Film Music Review
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Discussing one classic film and its music score




Film In Focus No. 9:

50th anniversary of PSYCHO


Bernard Herrmann's film score


This Film Focus entry is also posted at the
Science Fiction and Fantasy Web Magazine

The Thunder Child

Also mentioned on their blog

Daily Space



The Film and The Score


Release date for PSYCHO: June 16, 1960.

Earnings: $11, 200,000 (the top grossing film directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

PSYCHO listed on The New York Times Ten Best Films of 1960.

One of Five Best Movies of the 1960s selected by two unlikely viewers: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

SOURCE for information: FILM FACTS by Cobbett Steinberg (1980)


Oscar nomination - Alfred Hitchcock for Best Directo
Oscar nomination - Janet Leigh for Best Supporting Actress
Oscar nomination - John L. Russell for Best B & W Cinematography
Oscar nomination - Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy, George Milo
for Best Art Direction-Set Direction

Golden Globe Award - Janet Leigh for Best Supporting Actress
Writers Guild Award - Joseph Stefano for Best Written American Drama

American Film Institute - 100 Years...100 Movies (PSYCHO No. 18 in 1998)
American Film Institute - 100 Years...100 Thrills (PSYCHO No. 1 in 2001)


PSYCHO: Shock 'Em and Sock 'Em

Rather than discussing all of the psychological elements in this popular film, I want to tell my experience of watching this Hitchcock classic when it was first shown in movie theaters and how the music was used so effectively.

The Premiere Showing

It was the Fall of 1960 and I had graduated from high school that year so I was floating on a cloud of teenage euphoria. I had noticed the clever promo trailer by Alfred Hitchcock on television for his latest film and I was intrigued when he said that nobody should tell the film's story to their friends and many of them did not tell anyone. Since I couldn't interest my best friend Gene to see it with me, I went alone to the Paramount Theater, an enormous movie palace in downtown Newark, New Jersey.

I was immediately interested when the film opened with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in a white bra and slip kissing a bare chested Sam Loomis (John Gavin) on a bed. That was really daring stuff for those conservative times and how it got past the censors is a mystery to me. It was reported that bra sales increased dramatically after that scene with the beautifully buxom Janet Leigh.


Naughty Marion


Later on in the film Marion took off with 40,000 dollars of stolen cash and
for that she was shown as the "naughty girl" dressed in black bra and slip. She had gone from the good girl in love (white) to a bad one in theft (black) and both were illustrated by what color underwear she wore! Who would have thought of that but Hitchcock? And what a lovely sight she was for a teenage guy sitting in the theater. Obviously, I wasn't paying much attention to the music in those scenes!







Nutty Norman

But I was aware the music was rather somber to fit Marion's guilt over stealing the money. There is a long scene when Marion talks with Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) at the Bates Motel and he reveals himself to be a very strange though likable young man who lives in a big eerie house on top of the hill. He stuffs birds and acts somewhat like a bird as he pecks at candy corn, and he loves his mother who he says mistreats him but she is "ill." Marion feels sorry for Norman and because of their talk decides to drive home in the morning and return the money. After their conversation, she retires to her room in Cabin No. 1, and then comes the most famous moment in the film...

The Shower Scene/ The Knife

First there was Marion throwing her ripped up paper into a toilet -- reportedly shown for the first time in a Hollywood film. When Marion first steps into the shower there is no music heard. Everything seems normal until a shadowy figure appears behind her and suddenly the shower curtain is pulled back and there is the sound of high-pitched bird-like "shrieking strings." This cue was known as "The Knife" in Herrmann's score. Marion screams and the strings accompany her blood-curdling screams. This music came across like a bolt of lightning because it was so unexpected and some in the audience actually jumped in their seats when the knife starts cutting up poor Marion Crane. Then something happened I'll never forget -- several women in the audience were screaming at the top of their lungs and holding their stomachs as if somebody punched them or maybe they were ready to throw up as they quickly ran out of the theater. These were adult women, not teenage kids like at today's scary films. Most of the audience was made up of older folks -- at least older than me -- so to hear them screaming was quite a shock to me and added more fear to the murder being shown so gruesomely on screen. It was total hysteria in that theater when this famous shower scene took place.

Everyone who saw it then believed that Marion Crane was getting sliced up in that shower. And wasn't she (Janet Leigh) one of the film's stars? I actually heard one of the women say to her friend sitting behind me, "How could it be that a star gets killed like that? Well it did happen and Hitchcock deserves much credit for keeping it a secret until the film was released. Unfortunately, this scene has become so familiar that the thrill of surprise is no longer there but the music has remained just as effective in scaring the daylights out of many people.

In my book, A GUIDE TO FILM MUSIC, this is what I wrote about it:

One of the most innovative and imitated scores was composed by Bernard Herrmann for Hitchcock's classic thriller, PSYCHO. The use of strings for what Fred Steiner called Herrmann's 'black and white music.' It was unheard of at that time. Incredibly, Herrmann's score was not nominated for an Oscar.

And which score did win the Oscar for Best Film Score?

It was EXODUS, a good score, but hardly as trend-setting as Herrmann's memorable PSYCHO score, which is much more than just those "shrieking strings" in the murder scenes. The rest of the score, using only strings, is just as effective in setting the moods and raising the suspense levels of various scenes and the score fully deserved to win an Oscar, or at least be nominated.

The Legacy

On this 50th anniversary of the film and score, what should be remembered is that when it was first shown in theaters, the audiences experienced a tremendous thrill of surprise and shock.

A great deal of credit -- Hitchcock said it at least a third of the success -- was due to Bernard Herrmann's music. This thriller had a well written screenplay by Joseph Stefano (Writers Guild Award), based on Robert Bloch's 1959 novel of the same name which is more graphically gruesome and based on a real person, Ed Gein from Wisconsin, who murdered several women and attempted to dress like his dead mother.

The film has excellent acting by all, but especially from Janet Leigh, Vera Miles (Marion's sister Lila Crane), Anthony Perkins (his best ever film role) and Martin Balsam (playing the investigator, Milton Arbogast).

But probably the best remembered things about this film are the three knife scenes planned so effectively by Alfred Hitchcock and the chilling film score by Bernard Herrmann with those "shrieking strings."

For me, watching this film the first time was like taking a wild roller coaster ride at an amusement park and going up those steep inclines and then down quickly with the wind hitting you in the face -- like someone suddenly punched you.

Or to put it another way --

PSYCHO was full of shock 'em and sock 'em moments from two masters of movie suspense: Hitchcock and Herrmann.

Love it or not, this is still the best movie thriller ever made.

-- Roger Hall, June 2010




The Soundtrack



Because of the enormous appeal of this Hitchcock classic suspense thriller, there are many CDs with music from this film, either the complete soundtrack or a suite (PSYCHO: A Narrative For Orchestra).

Here are three of the best:


Conducted by Bernard Herrmann...

PSYCHO: Bernard Herrmann's Complete Music
for Alfred Hitchcock's Classic Suspense Thriller
(National Philharmonic Orchestra)


Conducted by Joel McNeely...

PSYCHO: The Complete Original Motion Picture Score
(Royal Scottish National Orchestra)






Film In Focus


A series of significant films and music scores
from the great films of the past (1930s-1960s)

Click here



Listen to composers and critics telling about the music at this NPR link:

Bernard Herrmann's Score to PSYCHO

See also:

American Film Institute - 100 Years of Film Scores (PSYCHO No. 4)



Recommended DVD and Books



Psycho (Special Edition) (Universal Legacy Series)

2 DVDs: PSYCHO (Universal Legacy Series -
including Feature Commentary by Stephen Rebello)



Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of PSYCHO by Stephen Rebello



Hitchcock's Music by Jack Sullivan




Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller

PSYCHO: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller
by Janet Leigh with Christopher Nickens



Psycho: A Novel

PSYCHO: A Novel by Robert Bloch




100 Essential Film Scores




Bernard Herrmann was a supreme master of film music and today considered by many to be the greatest innovative film composer from the past. There are more listings by him than any other film composer on the Essential Film Scores survey and he is listed at the No. 1 position.PSYCHO is on the list of

100 Essential Film Scores of the 20th Century







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