The shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Is it the best three minutes in the history of film? That’s an impossibly subjective question. However, there is no doubt that those 78 camera set-ups and 52 film edits created an unforgettable scene that was discussed all across America on September 8, 1960 and for decades to come. The butcher knife held high, then plunging repeatedly into Janet Leigh. The blood swirling down the drain as the shower curtain pops free of its rings. Leigh’s outstretched arms trying to ward off the deadly blows that have already inflicted their fatal damage. The staccato shriek of the violins in Bernard Herrmann’s score that have become every bit as iconic as the visuals on screen. It’s as powerful today as it was over 57 years ago.
78/52, the new documentary from writer/director Alexandre O. Philippe, takes us frame by frame through the sequence that shocked the world. The film opens by giving the audience a cinematic and historical context for this gritty, black and white departure for the British auteur. Alfred Hitchcock was coming off his big Technicolor spectacles of the 1950’s and was considered one of the best directors in the world. His most recent film was North by Northwest, a glamorous, classy affair starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.
Hitchcock often referred to Psycho as a prank, a thrill ride, nothing to be taken so seriously. His Sunday night television show offered American viewers a dose of sex and violence streaked with black humor. But nothing had prepared the movie-going public for the remorseless murder of its leading lady in a manner that was so, uh, naked. The film was seen as an attack on domestic tranquility. Not only are you not safe in the big bad world, you may not be safe in your own bathroom.
Your immediate reaction to the premise of this film may be skepticism. How do you spend an entire 90-minute film analyzing a single scene from another film, even if that film is arguably a masterpiece? 78/52 avoids that trap by looking at the entirety of Hitchcock’s thriller and examining the manner in which the opening third of the film leads inexorably to the shower murder and then how that pivotal moment shapes the remainder of Psycho. From the subtle importance of the set design to the framing of certain shots that foreshadow the fate of Marion Crane, 78/52 examines key moments throughout the film and plays like a commentary track to Psycho featuring an all-star cast of guests.
Casual film fans may find 78/52 to be a little too “inside baseball” in its examination of the minutiae of film-making. But, if you’re a casual film fan, you probably didn’t read past the second paragraph of this review. For the cinephiles and film junkies out there, 78/52 is a fascinating look at a seminal film made during a turning point in American culture. With all of the filmmakers, actors, film critics and historians interviewed during the film, it feels like you’re hanging out at the greatest film society meeting ever. Of course that assumes your friends are Jamie Lee Curtis, Danny Elfman, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Bogdanovich.
78/52 expands to additional theaters nationwide on Friday, October 27, 2017 and is currently available on most VOD platforms.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.