Black And White Music - Poem by gershon hepner
Since “Psycho” was a film that’s noir,
Hitchock got great music that
was black and white, bizarre
as images he would format.
Since Hermann wrote it just for strings,
without, for color, any brass,
he gave the music psychic wings,
translucent as a shower’s glass.
The Encyclopaeda Brittanica writes:
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.
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