Film

78/52

Hitchcock’s Shower Scene

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

For a long time now, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been two movies, and the hypnotic film-geek documentary 78/52 is an ingenious and irreverent master class in both of them. There is, of course, the “Psycho” that shocked audiences to their souls when it was released in 1960: the one that made people scream with primal terror, that slashed a knife through the rules of popular storytelling—and, arguably, through the entire culture—by killing off its main character in the most savage way possible after just 40 minutes. That Psycho is the Psycho of legend. For those of us who were born too late to experience it, we can only guess what it felt like to have a horror thriller yank the rug out from under every sacred moviegoing expectation you’d ever had.

The other Psycho is the one that a lot of us have come to know and love and fetishize and live inside. It is still, make no mistake, a terrifying movie (especially when you’re watching it by yourself late at night), but Psycho has also evolved, in a funny way, into something that’s the opposite of shocking: It’s the ultimate movie to watch again and again, to study and revel in and obsess over like a cinematic codex. The whole addictive pull of Psycho is that everything in it—birds, eyes, windshield wipers, the shower, the slaughter, the $40,000, the pert decorum of Janet Leigh, the simmering rage of Anthony Perkins, the madness of Mother—interlocks with a mythological significance that renders the film’s every moment iconic and delicious. The special, ghoulish trap-door chic of Psycho, and the reason the film never gets old, is it’s a movie we now compulsively watch ourselves watching.

Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, 78/52 centers on an up-close analysis of the shower scene that’s at once delirious and definitive; the movie is also a cinematic meditation that features a wealth of terrific anecdotes about the creation of Hitchcock’s masterpiece. More than anything, though, 78/52 is a movie about watching Psycho. It features a galvanizing litany of insights and fan theories from the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Bret Easton Ellis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eli Roth, Peter Bogdanovich, Karyn Kusama, Walter Murch, Danny Elfman, and Elijah Wood, plus a smattering of academics and film historians, and their avid analyses and responses become a testament to how no movie in the history of Hollywood is as fun, or resonant, to think about as Psycho.

The title refers, with clinical precision, to the shooting of the shower scene, which required 78 camera setups and 52 cuts (or, as Hitchcock liked to explain it, with his macabre-butler dryness, “52 pieces of film stuck together…”). But 78/52 is much more than a deconstruction of that game-changing three-minute sequence. It’s a cinematic essay that explores the mystique of Psycho by looking at how the creation of the movie embodied its meanings. Shot in gauzy-melty black-and-white, to echo the look of Psycho, it opens with Marli Renfro, the Playboy Bunny who served as Janet Leigh’s body double, talking about what that was like, but you really see where the film is headed when director Karyn Kusama describes the shower scene as the “first expression of the female body under assault.” She’s right, of course, and the rest of 78/52 offers piercing insight into Psycho’s extraordinary firstness.

Before Psycho, horror was something out there (a monster, a haunted house, a force of otherworldly power coming at you). The film’s spectacular joke is that it played with all that 19th-century horror imagery (the Victorian house on the hill, the demon at large), only the monster was now us. It was in our heads. Death could arrive instantly, anywhere, even in the bathroom, with blood spilling into the water like inky raindrops and your soul spiraling down the drain.

Hitchcock, in a clip from a 1964 interview with the BBC, treats Psycho as a prank, refusing to see it as more than a manipulative funhouse ride. But 78/52 makes the point that he was far more ambitious (and serious) than he let on. Coming off North by Northwest, he had done all that he could do in the breathless arena of man-on-the-run Technicolor confections, and in Psycho he wasn’t just goosing the audience. He took a leap into the pitch-black void.

78/52 is powered by captivating stories, like the one about how Hitchcock tested out the death-cut sound of knives slashing through a hundred different varieties of melon (having decided, he finally said “casaba” with matter-of-fact authority, and left the room). Or how, amazingly, when he saw the first rough cut of Psycho, he thought that the movie played so badly that he decided to scrap the entire project and boil it down to a one-hour episode of his weekly TV series.

78/52 is, among other things, an enthralling act of film criticism. It celebrates one of the greatest movies ever made by recognizing that Psycho became a pop object. Yet even after that happened, the movie throbbed with life and death. It still does. Psycho isn’t just about the death of Marion Crane, but about the death of God, and 78/52 does full justice to how it changed the heartbeat of the world.

BTown
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