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Psycho - Bernard Herrmann - Soundtrack Review

This week finally „Psycho“ on my website. “Psycho” is a masterpiece in a lot of ways: It was the first slasher movie in history, it totally shocked the audience in a lot of ways, the shower murder scene holds the record as the movie music scene that is most discussed, and Bernard Herrmann’s score is considered as the ultimate score for a horror movie. There is so much to say about this movie and the music that it is really difficult to write just two pages. Here is the official trailer:

The movie

American writer Robert Bloch (1917 – 1994) is one of the best writers for crime and horror novels. He has a wicked sense of humour and his short stories are famous for the surprising twists in the end. He started to write for pulp magazines such as “Weird Tales” and was influenced by H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937), the American horror story writer who became famous because of the creation of the “Cthulhu Mythos”. Bloch and Lovecraft developed a friendship via a letter correspondence.

1959 Boch wrote “Psycho”, a novel about a serial killer with a split personality, based on real serial killer Ed Gein, who also was an inspiration for “The Silence of the Lambs”. Bloch, however, commented that it was the situation itself - a mass murderer living undetected in a small town in middle America - rather than Gein himself who inspired his storyline. I read the book 20 years ago for the first time, and even Bloch is one of my favorite writers of crime novels, this novel is really not his best, and the way of storytelling is not very good in this novel. Just two aspects are responsible that “Psycho” works well: the totally surprising killing of Marion and the identity of Norman.

Bloch was not aware who really bought the rights for the movie adaption, so Hitchcock could make a great deal. The sequel of Hitchcock’s movie “Psycho 2” is crap even it has some good scenes, I also think that Jerry Goldsmith’ score for that one is one of his weakest ever, and even Bloch’s own sequel “Psycho 2” is really a bad novel. And the stupidest idea has ever been Gus Van Sant's "shot-by-shot" remake. He added two scenes – a spider crawling out of Mrs Bates mouth, and Norman masturbating when seeing Marion -, both really stupid ideas like the whole remake a waste of money and time.

Alfred Hitchcock created a masterpiece with “Psycho”. The critics at that time did not like the movie, but critics were never really fair to Hitchcock, but the movie was a huge box office success, also because of Hitch’s very clever marketing ideas: The "no late admission" policy for the film was unusual for the time. Here is a video about how Hitchcock manipulates the audience:

The shower murder scene is the famous scene of the movie. A lot of myths exist about this scene, and, for example, graphic designer Saul Bass claimed that he directed the scene. Janet Leigh denied this in an interview and said that Hitchcock was directing this scene, and there was no body double used. The scene was shot in December 1959 with 77 different camera angles. It is very interesting that the whole scene is working mostly in the mind of the audience because there is no close up of the knife hitting Marion’s body. I am not a big fan of the psychological analysis of this scene and personally do not care if the knife is a symbol of a penis and if this murder scene is meant to be a rape. It is a gorgeous scene and one proof that Hitchcock is perhaps the best director of crime movies ever. Here is the famous scene:

The music

Bernard Herrmann was the composer for a lot of Hitchcock movies and with “Psycho” he created his masterpiece. You can see the importance of Herrmann's contribution to the movie in the opening credit sequence, as it is followed only by Hitchcock's directing credit. Herrmann refused to compose as jazz score and took the lowered music budget to compose a score just for strings and not for a full orchestra. The strings refer to the black-and-white filming of the movie and create a darker and very intense effect.

The main title music is a very tense and hurtling piece. Like a very good main title sets the tone for the whole movie and in combination with the title sequence done by Saul Bass you can imagine what kind of violence is coming. Even though there is no murder or another shocking sequence for the first 20 minutes, the audience can feel the tension of the plot just because of this dramatic music.

I found this version, conducted by Herrmann himself even though it sounds to me a little slow in tempi:

Here is a version conducted by Joel McNeely, I like better because it is faster:

The music for the shower scene is very famous. Herrmann used the strings and the special way they were played to transform the shocking violence of the scene into music. Try to watch the scene without the music and you can understand the genius of Herrmann’s approach. Music critics recognize a similarity between the sound of music and Norman Bates’ hobby for birds, but I think this idea does not make any sense. Herrmann just tried to use the best effect to scare the hell out of the audience. I found a very good performance of the score and watch at the smile of the conductor before he conducts the shower scene music:

Interesting is also Hitchcock first did not want to have music in this scene, but was convinced when Herrmann played the cue. Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith wrote: When Herrmann played the shower scene cue, the director approved its use. Herrmann reminded Hitchcock of his instructions not to score this scene, to which Hitchcock replied, "Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion." A survey conducted by PRS for Music, in 2009, showed that the British public considers the score from 'the shower scene' to be the scariest theme from any film.

There is so much to say about the movie and the music, but let’s stop it here. You can also analyze a movie and a soundtrack to death. I found a great music clip and even though I did not like the middle part of this track, the idea with the knives is just great. Enjoy:

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2017, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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