Cineaste (2006) - Psycho: The Music of Terror
- article: Psycho: The Music of Terror
- author(s): Jack Sullivan
- journal: Cineaste (2006)
- issue: volume 32, issue 1, page 20
- journal ISSN: 0009-7004
- publisher: Cineaste Publishers
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, American cinema, Anthony Perkins, Bernard Herrmann, Blackmail (1929), Brian De Palma, Classic films, Composers, Feature films, Film (Music), Film (Productions), Film (USA), Film directors, Film history, Film industry, Film music, Film scores, Franz Waxman, François Truffaut, Hilton A. Green, Horror films, Influences, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, John Williams, Joseph Stefano, Miklós Rózsa, New York City, New York, Norman Lloyd, Notorious (1946), Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), Robert Bloch, Roy Webb, Royal S. Brown, Sabotage (1936), Saboteur (1942), Saul Bass, Scenes, Spellbound (1945), Stage Fright (1950), The Birds (1963), The Paradine Case (1947), Vertigo (1958)
The most famous cue in movie history, "The Knife" in Psycho's shower scene, has been ripping through our culture ever since Bernard Herrmann secretly created it. This is the cinema's primal scream, deeply imbedded in our moviegoing subconscious. Anyone who teaches film knows that it is the one piece of movie music all students, even the most clueless, instantly recognize. (John Williams's Jaws is the possible exception, which Hitchcock shrewdly divined when he hired Williams as his final composer just after the release of Spielberg's film.) Psycho's strings scream through everything from the disco version in Re-Animator to kitschy parodies in The Simpsons, Daddy Day Care, and Inspector Gadget II. Just as Vertigo is the definitive sound of obsession, Psycho is the sound of primordial dread.
Herrmann's music is inseparably linked with the film in the popular imagination; indeed, without it, Psycho would probably not exist. As we shall see, Hitchcock came to dislike Psycho so much that he was about to slice it up for television--until Herrmann's shower cue made him change his mind. Herrmann, who was on the set frequently, believed in the project; he instinctively knew Psycho's potential and fought to get it released.
When someone asked Herrmann what the shower cue meant, he simply said "terror."(n1) This is exactly correct. Edmund Burke, Anne Radcliffe, and other eighteenth-century theorists of the high Gothic linked terror with the Sublime, a force evoking not superficial shock but a terribleness deep and abiding, not only sudden catastrophe but a fundamental treachery in life, a sense that the world is infinitely dangerous. In the state of terror, no safe haven exists, even in a comfort zone such as a shower. Herrmann might have answered "horror," which is contained in terror, but that is a more physical, present-tense emotion, a temporary effect of terror. The dread we take away from Psycho is lasting and has continued to haunt our culture since its creation in 1960. Sometimes horror is all we can bear. Burke's advice is to enjoy it, at least in our imaginations, to "fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime."(n2)
The awesome dissonance of Psycho works independently even as it instantly evokes Norman Bates's stabbing knife and Marion Crane's helpless scream. Once again Hitchcock overturned the convention that music must remain subliminally in the background of a film: in the murder scenes it is a force of aggression as frightening as the flashing knife; in its quiet moments, it roams grimly wherever it pleases, investing the most banal images--a toy, a car on an empty highway, a suitcase on a bed, a tchotchke of folding hands--with dread.
Psycho has received so many complex exegeses and ideological spins that it is hard to reconstruct the original delightful horror that initially made it so special. Those of us who saw it in 1960 remember something very different from the critics' musings on phallocentrism, patriarchal hierarchies, and male gazes. Not that gender is irrelevant. Males remember falling out of their chairs when they saw Janet Leigh in a brassiere, then diving under them when "The Knife" cue commenced. Females, including Janet Leigh, remember not being able to take a shower for a very long time. It is easy to forget that Hitchcock conce...
- Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fire's Center, 239. The cue in its initial appearance is called "The Murder"; when it reappears during Arbogast's killing, it is called "The Knife."
- For an authoritative analysis of the Sublime, see Jacques Barzun's article on Romanticism in Jack Sullivan, ed., Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (New York, 1986), 356.
- Truffaut, Hitchcock/Truffaut, 268.
- Joseph Stefano, interview with the author, October 16, 1999.
- Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (New York, 1990), 138.
- Smith, A Heart at Fire's Center, 237.
- Rebello, Psycho, 138.
- Margaret Herrick Library.
- Smith, A Heart at Fire's Center, 240.
- Rebello, Psycho, 136. Rebello's evidence comes from the screenplay, which describes only traffic noises.
- 1) Smith, A Heart at Fire's Center, 238.
- Joseph Stefano, interview with the author, April 15, 2005.
- Rebello, Psycho, 139.
- Stefano, interview with the author, April 15, 2005.
- Rebello, Psycho, 143.
- Ibid., 144.
- Janet Leigh, Hitchcock Centenary Conference, New York, October 16, 1999.
- Irwin Bazelon, Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music; David Wishart, CD liner note, Psycho: The Essential Alfred Hitchcock, Silva Screen 1101; Palmer, liner note, Psycho, Unicorn-Kachana, 2021; Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood, 275; Miklos Rozsa, Foreword to Edward Johnson, Bernard Herrmann: Hollywood's Music Dramatist (Rickmansworth, 1977), 2; Smith, A Heart at Fire's Center, 238.
- Royal S. Brown, "Bernard Herrmann and the Subliminal Pulse of Violence," High Fidelity and Musical America, March 1976, 75.
- Cited in Jack Sullivan," A Little Night Music," Washington Post Book World, September 6, 1998, 7.
- Truffaut, Hitchcock/Truffaut, 269, 276.
- Smith, A Heart at Fire's Center, 237.
- Cited in Palmer, Composer, 274.
- Rebello, Psycho, 139.
- Ibid., 138.
- Stefano, interview with the author, September 20, 2001.
- Stefano, interview with the author, April 15, 2005. Hitchcock loved to joke around with Stefano. When Stefano mentioned that he enjoyed the music of Eric Coates, Hitchcock said, "Oh, him. But don't you think that's tea-dance music?"