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(Credit: Shamley Productions, Paramount Pictures)

Film

How Bernard Herrmann helped create one of Alfred Hitchcock's most iconic scenes

One of horror’s most memorable moments is the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Released in 1960, the film shocked audiences with its terrifying portrayal of murder, in which the apparent main character (Janet Leigh as Marion) is killed whilst showering during her stay at the Bates Motel. The killer in question is Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the unnerving motel owner who frequently dresses up as his mother – who we find out was his first victim. Hitchcock’s film has continued to frighten audiences for the past 60 years, yet the iconic scene that makes the film so memorable was almost completely different.

Beginning in 1955, composer Bernard Herrmann began collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock, with credits including Vertigo and North by Northwest. When it came to making Psycho, Hitchcock knew he wanted Herrmann to create the score. Despite Hitchcock’s previous film North by Northwest costing $4 million to make, Psycho was made on just over $806,000 — mainly due to Paramount’s refusal to accept that the director wanted to make a black and white horror. Therefore, on the basis of having a reduced salary, Herrmann almost refused to compose the now-iconic soundtrack.

Herrmann eventually yielded to the offer, using the reduced budget to his advantage. Instead of employing a full ensemble of orchestration, Herrmann used only strings – despite Hitchcock requesting a jazz score. The composer’s strengths shone through in spite of his limited resources, and he achieved the unusual sounds and intensity through unorthodox means. To get the chilling sounds that accompany the infamous murder scene, Herrmann had his players frantically hit and pluck at their strings with the back of their bows. The result is one of the most recognisable and eerie pieces of music ever heard in cinema.

The use of only string instruments allowed Herrmann to push them to their limits, with the composer believing that using one aural palette would compliment the black and white film stock nicely. There were rumours that Herrmann used electronics to add certain textures to the shower score, such as recorded bird screeching, however, he asserts that the only electronics used were microphones placed very near the instruments to pick up a harsh and atmospheric sound. The allusion to birds is purposeful though – as it suggests that Norman is the killer rather than his mother, since we see Norman frequently associated and surrounded by bird motifs.

Discussing Herrmann’s score, Hitchcock has stated that “Psycho depended heavily on Herrmann’s music for its tension and sense of pervading doom.” However, the director initially wanted the shower scene to remain completely silent. The composer decided to create a piece of music for the scene regardless, which caused a great disagreement between the pair. Yet when Herrmann presented Hitchcock with doom-inducing music, the director agreed that it would improve the scene. He even responded to Herrmann’s reminder that he was originally advised not to score the scene saying, “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion.” In the end, Hitchcock was so impressed with the score that he practically doubled Herrmann’s salary.

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