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How Psycho Changed Cinema

15 Jul 2022

To suggest someone is behaving in an unstable way, people often wield an imaginary knife, make a stabbing motion and imitate the sound of the Psycho violins. Perhaps the next most recognisable piece of film music is the two notes played on a tuba for the opening of Jaws’ main title. Bernard Herman’s influence is clear. The BFI’s Michael Brooke says, “When they made Jaws, one of the stated aims was they wanted to make America’s beaches as empty as American motel showers were when Psycho came out.” The use of music is key to the success. Frenzied stabbing accompanied by frenetic strings while the E F repetition in Jaws signals the arrival of a monster – instinctual, relentless and unstoppable.

The shower scene intertwines meticulous editing with the furious score. However, it is worth googling ‘Psycho shower scene without music’ to compare the scene with and without a score. It is surprisingly powerful without it yet its influence extends beyond Jaws. John Carpenter’s electronic scores employ many two or three-note leitmotifs with particular success in Halloween Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing. The Beastie Boys recognized the power of Jaws and Psycho by juxtaposing both themes on their song Egg Man.

Arguably Psycho’s most important legacy is the fact that it introduced scheduled start times for movies in theatres. Before Psycho’s release, cinemas screened films on a loop as part of a double or triple feature. Anyone could walk into a film at any time, watch what was left and then watch the next feature until the loop caught up them – ‘This is where I came in.’ Much of Psycho’s power lies in its surprises so he insisted on scheduled screen times and that no latecomers be admitted. Theatres made more money on single bookings and scheduled start times soon became standard practice.

A 4K restoration of Psycho is screening

Friday 15 Jul at 20:45

Monday 18 Jul at 18.00


Richard Warburton