At Monday night’s screening, I warned a student that she would know during the opening title sequence whether or not the film’s music was too much to bear. I was referring to the jarring sounds and buzzing, all-strings arrangement in Bernard Herrmann’s score. In the opening minutes of Psycho (1960), Herrmann and Saul Bass (title sequence master of post-war film)* introduce the main themes of the film in geometric terms. Yes, the film involves a theft and some semblance of romantic love between Marion Crane and Sam Loomis, but those plot elements are in place to provide the motivation (or “MacGuffin,” as Hitchcock would have called it) to get those characters to the Bates Motel where the main action takes place. Instead of theft or love, the film prioritizes dualistic nature of Norman Bates’s personality, the competing desires of Norman and Mother, and how that pattern of murder eventually ends. What better way to propel the audience into that fractured psychological state than to introduce minimalist, two-toned geometric lines with an equally minimalist (serif free!) typeface traveling across the screen.
A few years ago, a blog dedicated to title sequences featured a nice discussion of the pairing of Herrmann’s music and Bass title design.
In the space of a few short minutes, with his minimal toolkit and Bernard Herrmann’s jagged score, Bass creates a parallel visual tension to the film that tells the audience everything they need to know about the plot, without saying much of anything at all. He artfully sets the tone by asking the viewer to read between the lines — quite literally — but he also asks that we read into them.
I would argue that Herrmann’s score serves this function, but, due to leitmotivic conventions, it complicates what the title sequence can mean. It is a rare thing to hear such an emphasis on the string section in a film (muted, no less). As Fenimore outlines in his article on sound and music in the film, there are basically five musical units that trade back and forth in the film’s prelude, all of them varying in how they approach small, repeating rhythmic patterns with one featuring strong melodic content. These figures are much more identified with Marion Crane (as some have already noted in written responses, Norman’s music and Mother’s music differ), her flight from Phoenix, and the tension surrounding her ill-fated attempt at theft. In this case, the music is all Marion, and the circuitous repetition mentally prepares the audience for the “musical tearing” (Fenimore, 87) in the film’s climax.
Thus, I would argue that the music and imagery of the title sequence represent the pairing of the fragmented psychology of a serial killer in Bass’s title designs with the circumstances (and victim) that set in motion the killer’s downfall in Herrmann’s music. It is an economy of story-telling through sound and image that I have yet to see elsewhere.
*Another film that we are covering this week, The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), also features the title sequence artistry of Bass.