Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Writer: Alexandre O. Philippe
Producer: Kerry Deignan Roy
Stars: Marli Renfro, Osgood Perkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Danny Elfman, Bret Easton Ellis, Mick Garris, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Walter Murch
Filmmakers, famous fans, and academics dissect the iconic shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
It took 78 shots and 52 cuts to create a single scene so iconic, so influential, so indelibly imprinted upon popular culture, that even though said scene only lasts about 200 seconds, it takes 40 interviewees 90 minutes to break down everything the sequence did, does, and continues to do.
Hollywood hullaballoo has long had a pocket of “can you believe?” gossip set aside for OCD auteurs such as Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher, whose excessive attention to detail requires countless takes and precision production design. Alfred Hitchcock had already cast that minutiae-minded director mold by the time he unleashed “Psycho” in 1960. Not counting time spent storyboarding with Saul Bass, Hitchcock spent seven days on a single set filming Marion Crane’s murder. With equally impassioned obsession, Alexandre O. Philippe’s in-depth documentary “78/52” takes a scalpel and microscope to “Psycho’s” in/famous shower scene for an edutaining examination of how the master of cinematic suspense carefully crafted perhaps the most memorable movie moment of all time.
The cultural climate that conditioned audience mindsets going into the film. The illusion of seeing actions not actually depicted. The conscious and unconscious impact of “Psycho” on six decades of cinema since. The intent of each setup, the timing of each edit, and the specific sounds of stabbing as well as Bernard Herrmann’s indispensible score. Philippe assembles an army of authors, filmmakers, celebrity fans, awestruck editors, and even archival interviews with Hitchcock himself to cover every angle imaginable.
In meticulously overturning every stone in sight, “78/52” becomes so exhaustive, it ends up with more material than necessary to cover its points. When narration reads the scene word-for-word as written in both Robert Bloch’s source novel and Joseph Stefano’s screenplay, drifting attention summons a yawn.
Similarly, there is a terrific tidbit about the significance of the painting Norman Bates uses to hide his peephole. But the museum curator’s granular coverage of the artwork smells like stalling to get to the 40-minute mark, when the movie finally gets into the meat and potatoes of the marquee attraction.
“78/52” also has far more onscreen personalities than it knows what to do with. To keep everyone occupied, Philippe has folks like Elijah Wood and his Spectrevision partners weirdly watching scenes from “Psycho” on a porthole TV screen in a 1960s setting. Filmmaker Osgood Perkins, Anthony Perkins’ son, picks from a bag of popcorn during his private screening for an additional aura of forced staging.
A handful of talking heads appear included for name recognition only. “Saw” and “Insidious” franchise writer/actor/director Leigh Whannell is an interviewee who only appears once. He simply says, “I think (Hitchcock) knew what he had on his hands, and he probably felt like the whole film hinged on that moment, that’s this crucible moment.” No disrespect to Whannell, he’s just voicing his enthusiasm. But there isn’t any essential information in his single sentence and that sentiment can be expressed without his contribution.
It’s a lot like a baseball game broadcast with an analyst as the anchor. In this instance, distinguished editor Walter Murch is one of the Vin Scullys providing insightful play-by-play. Then there are numerous color commentators. Occasionally their musings are redundant (“offense really has to step up if they want to put runs on the board”), but additional famous faces do make proceedings more enjoyable.
Unnecessary interviewees ultimately don’t matter much because this is the direction where “78/52” wants to go. It aims to be enlightening entertainment above straight academic analysis, or a love letter in visual/oral essay form as opposed to a pure PBS-style doc. After all, who wouldn’t rather hear from actress Illeana Douglas or director Guillermo del Toro instead of another professor or AFI scholar, even if they weren’t involved in making the movie?
“78/52” does still cover required bases and then some. Janet Leigh’s body double Marli Renfro, who possibly did more work in the scene than Leigh and certainly more than Anthony Perkins, offers personal recollections of what that specific set was actually like. Editor Amy E. Duddleston explains why the shower scene was altered for Gus Van Sant’s oft-criticized remake, unexpectedly shedding new light on that movie too. Janet Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis does something similar when she discusses her shower scene homage in “Scream Queens.”
I don’t know why Philippe mars his movie with something like an awkward recreation starring an actress in a wig when he evidently has rights to show original footage, but blemishes be damned. “78/52,” an unfortunate title that virtually assures many interested audience members will overlook it (“78/52? What’s that?”) or misremember its name (“57-60 what’s-it-called?”), is endlessly engrossing for students of cinema who want to see creative genius deconstructed. It also hits a sweet spot for “didja know?” trivia capable of having casual fans seeing a 60-year-old movie with fresh eyes and a well-informed mind.
Review Score: 75