, Macmillan, 1973, p. 215

3 Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, Citadel, 1976, p. 217

4 Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell's Harvest, Grafton, 1986, p. 213

5 Herrmann's own liner note to his Phase 4 Hitchcock score compilation, The Great Movie Thrillers.

6 Christopher Palmer's notes, with debt to Fred Steiner's analysis, for the Herrmann Unicorn rerecording of Psycho.

7 See David Raksin's tributes to the most important Hollywood composers at

Copyright © 2003 AUDIOPHILIA Home