Psycho! – Music and Manipulation in Hitchcock’s Great Comedy

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Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating.  I was directing the viewers.  You might say I was playing them, like an organ. – Alfred Hitchcock

[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60%. I have to finish it for him. – Bernard Herrmann

It’s almost Halloween, and nothing says Halloween like Alfred Hitchcock. So let’s take a look at the music in Hitchcock’s great comedy, Psycho.

Maybe comedy is a bit of a stretch. But Hitchcock himself has long held that his low budget, black and white 1960 thriller, which literally invented the genre of slasher films, is a comedy.

I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho…The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.

What did Hitchcock mean by this exactly?  He was famous for his wry wit and it is possible the real joke was to later classify the film itself as a joke. But there is also a likely earnestness in his claim. Hitchcock elaborates that he envisioned Psycho as a thrill ride, akin to a “switchback railway,” or rollercoaster.

It was intended to make people scream and yell and so forth – but no more than screaming and yelling on a switchback railway…you mustn’t go too far because you do want them to get off the switchback railway, giggling with pleasure.

Audiences certainly enjoyed the roller coaster ride of the film, and continue to do so to this day, although perhaps not “giggling with pleasure” at its finish. Does this mean Hitchcock failed, went too far? Hardly. What separates Psycho from its countless imitators is precisely its darkness and heft, the superb performances from the entire ensemble, especially Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, and perhaps most importantly Bernard Herrmann’s musical score.

That’s not to say the film lacks the tongue-in-cheek quality Hitchcock intended. There are quite a few laughs in the film, mostly from the brilliant bit performances. Pat Hitchcock shines as Marion’s homely co-worker (“He was flirting with you. I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring.”) as does John Anderson as used car salesman “California Charlie” (“You can do anything you’ve a mind to. Being a woman you will.”) and Helen Wallace as the eccentric hardware store customer concerned with finding a humane insect poison (“They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.”). Even Norman balances his darkness with humorous bits of awkwardness, such as his incessant Kandy Korn nibbling.

Alfred Hitchcock was a celebrity as a personality as well as a director, and served as a perfect pitchman for his films. The marketing campaign for Psycho is almost as infamous as the film itself. It began with pre-production: Hitchcock bought up every copy of the novel on which the film was based so that the story would be as little known as possible, he had the actors sign confidentiality agreements before filming commenced, and he openly refused to allow Paramount to photograph the set. This anti-publicity served as ingenious publicity.

Hitchcock appreciated the shock value in killing off his star less than halfway into the picture, so he implemented a rule with the contractual cooperation of theater managers to not allow anyone into the theater once the film had begun. This, coupled with a recording played in theaters at the conclusion of the film of Hitchcock asking the audience not to give away the plot – “It’s the only one we’ve got” – created a publicity frenzy.

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The entire Psycho production was held to a tight budget, and this included the music. Necessity being the mother of invention, Herrmann used only strings, rather than a full orchestra, in order to keep costs down. The all-string ensemble is what gives the music, and thus the film, its unnerving effect. In addition, Herrmann had the strings play with a mute, creating a cold, percussive sound. The only time the strings play sans mute is in the shrieking violins of the shower scene, where the wailing juxtaposition heightens the already disturbing sequence.

Hitchcock, who was not often wrong, had wanted no music during the shower scene. He felt the lack of music would serve the squeamish, uncomfortable effect he was going for. Herrmann convinced him otherwise, and after one listen to the music Herrmann had composed for the shower sequence, Hitchcock was convinced. (Hitchcock would later fully realize this idea of no music with great success with The Birds, which has only bird-like sound effects and no score. The lack of music ads an unidentifiable tension throughout the film as chaos descends unexplained upon our false sense of serenity.)

The musical themes associated with Norman in the first half of the film (up to the shower scene) are included in Herrmann’s “Prelude,” which plays over Saul Bass’ brilliant opening title sequence, so when we hear these themes throughout the movie, there is a sense of familiarity and character identification, which Hitchcock uses to manipulate us. The “Prelude” begins with the dramatic minor major seventh chord that has become synonymous with the film, and then segues into a relentless half-step motif (which composer John Williams would later appropriate for his score to Jaws).

In the scene where Marion, escaping with the stolen money, becomes disoriented on her long drive through the blinding rain, the music and the actor’s business take on a playful interplay. The score heightens the tension of the scene while Marion plays out the events of the day in her head via voice over. The windshield wipers swipe and Janet Leigh’s eyes blink in rhythm to the musical cues. The score cascades down from high-pitched violins, ending on a dark, ominous tone, as the music fades into the sound of the rain and the windshield wipers keeping time as Marion finally emerges from her temporarily blindness with the promising hope of “vacancy” lit up in neon like a lantern in the night guiding lost travelers to safe harbor.

The now legendary shower murder theme begins with the main theme’s tonic of E-flat, then descends into atonality. The high pitched screech of the violins are almost birdlike, another musical reference to Norman’s character, who is associated with birds through the imagery of the taxidermy in his parlor, among other bits of seed planted among the dialog. This scene is the hinge on which the first half and second half of the story swings. The musical themes in the second half of the film – the story not of Marion’s flight but of Norman’s decent into madness – are presented more atonally, with only vague reference to the music of the first half of the film.

After the shower murder, a new theme emerges which was not included in the “Prelude.” Known as the “Madhouse Theme,” it is an ominous three-note sequence which illustrates the madness and disjointed unraveling of Norman in the second half of the film. Herrmann would expound on this three note motif for his final score, the haunting theme to 1976’s Taxi Driver.

Among Norman’s possessions, mostly sad children’s toys, is a record on a turntable. A close-up reveals the record is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, commonly known as the Eroica. Beethoven originally envisioned the symphony as a tribute to Napoleon, hence the “heroic” moniker, although the composer had a change of heart after Bonaparte declared himself emperor.  There is much speculation as to the meaning of this piece in Norman’s room. One theory is that Hitchcock intended the audience would misread the title of the piece as “Erotica,” thus planting a subliminal notion in the minds of the audience (in the novel, Norman collects pornography, something that would have been difficult to show on screen in 1960). The film is already drenched in sex, from post-coital Marion in her white bra in the opening scene, to her black bra as she decides to steal the money – as if dressing for her execution later that day – even up to and including her not-quite-naked flesh in the vicious shower scene. Indeed, Psycho explores the interconnectivity of sex and violence in disturbing and blatant ways.

There may be something to this theory. Hitchcock was notorious for overseeing every detail of his films, and he enjoyed jokes of this nature. He certainly made no qualms about his intention to manipulate his audience with Psycho.

Another theory is that Herrmann’s score was influenced musically by Beethoven’s third symphony. The Eroica begins with two forceful, staccato E-flat chords, which grab our attention and bear a strong similarity in tone and feel to Herrmann’s opening. Herrmann uses a B-flat minor major seventh chord to open. By adding a flatted third to the major seventh he creates a minor-major ambiguity and unease. Further, 2:30 into the first movement of the Eroica (and again at 5:30), Beethoven scores six stabbing staccato chords that bear an eerie similarity to the famous shower theme.

Later, as the camera pans Norman’s room and we see the record, Herrmann homages Beethoven’s funeral march from the second movement of the symphony, a not-so-subtle wink. On a more symbolic level, the funeral march plays as we begin to witness the death of Norman (“The battle is over, and the dominant personality has won”).

Perhaps it is because, like Norman, Beethoven went a little mad. The Eroica  is peppered with the same kind of dissonance and forcefulness as Herrmann’s film score. In fact, the Eroica bridges the periods between Beethoven’s earlier, more traditional compositions, and his later, madder period, just as Psycho explores Norman’s ultimate breaking point.

In addition to the funeral march nod, the music in the scene in Norman’s room turns from the incessant atonality and dissonance we’ve experienced since the shower murder into a diatonic sound. Again, part of the “humor” in Psycho is the way Hitchcock unashamedly manipulates us, especially with the music. We sympathize with Norman, the awkward but endearing motel keeper, initially. During the shower murder, Herrmann’s score references Norman’s character, which makes us feel instinctively ill at ease. Once we learn of Mother’s crimes, we pity Norman as we would an abused child, yet we are uncomfortable with the ease with which he covers up for her evils. Even still, there is a moment after Norman dumps Marion’s car in the swamp where it pauses and it seems the car may not sink. After this brief pause the car begins to slowly submerge until it is concealed entirely by the swamp, and we as the audience breath a collective sigh of relief. Norman nibbles Kandy Korn. Hitchcock smiles.

By showing us Norman’s stunted adolescence via a voyeuristic tour of his room and accompanying this quiet moment with the one bit of diatonic music in an otherwise chaotic and disjointed atonal mess, Hitchcock and Herrmann inject us with one last breath of pity for Norman, before pulling the curtain back and revealing him as the monster that he is, slashing our own judgment and sympathies with the return of those shrieking violins, this time stabbing our own conscious repeatedly against the visual of death and madness: a skull in a chair wearing a wig, a man in a dress wielding a butcher knife, a swinging, naked bulb. Just as we begin to register and process what has happened, he cuts to the clinical calm of the psychiatric hospital.

Psycho is as genre-evasive as it is genre-creating. The countless slasher flicks that have followed in its wake usually miss either the weight or the humor. Halloween, for example, is thrilling, but lacks Hitchcock’s wit. And while John Carpenter’s score to Halloween is great in its eeriness, the music lacks Herman’s complexity, depth of emotion and playfulness. Similarly, the slasher-comedies such as the Scream franchise succeed in mixing humor and horror, but lack the depth of character or psychiatry in Hitchcock’s masterpiece.

Hitchcock was, and remains, the undisputed Master of Suspense. It is humor and the macabre working together – in the direction, the acting, and the music – that creates the magic in Psycho. Just as the word “mad” can mean angry, insane or amusing, Psycho contains multitudes – it is not necessarily a comedy, but it is not necessarily not.

And we all go a little mad sometimes.

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2 responses

  1. Who hasn’t simulated that stringed shriek while making a stabbing motion, at least once! Hitchcock was the master, indeed. There will never be another like him!

  2. Excellent post! Beethoven’s music is divine! You might enjoy watching this discussion of the oboe solo in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

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