“Mother ... oh God! Blood! BLOOD!”
To go hand-in-hand with the long-awaited release of Alfred Hitchcock's horror masterpiece, Psycho, on Blu-ray, I thought it would be only fitting if we paid tribute to one of the elements that ensured the film would become the absolute classic that it is. Bernard Herrmann's incredible and indelible score for the proto-slasher movie is, without a doubt, one of the greatest musical accompaniments ever written for a film. Ranking right beside John Williams' score for Jaws, John Carpenter's for Halloween and Jerry Goldsmith's for Alien and The Omen, what Herrmann accomplished here was something that is actually incredibly rare in the field of film composition. Not only did he follow the on-screen action, beat for beat, but he found of way of underpinning the emotional and, even more skilfully, the innermost psychological currents running through the characters and their motivations, and developing the unnerving theme of obsession, pre-destination, fate and destiny with a lyrical beauty that makes pure dread utterly beguiling. His music told the same story but from an instinctual standpoint that served to join the dots and fill in the blanks - although in much too subtle and intelligent a manner than to merely blurt out the details. Herrmann actually got inside the head of the doomed Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and of all those who enter into the weird domain of crazy old Mother Bates.
Although Herrmann had already enjoyed a hugely successful and profoundly influential working relationship with Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer on their stop-motion fantasy classics The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver, The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, Mysterious Island and Jason And The Argonauts, the composer had fashioned an extremely productive and innovative, though ultimately doomed partnership with Hitchcock. His scores for The Trouble With Harry, Vertigo and North By Northwest are, of course, timeless classics of mood, desire and excitement, with Vertigo being the clear antecedent to which his music for Psycho owes a distinct debt. But Herrmann had also explored the frightening machinations of a broken mind before, as well. Back in 1941 he provided a dark and mesmerising symphony of the macabre for the terrific Hangover Square (DVD reviewed separately) and equally, that same year, the fierce obsessional clouds of a haunted ego for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. And after Psycho, such elegant, doomed and somehow celestial mood-capture would serve him and the films Cape Fear, Twisted Nerve, Sisters, Taxi Driver and Obsession to soul-tainting perfection. Basically, when it came to exploring the labyrinthine halls of the mind and its potential for warped delusion, there was nobody who could hold a candle to Bernard Herrmann.
What he does with Psycho is to deliver clues to us, all the way through, via nuance, permutation of motif and theme, and the inspired scene-by-scene subversion, ascension, descent, crescendo and decrescendo and even retrograde (playing an established motif backwards) thereof, to either reinforce our suspicions or to subtly hint at what is really going on behind the scenes. His score warns us about, and then spectates upon the cruel events that take place. In the history of the genre, and this is taking into account such dazzling brilliance from Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Miklos Rosza (whose work on Hitchcock's incredible Spellbound certainly comes the closest to this ... and, man, that theremin!) John Barry, James Horner, Danny Elfman and Christopher Young who have all worked in this disturbing no-man's land of cerebral torment, no-one, but no-one else has ever managed to convey menace so successfully and sublimely beneath the masquerade of such openly calm and tranquil music. With the film effectively a work of two halves - the first act leading up to Janet Leigh's date with destiny in the shower of her Cabin 1 in the Bates Motel, and the second act merely all that follows afterwards - the struggle was on for both Hitch and Herr to maintain the level of dread and anxiety all the way through. Martin Balsam's fateful climbing of the stairs, and Vera Miles' shocking discovery down in the basement notwithstanding, the film and its score contrived to elicit suspense not purely from the point-of-view of the potential victims, but from mad Norman Bates, himself, as he hastily attempts to cover his (Mother's) tracks and dispose of the evidence of the murder. We'd had sympathetic killers before, but never like this. Even when you know that Anthony Perkins' bookish mummy's boy is the murderer, and is as mad as a hatter, you totally empathise with him and even, in a perverse way, come to root for him. The film was shocking for a great many reasons - besides the obvious stuff, there was a lunch-break quickie and a flushing toilet - but this connection with and understanding of a deranged psychopath was a total bucking of the system and the conventions to which audiences normally adhered when they sat down to watch a film.
This was heady stuff - figuratively and literally speaking - and if it was to come off successfully and keep viewers glued to the screen despite forcing them to witness atrocities and to confront some uncomfortable truths, the score was going to have to go the extra mile in providing that unseen conduit that would place them inside the mind of a monster.
Bernard Herrmann was the only man for the job.
This re-recording from Joel McNeely and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, released by Varese Sarabande a good number of years ago, but still widely available, marks the first time that Herrmann's complete score has been made available. Although a poor fourteen-minute suite of the score appeared in 1968, and Herrmann, himself, recorded the score with the National Philharmonic Orchestra in 1975, this is surely the best that it has ever sounded. McNeely has also released re-recordings of other Herrmann scores such as his unused work for Torn Curtain, and his classic compositions for North By Northwest, Vertigo and Citizen Kane to much acclaim. With his faithful interpretation of Psycho (album produced by the ubiquitous Robert Townson), he and the RSNO clearly surpass themselves.
Predominantly string-based and slyly played with muted mikes in all but one crucial cue, his score is the music of insanity - deceptive, masked, haunting, tragic and ferocious. Even the quieter, more harmonious lulls have an underlying edge of innate tension that lace through them like a slowly spreading frost. You get the genuine feeling that the orchestra is walking (or playing) on eggshells, so fragile and dangerous is the path that they take and the atmosphere that they evoke.
Much parodied of course, the film's main title theme, called The Prelude (Track 1), is a belter of a composition. Famously and very cheekily “homaged” by Richard Band in his main theme for Stuart Gordon's gloriously gory Re-animator, this was actually written before Saul Bass had fully created his ultra-stylish animated title sequence. Herrmann's opening gambit is ambitious, catchy and pulse-racing. It contains six sections that are delineated with three major motifs and one melody. Both Bass and Herrmann strove to combine the two elements - music and symbolism - into one fusion that depicted the clinical beauty of clue-gathering and the intricate trap that a powerful psychosis causes in the mind. Both score and imagery, therefore, conspire to inform us of what is to follow ... as well as warning us that it is now already too late to escape. As the final speeding animated lines interconnect, Alfred Hitchcock's name disappears and the lines switch around to form what looks like a graphic equaliser or, if you like, the pipes on a church organ, Herrmann's music bows-out on a rare sustained cadence of perfect symbiosis with the visuals from Bass, the titles opening-out on to a vista of sun-drenched Phoenix, Arizona.
An exciting piece, The Prelude is the starkest reminder of North By Northwest that this score has to offer, with its urging, insistent drive and sense of swirling, galloping pursuit. In a way, this theme does not appear, at first, to fit the score at large. It seems to speak of chases, of action, of mistaken identities and of a desperate race against time. But then you realise that this is what Psycho is all about as well. After a fashion. Racing violins and celli gather together for the hunt. A storming ostinato barrels along underneath. High piercing strings puncture the clouds, somehow egging-on the whole stampede taking place beneath them. It is a giddy and exhilarating introduction.
Glacial textures climb and slide throughout The City, ushering us towards our controversial heroine and her secret lover as the predicament they find themselves in introduces a heavy and deadly burden upon Marion. With his previous entries into the realm of the fractured psyche - Spellbound and Vertigo - Hitchcock had fully embraced a romantic subplot and the subsequent scores from Rozsa and Herrmann had reflected this with incredibly lush and tender love themes. With Psycho, there is no such concession. What little romance there is to be found comes in the all-too-brief and already illicit love affair between Marion and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and even this, as the music in Tracks 3 and 4 (Marion and Marion and Sam), is tinged with fateful regret and the forbidden fruit of star-crossed lovers. You already understand completely that this relationship cannot possibly survive. Temptation, Track 5, places the teasing cadence of jeopardy into the mix. High-range violins sustain notes of tension as Marion decides to steal $40 thousand from her boss, a foolish act of love that will cost her dearly. The gentleness of this is amazing, yet don't be taken in by this slowly ebbing dynamic. Once she has committed the deed, The Prelude's tense agitation returns as Marion attempts to leave Phoenix with the cash in Flight.
Track 7, Patrol Car, covers the scene when Marion is followed by the police back into town after having pulled over and been discovered asleep. In Hitch's hands, this is an utterly bland sequence that comprises of little more than three very basic shots, and Marion repeatedly glancing in her rear-view mirror, that totally typify the director's original intentions to have the production follow a strict TV movie style. (He had only a fraction of his normal budget and he made sure to maximise his economy by bringing in the crew from his TV series and filming on the Paramount backlot.) It is left entirely to Herrmann to provide the necessary frisson of tension and jeopardy for this scene - which he does with more hard edged flavours of The Prelude. More subterfuge ensues when Marion exchanges cars and makes off yet again. Driving into a dark and glowering rainstorm (Track 10), The Prelude once again informs the pace of the score. This time, the melody strikes a variation when the high strings slip and slide for a spell, before returning to their original and more familiar twisted momentum as Marion gives up the escape and turns in to the welcome sight of the Bates Motel. After a reminder of the motifs found in Track 5's Temptation and Track 9's The Package, which are both concerned with the stolen money, Herrmann returns to his theme for The City as Marion politely accepts an invitation to milk and sandwiches from Norman Bates, the young proprietor of the motel. It is a deceptively becalmed moment that strangely takes the edge of the theft and the escape and now, away from the anonymous and uncaring city, takes on the air of a transition from one world to another. Marion has effectively left reality and her life ... behind her. This theme is carried over through the next two tracks with fragile and sustained long notes of icy high-range strings slowly sealing the traveller into a web of madness. After hearing an argument taking place up at the house on the hill - Hitch's awesome “California Gothic” - between Norman and his aged mother, the two converse cordially and a touch awkwardly in The Parlor (Track 13), Herrmann's motif taking on the air of a passive observer. This phrase will soon, of course, be utterly metamorphosed into the exact opposite - the aggressive voyeur.
In Track 14, The Madhouse, the forward motif is a three-note figure that weaves and morphs throughout with almost imperceptible ease, sliding and rolling all around us like invisible coils. There is a connection formed between Marion and Norman - between the prey and the hunter - and you can hear strains of Marion's theme curling into the passage alongside the dangerous new theme being set up for Norman. “We all go a little mad sometimes,” says Norman in defence of his mother when Marion suggests that he might be better off placing her in an institution. The Peephole infamously comes next, the score now taking on a distinctly unnerving dimension. A slow jutting ostinato ever so gently marks the moment of no return after Norman has a little gander at Marion getting undressed through a tiny spyhole in the wall. Music from The Parlor underscores The Bathroom, delivering that deceptive voice of vague, unresolved unease as Marion prepares to take the most notorious shower in cinematic history.
And then comes Track 17, containing possibly the most famous piece of movie-music ever composed. You know it. You love it. The Murder is exactly one minute and three seconds of pure homicidal symphonic rage. Practically every orchestra going has had a stab at it - so to speak - and the RSNO, here, do Marion Crane's horrific slaughter proper justice. Like The Prelude, this frenzied chapter has been riffed-on, re-used, emulated and parodied ever since, but its blood-curdling power remains undiminished. The only track that is played un-muted, The Murder takes its violin executioners to extreme high-range and scythes them across the yielding flesh of the orchestra. Famously, Hitch had initially wanted this vital sequence to be un-scored, with just the sound of the water and the screaming to fill the air. Well, Herrmann knew better and, unbeknownst to the director, provided the cue anyway. Once Hitch heard the piece, he realised his mistake and Herrmann's shrieking first and second violins and his violent violas stayed in. And the rest is history. The new 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release of Psycho has a feature that allows you to experience the sequence with and without the music ... and you don't need me to tell you how vast a difference there is. The final dark chords that signify Marion's eventual death are staggering in their depth and savagery, but listen to the urgent little gulping lurches that sound like the last gasps of life sputtering out. Undoubtedly, this is music to die for. Or to kill to.
I love the next sequence of tracks, 18 to 24, as Norman attempts to clean up the mess and dispose of the body. What we hear now is a complete reversal of the dread and concern we previously felt for Marion. Now just a cadaver that must be hidden and gotten rid of, our allegiance, as wrong as it seems, lies with Norman. Herrmann delivers what amounts to a “delicate” tour de force as Norman discovers The Body slumped on the floor of the shower, wraps it in The Curtain, and washes the blood away with The Water. Juddering low compulsions from bass and celli nudge into shivery high strings, evoking the dirty business that must be done. Track 21, The Water, is wonderful. This is where Herrmann develops a pulsating hum from tremolos that swirls like a swarm of bees as skittish wings of higher strings flutter and dance about. Anxious and yet incredibly furtive - precisely how Norman has to be - this is terrific stuff that is almost sprightly in the face of danger and death. And there are also frequent little surges of gathering vigour from the celli that cheekily recall the opening bars of Wagner's The Ride Of The Valkyries. This is reprised again in the longer cue, Cleanup, which receives its world premier presentation here. In actual fact, this cue accompanied a scene that was ultimately omitted from the final cut. This section is tremendously shivery and electrifying and let's not forget that this is where we are getting worried for the killer, himself!
Track 24, The Swamp, has certainly been an influence on composer Howard (LOTR) Shore, who has heartily incorporated such long figures of high-plateau notes stretched out almost infinitesimally in the likes of his scores for David Cronenberg. Passages in The Brood, Videodrome, The Dead Zone and The Fly certainly seem born from this. Herrmann brings back the three-note Madhouse motif with added dissonance.
In The Search (A) a less forceful variation of The Prelude provides a canopy to the montage of Martin Balsam's detective Milton Arbogast, hired by Marion's worried sister, Lila, played by Vera Miles, as he checks out the motels in the vicinity. Track 26 then has the gumshoe, now at the Bates Motel and clearly suspicious of Norman, spotting The Shadow (Track 26) in the window of the old house. The three-note motif from The Madhouse returns to spike his instincts that all is not right, and establishes another killer/victim connection. Phone Booth carries this dark insight a little further as Arbogast makes a quick call to Lila to inform her of his findings.
The ingenious thing about the score is that Herrmann refuses to embellish the tension and suspense during this second act when Arbogast and Lila conduct their searches, instead maintaining the same level of mysterioso as when Marion first arrives at the Bates Motel. In this way we are, once again, lulled by the music because just when we feel it should be signposting imminent danger, it seems to go the opposite way. Thus, when the shocks arrive, they are even more magnified and devastating. Herrmann can wreak orchestral havoc when he wants to - I mean just listen to his Cyclops theme for 7th Voyage Of Sinbad or the multitude of raucous brass tsunamis from Jason And The Argonauts - but with Psycho it is his measured sustaining of an already skin-prickling atmosphere that ensures the epic success of the score. The very fact that The Murder cue is so damn violent and unbearably vicious means that we are left in a state of shock anyway and, from that point onwards, probably living in sheer terror of it occurring again. Herrmann, of course, realises this ... and plays his cards close to his chest, thereby keeping us on our toes.
The Porch raises the suspense with unreachable strings that soar slowly overhead, before celli add depth and deliberation to the detective's actions. This gives way to The Stairs, in which Arbogast foolishly opts to enter the old house and conduct a search for the shadowy occupant. The Madhouse motif collides with little pizzicatos that nudge him deeper into the gothic abode, compelling him to climb the stairs and probe the upper floors. Big mistake. A shorter reprise of The Murder shrieks through Track 30, The Knife, as Arbogast is suddenly confronted by Mrs. Bates at the top of the staircase and is vividly slain in what is actually the film's goriest moment. Glissandi adds an appropriately shocking new insectoid dimension to the classic stinger.
Now Sam Loomis re-enters the film and comes looking for his girl. In Track 31's The Search (B), he investigates the motel to a slowly strangled variation of The City, reminding us of his background and of the fact that he, himself, is now crossing over into this kaleidoscopic void of lunacy. But the film's narrative then detours, with both Sam and Lila and the Sheriff (John McIntire) helping more clues to fall into place. Certain that Marion has met with foul play at the Bates Motel, both Sam and Lila return and scour first Cabin 10 and then Cabin 1, to the tense strings of apprehension from Herrmann's double-bank of violins. The aura of unease is, once again, delicate but dangerous, fraught with trepidation yet also unmistakably insistent, reflecting the determination of their crusade. The strings climb in high gleaming slivers, whilst celli gently throb beneath. Sam manages to distract Norman, allowing Lila to climb The Hill with a strange and threatening rhythm in counterpoint to the descending string phrases from the orchestra, symbolising a slow remorseless progression towards the truth. The Bedroom (Track 37) and Toys (Track 38) are pensive and poised, almost doing a balancing act with double-basses and loitering high strings as Lila moves through the house. The undulating rhythm of the former, a measured drive that empowers Lila to keep looking, is suddenly injected with high tension as Norman, after knocking Sam unconscious during a struggle in the motel, is spied by Lila racing up to the house. The film has now taken on a much more kinetic pace and, for once, we feel that we have a clearly delineated threat. Lila hides under the stairs, with terrifically agitated tremolos overriding the steady texture of icy mysterioso as Norman bursts into the house.
This understated intensity is carried over into The Cellar (Track 38), to which Lila flees. And, in the film, one of the greatest ever screams in the genre is unleashed by Vera Miles as Lila makes that final terrifying Discovery and turns around what she thinks is Mrs. Bates in her rocking chair. Behind her, the fully psychotic Norman, now dressed as his murderous dead mother and armed with a butcher knife, suddenly appears in the film's awesome climactic shocker. This is Hitchcock's double-whammy effect and provides a film that could have been seen as struggling to meet up to the power of its first act with the perfect heart-stopping capper. Musically, Herrmann was actually disinclined to re-use The Murder motif that Hitchcock wanted and actually plays in the finished film, and this cue, instead, keeps the former momentum of The Cellar and simply rises to a crescendo of shearing strings and emphatic double-bass, as the composer originally intended. The jury is probably still out on who made the right call. The Murder motif does make a wonderfully justified third major appearance in the film - it is, after all, another full-on mad Mrs Bates moment in which Norman would have claimed another victim - but Herrmann must have reasoned that since the full deed wasn't going to be committed, then the sacred theme should not be heard. But who knows for sure? If you want the full effect, you can easily program your playlist to include Track 30's equally abridged variation of The Knife at this point.
Deliberately frustrating is the score's final coda in Finale, which offers us neither a sense of closure nor a happy ending. Instead we hear suggestions from the genteel insanity of The Madhouse for celli and basses and a last, dark and lonely chord of spectral dissonance left to hover in the back of the mind as, in the film, Norman's own persona, as he sits in a cell, is revealed to have been totally devoured by his mother's. This was 1960 and the recognised beginning of the unending nightmare in terms of Hollywood's nihilistic interpretation of the world around it was still a good eight years away, when Sam Peckinpah and George A. Romero reinvented the medium of chaos and destruction. Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock, therefore, prophesied the direction that the genre would be taking on into the next decade. Evil wouldn't necessarily be defeated as the closing shots of the incarcerated Norman would reveal. In fact, as society was about to prove, it would often be rehabilitated and released back into society ... to kill again. And this was the magnificent inspiration for Psycho II ... but that's another story, folks.
Genre-score buffs will no doubt recognise that beyond Howard Shore and Pino Donaggio, even the great Ennio Morricone semi-utilised the gentle apprehension that is struck up in Track 14's The Madhouse, and much of what we hear in the second act, for one of his more pervasive themes in John Carpenter's The Thing. Very apt, in fact, considering that the characters in the beleaguered Antarctic base, which becomes a veritable madhouse, itself, may have hidden identities and agendas of their own. It is also worth mentioning that Roque Banos' haunting score for the superb Christian Bale thriller, The Machinist, is a direct homage to Herrmann's work on Psycho, too.
My favourite composer of all-time remains Jerry Goldsmith, and it is a fitting tribute that he actually supplied the excellent score for Psycho II in 1983 (Carter Burwell took over the musical reins for the Anthony Perkins-directed Psycho III), but I have an absolute devotion to everything that Bernard Herrmann created for films and TV. My main fascination for his work seems to revolve around this uncanny ability he has to evoke a sense of unease, apprehension and slow-burn dread. Just why this sort of disturbing voice is so appealing lies in how lyrical, beautiful and downright irresistible he makes it sound. Going into a spook house, such as Mother's Victorian hilltop mansion, is like a moth being drawn irrevocably towards a flame. With Herrmann's deft and insinuating touch, none of us could refuse such an invitation, even if it can only lead us towards insanity and murder.
Alfred Hitchcock once quipped that Herrmann's thrilling score probably accounted for 33% of the effect that Psycho had upon audiences. Whilst his movie is an unrivalled masterpiece of Cinema in general, and of the horror genre specifically, he is out on this estimate by rather a large margin.
Powerful. Unforgettable. Hypnotic. And, yes, psychotic. Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho is a bonafide classic that can be copied, but never equalled.
This unlimited release from Varese Sarabande comes with a richly detailed set of notes from Kevin Mulhall in a 12-page booklet.
Full Track Listing
1. Prelude 1.55
2. The City 2.12
3. Marion 1.36
4. Marion And Sam 1.52
5. Temptation 2.51
6. Flight 1.07
7. Patrol Car 1.04
8. The Car Lot 1.45
9. The Package 1.31
10. The Rainstorm 3.09
11. Hotel Room 2.04
12. The Window 1.13
13. The Parlour 1.37
14. The Madhouse 1.54
15. The Peephole 3.00
16. The Bathroom 1.02
17. The Murder 1.03
18. The Body 0.15
19. The Office 1.20
20. The Curtain 1.15
21. The Water 1.46
22. The Car 0.52
23. Cleanup 2.14
24. The Swamp 2.03
25. The Search 0.41
26. The Shadow 0.50
27. Phone Booth 0.53
28. The Porch 1.04
29. The Stairs 2.58
30. The Knife 0.27
31. The Search (B) 1.39
32. The First Floor 2.44
33. Cabin 10 1.07
34. Cabin 1 1.05
35. The Hill 1.03
36. The Bedroom 0.59
37. The Toys 1.01
38. The Cellar 1.06
39. Discovery 0.41
40. Finale 1.32
Purists can argue back and forth about the value of this re-recording over the original release from Herrmann, but the fact remains that this interpretation from Joel McNeely and RSNO both sounds superior and contains the “complete” score as written by Herrmann. With great cover art and a very finely written booklet of notes on the film and the score, this is the aural Psycho that every motel should have piped throughout its rooms on dark and stormy nights. As awesome an experience for the ears and the imagination as Hitchcock's film is for the eyes and the mind, the score for Psycho is a cultural icon to match the themes for both Jaws and Halloween in the symphonic Halls of the Macabre.
Monolithic, yet surprisingly delicate for much of the time, this is the music of the night - a spectral delight that bewitches, haunts and transforms. Bernard Herrmann would see his relationship with Alfred Hitchcock fall apart over the next few years when his refusal to supply Torn Curtain with a modern, breezy score was met with fury by the director. 1964's Marnie would be their last successful collaboration. Rising above the great Vertigo and the propulsive North By Northwest, Psycho remains the pinnacle of their creative partnership.
So to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of Cinema's most defining and iconic moments, make Mother proud and double-up your purchase of Psycho on Blu-ray with this fantastic recording of its inspired and indomitable score.
You'd have to be crazy not to.
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