Psycho

April 13, 2010 at 5:31 pm (Uncategorized)

Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history is that of the shower murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The film has been referenced countless times in popular culture since its release in 1960, with the shower murder forerunning as the most spoofed scene. Synonymous with these spoofs is the ever-present screeching violins originally composed for the scene by Bernard Herrmann. Indeed, the music from this scene may even be its most instantly recognizable facet and has taken on a life of its own – it is often spoofed to convey a sense of terror felt by a character or accompanying a mock stabbing such as in the Mr. Bean episode ‘Mr. Bean in room 426’ (1993)

It is because of this scene’s near mythical status that I have chose to study it first. The scene begins without music, with the character Marion showering and the trickling water the only source of sound. The murderer’s shadow then appears on the shower curtain and approaches slowly before reaching for the shower curtain. Ripping the curtain aside, the frenzied attack begins and the violins begin their screeching. The short shrill strikes of the violin are in keeping with the frenzied stabbing on screen, as is the fast tempo with the quick changes of camera angle. As the murderer exits, the music slows and longer notes play as longer shots are used on-screen with the strings resembling the last breaths and faltering heartbeat of the victim. The hair-raising intensity of this piece of music certainly conveys the panic intended, the shrill tone of the violins almost a sonic knife in itself. In a brief article featured in FRONT magazine(2009), Peter Morris, musicologist at the University of Surrey explains “When violins are used in a sharp, angular style, it bites in a very particular way. The repeated knife sound never resolves – it always ends on an up. Ordinary melodies have points of resolution, but really good horror music doesn’t…Underneath, you very often have irregular harmonies.”

Viewed without the music, the scene feels very different. Although the screams and stabbing sounds convey the terror felt by the victim, the attack seems less frenzied, and the feeling of sheer panic the music induces in the viewer is not present. As a result I feel that the viewer is almost as close to connecting with the cold ruthlessness of the killer as they are to connect with the fear felt by the victim. It is worth noting that Hitchcock had originally planned for this scene to run without music, and seeing as the entirety of the film is based more on the killer than the victim, a music free version of the scene could still have worked well within the film itself. However, it is indisputable that the music has made the shower murder a classic moment in cinema history as well as popular culture.

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