At the end of the summer of 1960, audiences and fans of British auteur Alfred Hitchcock and his already stellar filmography scurried into cinemas to watch his new film, Psycho.
Riding a growing wave of popularity, hot on the heels of films like North by Northwest in ‘59, Vertigo in ‘58 and his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, there was an anticipation but also an expectation as to what Psycho was going to be about. Little did the general public know that Hitchcock was rallying against that expectation and was going to play a tremendous prank that would shake this audience to its core.
Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary 78/52 breaks down and explores, to tremendous detail, the most infamous shower scene in the history of cinema. The title of the documentary comes by the 78 set ups and 52 cuts that make up the scene.
Rather than speak of his own love and devotion to the auteur director and one of his greatest achievements, documentarian and Hitchcock devotee Philippe (The People vs. George Lucas, Doc of the Dead) gathered together a collection of cinematic and cultural icons, professionals and experts in their own respective fields, to view the scene once again and share their thoughts on it. Philippe has assembled an all star roster, full of veterans and newcomers, men and women of all ages, which shows just how influential this two minute scene was and still can be. It speaks to the power of Hitchcock’s work.
The beginning of 78/52 establishes a setting for the arrival of Psycho on the unassuming public in 1960. It explores American culture, specifically the period between post nuclear and pre civil rights, and explains why the intimacy of the shower scene would be so shocking then. Philippe taps into the memories and reactions of his interviewees who were there the day Psycho opened.
As they recall their reactions when they left the cinema that day, we know, against the cultural backdrop at that time, why Psycho rattled viewers to tearful shreds. We begin to understand why the shower scene in Psycho ushered in a turning point in popular cinema; what author Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) called ‘A crack in the history of cinema’.
Philippe interviewed cult filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro, Richard Stanley, Neil Marshall, Eli Roth and Mick Garris. We also see reactions from our contemporaries and peers like Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead (The Endless), and Anthony Perkins’ son Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter).
Some of the greatest reactions from the younger generation come from the SpectreVision trio: Elijah Wood, Josh C Waller and Daniel Noah. Philippe said when we sat down to talk about 78/52 last year, “It was very important to have young filmmakers because I don't want put that scene in amber and say, “look at this artifact”. I mean it is an artifact but it's also something that influences contemporary filmmakers.”
Keeping with family ties to the original production, we also hear from Janet Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), including her decision to finally pay homage to her mother in Scream Queens. And if you want to be literal about bodies of work then we also hear from the last surviving member of the cast from the shower scene, Marli Renfro, Janet Leigh’s body double. We get her firsthand accounts of the week spent shooting the scene and fittingly, as she was the last of 'Marion Crane' that we get to see at the end of that scene, Renfro gets the last word as Philippe’s film draws to a close.
Because so few members of the original production are around today Philippe also sought the expertise and experiences of some of the film industry’s stalwarts, like editors Walter Murch. To listen to editor Walter Murch break down the pacing and the structure of the shower scene we see not only a master at work but a manipulator of thought and emotion.
And you cannot talk about the scene and not talk about the musical accompaniment from Bernard Herrmann. Philippe interviewed composer Danny Elfman, who was hired to supervise the score adaptation to Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake, and Pepijn ‘Kreng’ Caudron, composer of a couple of SpectreVision related titles, who was so influenced by Bernard Herrmann’s score he bears a reminder of it on his arm!
All of these perspectives, opinions and anecdotes make 78/52 a thoroughly enjoyable and insightful look into one of the greatest moments in cinematic history. One may even be remiss that as much breakdown as there is in 78/52, there is still much more to be learned. I, for one, want to see all of the interviews in their entirety, and to see everyone’s reactions to the scene as it unspools, the two-minute reels all of Philippe’s subjects watch. It is a treasure trove of cinematic language and information.
Author and screenwriter Blake Snyder wrote in one of his books about screenwriting, ‘Listen to Spielberg or Scorsese talk about movies. They know and can quote from hundreds. And I don’t mean quote as in “recite lines from,” I mean quote as in “explain how each movie works.” Movies are intricately made emotion machines, They are Swiss watches of precise gears and spinning wheels that make them tick.
You have to be able to take them apart and put them back together again. In the dark. In your sleep. And your knowledge of a few you like is not enough. It is also not enough to know all the movies of the past five years. You have to go back, see the lineage of many types of movies, know what movie begat what in the line of succession, and how the art was advanced by each.’
To have recalled this portion of the text and to learn when watching 78/52 how the editing of the shower scene in Psycho influenced Scorsese and his approach to editing a sequence in his classic film, Raging Bull, it should dawn on you just how significant a film Psycho was, and can still be. Hitchcock not only had an influence on Philippe’s life from an early age but we can see how much this one small scene from Hitchcock’s overall body of work has influenced popular cinema and culture in the years that followed. Few scenes like the shower scene have had the staying power and resonance it has had, almost six decades later.
Like the butcher knife that just grazes Marli Renfro’s torso, 78/52 just scratches at the surface of Hitchcock’s influence on popular culture. Yet if this much information and insight can be gleaned from just one scene in one movie, how much more is there to discover? Not just in Psycho, not just in Hitchcock’s complete canon, but the entirety of the art of cinema itself? A film like 78/52 should encourage you to look deeper into every film and understand your favorite director’s cinematic grammar.
78/52 is essential viewing, not only for Hitchcock fans, but for any and all filmmakers. It does presume that you have seen Psycho and know the twists and turns that Hitchcock prepared for his viewers, so if you have not seen Psycho beforehand, first, how dare you, and second, get on that. Then watch Philippe’s excellent documentary about one of cinema’s greatest moments, the two minute scene that made the world afraid to go into the shower alone.
Review originally published during Hot Docs in May 2017. The film opens via IFC Films in select U.S. theaters and via various Video On Demand platforms on Friday, October 13.