Psycho came in the middle of his highly fruitful period of work with director Alfred Hitchcock. At the same time, however, it can also be seen as the beginning of the end for their partnership. The film came at the tail end of Hitchcock’s contract with Paramount, and the company felt they had him over a barrel, as he had to produce one more film for them before he could move over to Universal--which the director had already done physically. Paramount didn’t like the film and so they wouldn’t finance it, forcing Hitchcock to mortgage everything he owned to finance it himself. The pressure got to him and for a while his wife, Alma Reville, had to take over the production. One of the things Hitchcock wanted for the film was for the murder scene in the shower to contain no music. He thought this would make the scene even more realistic and frightening. Bernard Herrmann disagreed. At Alma’s insistence, he was allowed to score his distinctive music for the shower scene. And in one of my favorite anecdotes of Hollywood history, Hitchcock sat for the screening of the scene with Herrmann’s music and when it was over said, “Well, of course we’ll use that.”
Herrmann’s conception for the score was one of matching the black-and-white visuals on the screen with black-and-white music, a limited tonal palate to replicate the limited colors of the film. To do this he chose a string orchestra. But where this was a new idea in film scoring, it was certainly not a new instrumentation, having been used almost since the inception of concert music. Even Herrmann himself had composed a “Sinfonietta for String Orchestra” in 1936 that eerily presages his work on the Hitchcock film. This version of the score is one that was conducted by the composer himself, in 1975, just a year before his death. The score was reconstructed by Fred Steiner at USC and recorded in London with the National Philharmonic Orchestra. The first thing one notices as the title cue begins, is how slowly it is taken. In the film, beneath Saul Bass’s opening credits, there is a frenetic energy to the music, taken at a breakneck pace that thrusts the viewer into the story before even knowing what the story is. Here, however, the “Prelude” seems almost plodding. One of two explanations seems likely, the first that the aged Herrmann slowed down the pace to match his own energies and hadn’t bothered to re-screen the film to hear the original pacing. The second, however, is the one I like to think is the reason, and that is that Herrmann knew that the music apart from the visuals demanded it’s own pacing. When listened to in that way, the music is almost more ominous.
Slowed down, the “Prelude” is a masterpiece, with antiphonal sections playing off against each other, an undercurrent of cellos rushing beneath the melody, syncopated bass notes and pizzicato strings, and soaring violins that are anything but romantic. “The City” and “Marion and Sam” shows Herrmann eschewing melody for pure visual support with the strings. The way he weaves the bass and cellos into the mix is masterful and casts an incredible spell over the listener. As Marion takes the money from the real estate office and decides to take it to her boyfriend Sam, “Temptation” has long, sustained notes being undercut by a slowed version of the repetitive, prelude undercurrent. Leigh’s “Flight” in the car after her boss spots her heading out of town, as well as the “Patrol Car” and “The Rainstorm” are all slight variations on the opening theme. The next set of cues, which includes “The Hotel Room” and “The Window” serve two functions. In repeats the motif of Marion and Sam to reinforce the idea that she is taking the money to him, as well as reminding the viewer of the opening shot which came in through the hotel room and foreshadowing the fact that she is being watched by Norman’s mother. “The Madhouse” and “The Peephole” are both associated with Norman, deep and resonating fear that reflects his psychosis. Then comes the most distinctive cue in all of film music, “The Murder,” with its shrieking strings, thrusting their bows downward on upper-register glissandos to replicate the stabbing of the knife and screams of the victim.
Herrmann subliminally tips Hitchcock’s hand in the following cues, “The Office” and “The Water,” repeating the murder music as Norman cleans up, but in a lower register and much slower. “The Search” for Marion by her sister and the hired detective, repeats the opening theme, slower and lower, while Herrmann pushes the viewer along with the investigation in the next few cues. During the murder of the detective, “The Knife” launches into the murder music once more, while “The Search” of Marion’s sister and Sam goes back to the city music, as if somehow musically setting up the sequel. The final set of cues follows the sister into the house, reflecting her ever more gruesome discoveries, while the final “Discovery” of mother cascades in a swirl of music recalling the water spinning down the drain in the shower. “The Finale” at the courthouse reprises Norman’s motifs and ends on an unresolved chord as Marion’s car is pulled out of the swamp, and ending that is anything but happy. The reason this was the beginning of the end for Herrmann and Hitchcock is that a few years later, on Torn Curtain, the director wanted another murder scene without music. Without Alma to intercede, however, the two parted company over the incident. Herrmann’s music for that scene--not used in the film--is almost as good as that in Psycho, still the composers best-known work.