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Friday Feature: “Psycho”

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It is one of the greatest motion picture scores of all time. A suspense classic that immortalized its composer and director for all time. Arguably the most influential in its style. And, half a century later, has never been properly released on any format, ever.

Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, was a stunner from the get-go – not only unlike any film at the time, but unlike any in The Master of Suspense’s lengthy career. The film starts out simply: a conflicted young woman steals a hefty sum of money from her employers to create the life she’d always wanted for herself. While driving to rendezvous with her lover, she stops at a motel run by a quiet but kind young man who seems dominated by his mother. But then…well, even I won’t spoil this classic for the uninitiated, suffice to say that the plot twists and turns to fascinating effect. Maybe we should continue this conversation after the jump.

Almost everything about Psycho was unorthodox. The film was shot in stark black and white with a crack team assembled in part from the Alfred Hitchock Presents television series. Janet Leigh was cast as the female protagonist opposite Anthony Perkins – then known for some stage work and a few records on RCA and Epic – as the shy motel keeper, Norman Bates. The ad campaign, in which Hitchcock was a central part of, revolved around the decree that no one be admitted to the film late, lest they miss one of the film’s biggest shocks.

That’s right: the iconic shower scene, where Leigh’s heroine is brutally murdered in her hotel room shower. Easily one of the most shocking scenes in all of filmdom, even five decades later, Hitchcock deftly combined meticulous camera set-ups, quick-fire editing, nuances of violence and sensuality and a whole lot of chocolate syrup to achieve this most shocking of sequences.

But it, like the rest of the film, is almost nothing without the music of Bernard Hermann. Although the director and composer had collaborated before, even The Master of Suspense could not have forseen what sounds Hermann would bring to the film. In fact, according to Stephen Rebello’s essential book Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho, Hitch’s early suggestions included almost no music – particularly for that famed shower scene – and then, “a fidgety, post-bebop jazz score.” (According to Rebello’s book, this was one of many signs that even Hitchcock didn’t quite know the classic he had on his hands.)

Instead, Hermann went strikingly minimalist; the score features nothing but strings. It builds proper tension throughout, giving way to sudden outbursts here and there. Notably, the cue that drives through Saul Bass’ iconic main titles provides a fitting overture and theme throughout, and then there’s the shower scene cue – almost nothing but the strings pounding away at a frenzied E note. (There is little doubt you haven’t heard this cue, or at least a parody of its “Reee! Reee! Reee!” pattern.)

What makes this unorthodox, chilling and effective score even more notable is its lack of release. That’s right: despite its accolades – the American Film Institute named it the fourth-greatest film score – Hermann’s original score remains unreleased on vinyl, cassette or compact disc. There have been three notable re-recordings, including one by Hermann himself, which we will discuss here.

The first was Hermann leading the National Philharmonic Orchestra through the complete score in 1975, shortly before his death. That recording was released by the British label Unicorn, and ultimately saw a release on both record and CD. Happily, this recording isn’t hard to find on the secondary market.

Bernard Hermann and The Royal Philharmonic National Orchestra, Psycho: Bernard Hermann’s Complete Music for Alfred Hitchock’s Classic Suspense Thriller (Unicorn RHS 336, 1975 – UKCD 2021, 1989)

  1. Prelude
  2. The City
  3. Marion
  4. Marion and Sam
  5. Temptation
  6. Flight
  7. The Patrol Car
  8. The Parking Lot
  9. The Package
  10. The Rainstorm
  11. Hotel Room
  12. The Window
  13. The Parlour
  14. The Madhouse
  15. The Peephole
  16. The Bathroom
  17. The Murder
  18. The Body
  19. The Office
  20. The Curtain
  21. The Water
  22. The Car
  23. The Swamp
  24. The Search (A)
  25. The Shadow
  26. Phone Booth
  27. The Porch
  28. The Stairs
  29. The Knife
  30. The Search (B)
  31. The First Floor
  32. Cabin 10
  33. Cabin 1
  34. The Hill
  35. The Bedroom
  36. The Toys
  37. The Cellar
  38. Discovery
  39. Finale

All was relatively quiet on the Psycho front for the next 20 years, not counting a few sequels. (Psycho II, released in 1983, was probably the only one worth noting from a musical or film standpoint, thanks to composer Jerry Goldsmith’s nice tribute to the original.) Then in 1997, composer Joel McNeely led The Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a new re-recording for Varese Sarabande. McNeely may not be a household name (his notable credits include the film version of the British spy show The Avengers, some episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the excellent score to the Star Wars novel Shadows of the Empire), but he has led the RSNO in a few choice re-recordings, including some Hitchcock/Hermann scores. And his version is admirably done, even reinstating a small cue not on Hermann’s re-recording. It would perhaps pale in comparison had the original score ever been released, but it’s the easiest way for fans to get the fullest Psycho fix.

Joel McNeely and The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Psycho: The Complete Original Motion Picture Score (Varese Sarabande VSD 5765, 1997)

Tracklist is the same as Hermann’s re-recording except for the addition of “Cleanup” at Track 23.

Less than a year later, another great Psycho album came out of one of the worst Psycho-related ideas ever. Director Gus Van Sant, hot off the success of Good Will Hunting, made a shot-for-shot, color remake of the film with a thoroughly miscast ensemble (Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn? seriously?) that defines “unnecessary” to the letter. But Van Sant did right by score fans for keeping the original music intact, and in fact had it newly re-recorded in stereo by Danny Elfman. His version, though not completely released on CD, was another able pass at the classic music, and even added one brief new cue, an atmospheric, Hermann-inspired intro that played over the opening Universal logo.

Danny Elfman, Psycho: Original Motion Picture Score (Virgin America 72438 47657 2 9, 1998)

  1. Intro/Logos *
  2. Prelude
  3. The City
  4. Marion and Sam
  5. Temptation
  6. The Rainstorm
  7. The Peephole
  8. The Murder
  9. The Clean Up
  10. The Car
  11. The Swamp
  12. The Curtain
  13. The Search (A)
  14. The Stairs
  15. The Knife
  16. The First Floor
  17. The Search (B)
  18. The Hill
  19. The Bedroom
  20. The Cellar (Part 1)
  21. The Discovery
  22. The Finale

* indicates new track arranged by Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek
Tracks 2, 8 and 22 were also released on Psycho: Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture (Geffen GEFD-25313, 1998)

To date there are no plans to release the original score, even as a Blu-Ray release has been announced for October to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this most classic film (and audiophiles take note – the BD will feature a new 5.1 sound mix of the film!). Perhaps in due time, the score will receive the CD release it deserves; until then, however, fans at least have a few options to fall back upon to get the music of Psycho into their collection.

Written by Mike Duquette

May 14, 2010 at 09:30

Posted in Features, Soundtracks

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2 Responses

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  1. […] in May, The Second Disc did a Friday Feature on the chilling, iconic and somehow commercially unreleased score to Alfred Hitchock’s […]

  2. Love the ‘Psycho’ score, some great music techniques in
    there. I have been analysing Shostakovich’s 8th String
    quartet….I’m sure Hermmann must have been a fan!


    December 30, 2010 at 17:27

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