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The Wall Street Journal (16/Jun/2010) - Film: The Sounds of Violence



Film: The Sounds of Violence

Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" turns 50 this week, but to this day it retains its jagged modernity and jolting terror. Much of its power comes from Bernard Herrmann's music, a score as iconic as the film itself. The shrieking dissonance of "The Murder," surely the most imitated and instantly recognizable film cue, is the cinema's primal scream. It is deeply embedded in our movie-going subconscious, instantly evoking Norman Bates's stabbing knife and Marion Crane's helpless cries.

A force of aggression in the bravura scenes, the score is a haunting presence in the quiet ones, investing the most banal images -- a suitcase on a bed, a car on an empty highway, a naked lightbulb -- with dread. Going far beyond the temporary shock effects of conventional scary-movie scores, the composer summons what Edmund Burke defined as terror -- something deeper than horror, the sense that the world is infinitely treacherous, that no place is safe, even a comfort zone like a shower. That Herrmann used only strings, normally a Hollywood marker for schmaltzy romance, is even more startling.

Herrmann's music did more than just enhance "Psycho"; it probably saved it. A story of illicit love that morphs into a crime thriller and finally a lurid horror shocker, "Psycho" was a sensation with audiences. But during shooting, Hitchcock became convinced it was a dud, that something fundamental was missing, and was on the verge of cutting it up and putting it on television -- until he heard the music. Herrmann passionately believed in the project and was convinced it needed only his score. He composed the shower cue in secret, against Hitchcock's explicit directive, and boldly played it for him after Hitchcock returned to the set from a Christmas break.

This breach of authority was the first indication of an eventual Hitchcock-Herrmann meltdown over issues of control, but its immediate effect was to jump-start a faltering project. Hitchcock suddenly became enthusiastic about "Psycho" and gradually assented to other cues as well, including the anxious violas during the camera's inspection of Marion's stolen money on the bed and the creepy Peeping Tom theme in the Bates motel. Having started with the least music, "Psycho" ended up with more than in any Hitchcock film except "Vertigo." In the words of Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for "Psycho" and died in 2006, "Bernie took the picture and turned it into an opera."

Hitchcock wrote detailed music notes for his composers and sound engineers, but the original directives for "Psycho" were very different from what finally materialized. "Mr. Hitchcock's Suggestions for the Placement of Music," dated Jan. 8, 1960, reveal that he wanted the shower scene to be silent, and for the picture as a whole to have scant music. Earlier Hitchcock films had used silence to terrifying effect -- the brutal knife killings in "Blackmail" and "Sabotage," the traumatic fall from the Statue of Liberty in "Saboteur" -- so this strategy was not new. The notes call for "no music at all" during "the first motel sequence," and none for the murder of the insurance inspector, though they allow it during his fatal ascent up Norman Bates's staircase: "Continue music when Mother emerges with the raised knife, and shut music off when Arbogast's face is slashed."

Stefano vividly recalled during an interview the transformative effect of the music once Hitchcock allowed it to pulse and slash its way into the picture. A former composer whose judgment Hitchcock trusted, he was treated to four private screenings during various stages of production. "We didn't say more than five or six words to each other," Stefano said. "Going to a Hitchcock movie with Hitchcock was like going to the Vatican with the Pope." Part of the silence during the first three screenings came from the awkwardness of viewing a movie that both men had great hopes for but did not seem to be working. When Hitchcock unveiled the fourth version, the one with Herrmann's score laid in, everything changed: "When I heard it, I nearly fell out of my chair. Hitchcock said the music raised Psycho's impact 33 percent. It raised it for me by another thirty." It wasn't just the shower cue that astonished but everything, beginning with the sultry chords in the opening scene that erupt when the lovers rise from the hotel bed and begin talking: "It was as if Bernie was lying on the floor at the feet of John [Gavin] and Janet [Leigh]. And as they talked, he sent a geyser of music that came up right between them. It was so breathtaking that I gasped."

Stefano's image of the music in "Psycho" as an erupting force of nature -- something you can see as well as hear -- is a testament to the strange palpability of Herrmann's Hitchcock scores, a rejection of the notion that movie music should stay discreetly in the background. "Psycho," their sixth collaboration, was the darkest and most visceral, but it was foreshadowed by the panicked, spitting trumpets in "The Wrong Man," the lonely modal chords in "The Man Who Knew Too Much," and the spiraling arpeggios in "Vertigo."

Hitchcock had tried hiring Herrmann as early as the 1940s, but scheduling problems interfered; by the time Hitchcock landed him in 1955, the sumptuous Korngold-Steiner Hollywood sound had begun to exhaust itself, making Herrmann's moody astringency all the more refreshing. (Broadway would witness a similar shift, as the lush idiom of Rogers and Hammerstein gave way to the dark attenuations of Stephen Sondheim, whose "Sweeney Todd" is a homage to Herrmann.) The harmonic irresolution and brooding malevolence of Herrmann's scores became an indelible part of Hitchcock's late Hollywood masterpieces. Herrmann was Hitchcock's secret sharer, a catalyst for energies darker and more dangerous than Hitchcock's cool sensibility easily allowed.

Hitchcock openly praised Herrmann for the "Psycho" score, something he rarely did with his collaborators, but Herrmann worried that Hitchcock resented his pivotal role in the film's success. "Psycho" was the beginning of a tragic rift that culminated in Hitchcock publicly firing Herrmann in 1966 for disobeying his directives for "Torn Curtain," including an order -- reminiscent of the "Psycho" shower dispute -- that Herrmann not compose music for a brutal killing in the center of the film. According to John Williams, Hitchcock's final composer, "Hitchcock may have felt that his style was too dependent on Herrmann's music, and that may have wounded his pride. They ended up being two matadors opposing one other."

Mr. Sullivan, director of American Studies at Rider University, is the author of "Hitchcock's Music" and "New World Symphonies," both from Yale University Press.