Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" turns 50 this week, but to this day it retains its jagged modernity and jolting terror. Much of its power comes from Bernard Herrmann's music, a score as iconic as the film itself. The shrieking dissonance of "The Murder," surely the most imitated and instantly recognizable film cue, is the cinema's primal scream. It is deeply embedded in our movie-going subconscious, instantly evoking Norman Bates's stabbing knife and Marion Crane's helpless cries.
A force of aggression in the bravura scenes, the score is a haunting presence in the quiet ones, investing the most banal images-"a suitcase on a bed, a car on an empty highway, a naked lightbulb-"with dread. Going far beyond the temporary shock effects of conventional scary-movie scores, the composer summons what Edmund Burke defined as terror-"something deeper than horror, the sense that the world is infinitely treacherous, that no place is safe, even a comfort zone like a shower. That Herrmann used only strings, normally a Hollywood marker for schmaltzy romance, is even more startling.