A fascinating documentary that examines how Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic “shower scene” in Psycho changed cinema forever.
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe/2017
78/52 is a wonderfully crafted documentary that lovingly looks at the 78 shots and 52 cuts that “changed cinema forever” (according the film’s trailer) in Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene in the 1960 film, Psycho. While it may seem odd that 90 minutes are spent dissecting and discussing a single minute of footage in a film 57 years old film, it is an important look at what Hitchcock was able to achieve that is still enduring in modern films today.
Hitchcock was of course coming off one of his biggest successes with North by Northwest in 1959 when he decided to go from that sweeping, color-filled epic adventure of a film to a small, black and white horror film. He also used Psycho to break many conventional aspects of what was then modern cinema. He did this primarily by killing off his leading lady a third of the way through the film, which was unheard of at the time.
78/52 isn’t just a dissection of the shower scene, shot for shot, though it does eventually get there. Its true strength is how it visually connects what Hitchcock was reacting to in culture, his own struggles with Hollywood culture, censorship boards, studios, and even the audience. The context of the day informed what was happening in the scene. From the choice of white tile all over the hotel bathroom signifying Hitchcock’s own Victorian belief that white bathrooms represented a more sanitary room, and the contrast of the blood splatters that would taint that. The fact that he showed a toilet on film was a big Faux pas of the day.
The use of drains is a big part of Psycho, as is water. From the baptismal rain that falls on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) as she drives towards the motel, to the cleansing bath she takes to wash away the sin of stealing the money she took, both are used to great effect. The drain of the toilet where she flushes the financial record she was working out previously, to the shower drain that absorbs the water and her blood, signifying the fate of both Marion, and her recent decision to return the money.
In Hitchcock’s world, good intentions don’t equal good outcome. Random outcome is the way of his universe, where no reason is stated for why in his film The Birds, the birds simply show up and begin turning on us. They simply do. In Psycho, we that a simple act like taking a shower in our room isn’t safe? This is part of the terror-based experience Hitchcock provides.
The real genius is of course the shots and the cuts. Besides getting the footage of Psycho past the censorship board (a very funny story is included in how he was able to do this without changing a single shot), Hitchcock spent an unprecedented (even for today’s standards) 7 days shooting this single scene. Janet Leigh did many of the close up shots, but for the longer shooting schedule, a stunt double was used. Leigh’s double was Marli Renfro, who was one of the original Playboy bunnies, and an employee of the Playboy Club.
78/52 details the shots, the angles, the edits, and of course the iconic film score that has been copied for nearly 60 years when the killer pulls back the curtain and we see the knife stabbing towards us, the viewer, as the camera shifts into first person point of view before switching back and forth between the killer and victim, with tight close-ups. You the viewer don’t actually see a single stab land into the flesh of the victim, but the editing allows your mind to fill-in-the-blanks, creating the terror.
Director Guillermo del Toro explains how this shot of the knife, first cutting across screen before coming towards the screen, was one way that Hitchcock violated the long-established covenant agreement between director and audience as he brought the terror into the cinema for the viewers themselves. They were no longer passive observers. Hitchcock sets the suspense as a way to make the audience work.
We also get a great look at Hitchcock’s avoidance in using Hollywood produced sound effects for the sounds of the knife penetrating flesh. He favored a more naturalistic approach, and had his sound engineers find over 2 dozen types of melons and listened as they stabbed them with a bread knife to find the one that sounded the most organic of flesh and bone being struck. He also suggested that they stab a giant raw sirloin steak and then recorded and mixed the two. 78/52 plays the isolated audio track over the footage and it is pretty chilling.
Countless interviews of actors, directors, editors, composers, along with Hitchcock’s granddaughter, and Janet Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, fill the screen as they each bring a another significant detail to this scene, framing it, as it were, to its rightful place in history. We also get to hear from the late-legend himself in archival footage as he discusses this classic film.
From the cultural context of the 1950’s that set the stage as Hitchcock filmed Psycho in 1959, to the influence it has had since its release in 1960, 78/52 accentuates Psycho’s importance to cinema. Even Martin Scorsese used the shower scene of Psycho to frame a boxing sequence in his film Raging Bull. For true film fans, it is also great to see the classic shots that Hitchcock used to create the scene, like the way a curtain is pulled down in The 10 Commandments (1923) mirroring how we see the shower curtain being pulled down in Psycho.
The shower scene is so well crafted that modern filmmakers today cannot truly recreate what Hitchcock was able to do. Today’s digital and automated cameras can of course execute the various shots and angles that he employed, but even with the big bulky cameras that he used that had to be manually manipulated to do simple things like the rotating shot of Janet Leigh’s open, dead-eye stare as her body lays lifelessly on the cold, blood-stained white tile floor and tub, Hitchcock was able to create a look and aesthetic that cannot be matched today.
Even Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot Psycho remake in 1998 couldn’t come close to Hitchcock’s, frustrating the editors who were trying desperately to match it. Every scene was shot correctly, but what Hitchcock produced in look, and feel, cannot be reproduced, even with modern technology. Gus Van Sant was eventually told by his editor to just make the scene more “Van Sant-y” as it was obvious that Hitchcock couldn’t truly be replicated.
Psycho was also the first film that forced people to be on time to the theater showing or be locked out, as theater going was an constant “in-and-out” affair for many with the easy to follow story lines. This was an “event” film, and theater goers were then told not to share the ending to others so that they could experience the terror for themselves.
This film is being released by IFC Midnight, and will be at the Alamo Drafthouse, sometimes following screenings of Psycho, which would be a fantastic way to see this documentary, having just watched Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece. 78/52 is a must-see film for those who want to understand the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, and who want to gain an understanding of one of cinema’s most accomplished and iconic scenes.