Film Review: 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene

Documentary about one of cinema’s most infamous scenes gets a razor-sharp, if not entirely thorough, examination.
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Director Alexandre Philippe obviously adores Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and his enthusiasm permeates 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, a diverting analysis of Psycho’s centerpiece, a film sequence that has scared audiences and influenced pop culture over the last several decades. Employing his own aesthetic flourishes, many “talking head” interviews, and clips from homages and parodies, Philippe (Doc of the Dead, 2014) brings forth much of what is so significant about this three-minute murder scene—in terms of the overall film, Hitchcock’s career, the tenor of the times, and the cultural landscape since 1960. There are areas not addressed, but no matter: Psycho fans will go nuts over this film-essay.

Though it takes nearly an hour for the title to be explained (the shower scene is composed of 78 camera setups with 52 edits), 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene is a lucid and original deconstruction of the midway point of Psycho, the shocking, unexpected part of the narrative when our heroine and leading lady (Janet Leigh) is stabbed to death in a shower during her overnight stay at a remote motel. Philippe neatly blends footage from the original film with his own black-and-white reinterpretations of scenes while also integrating comments from a number of individuals who offer insights about either the making or meaning of the film. Late in 78/52, Philippe breaks down the shower scene itself, isolating specific frames and comparing them to the storyboards drawn for Hitchcock by designer Saul Bass.

The talking heads of 78/52 are varied enough, from filmmakers (Peter Bogdanovich) to novelists (Bret Easton Ellis) to film critics (Bill Krohn). Shot in black-and-white inside a recreation of the Bates Motel room, each “guest” speaker has something interesting to say, whether it is of a technical nature or something more philosophical. Of the former, an amusing peek behind the scenes re-enacts how Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann mimicked the sounds of a knife slashing flesh by selecting the perfect melon, a firm Casaba. Of the latter, more pensive mode, an observation about the use of direct-address—the way so many of the characters stare or talk into the camera at key moments—is accompanied by Philippe’s swift montage of those shots, indexing Hitchcock’s ingenious method of forcing voyeuristic complicity on the part of the viewer.

It might seem odd that a 91-minute study would not be sufficient to cover all the aspects of a short scene from another movie, but the surprising drawback to 78/52 is that a number of topics are either conveyed too briefly, then dropped, or not referenced at all. It would have been helpful to dispel or confirm the legend that Saul Bass, not Hitchcock, actually directed the scene, even though Philippe points out that the other main players were only partially involved (Janet Leigh) or not present on the set at all (Anthony Perkins). The issue of “body doubles” becomes a major focus as former stripper Marli Renfro talks about her participation for nude shots. It would have been nice, then, to at least acknowledge the lighting double (Leigh’s stand-in), Myra Davis, who was killed by a psychopathic handyman in 1988. But then, perhaps this bizarre, sad and ironic real-life murder deserves a documentary of its own.

There are other missed opportunities, from only a sparse use of an archival interview with the late Janet Leigh (The Making of Psycho, 1997) to nary a mention of Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho, the 1993 avant-garde art installation that slows down the projection to a 24-hour running time, providing an even bolder, more profound attempt to scrutinize the horror classic.

Finally, with no disrespect meant toward either actor Elijah Wood, who has no connection to Psycho, or Amy Duddleston, the editor of the campy, foolish 1998 Psycho remake, a few additional scholars or academics in their place might have filled in the theoretical gaps. (The speaker lineup is top-heavy with male industry types.) An example: The near absence of true feminist criticism about the scene and how its perceived graphic nature unleashed a violently misogynistic cinema ever since Psycho’s release makes one wonder if Philippe was willing to allow negative views about the production be expressed.

Leaving aside what is or isn’t said or seen on the screen, Philippe does justice to a piece of cinematic history and fosters a greater understanding of film viewing in general.

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