Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho landed like a cinematic atomic bomb in 1960, shocking audiences and changing the face of film forever. On a micro level, it was the shower scene that, for a myriad of reasons, completely upended the notion of what suspense and horror could be. Director Alexandre O. Phillippe’s documentary, 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, examines the impact of Psycho, specifically those few moments in the film where everything changed.
The title refers to the shower scene. There were 78 camera setups, and 52 cuts in this brief moment of savagery. Phillippe’s film uses archived interviews of Hitchcock, moments from the previews, and dozens of interviews from an impressive collection of celebrities and family members. Jamie Lee Curtis, Peter Bogdanovich, Karyn Kusama, Guillermo del Toro, Danny Elfman, Bret Easton Ellis, Mick Garris, Eli Roth, and Elijah Wood are mere highlights of who speaks on the film and the scene. We even have an appearance from Richard Stanley, a filmmaker made infamous for his failed attempt at The Island of Dr. Moreau which is chronicled in its own fascinating documentary.
While the bulk of 78/52 tackles the dynamics of the shower scene, with specific insight from Marli Renfro who was Janet Leigh’s body double, the history and the impact of Psycho is also examined in great detail. Alfred Hitchcock was coming off a decade of incredible success, with enough films in a span of ten years to cement his status as a master filmmaker. But those 50’s films – To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, North by Northwest – were splashed in technicolor and the sensibilities of the decade.
With Psycho, Hitchcock was basically trolling everyone, killing off his star in the first act and telling a gruesome, salacious story in black and white. Not only did the manic editing of the scene, and Bernard Herrmann’s score, shock audiences and change the face of cinema, the marketing and screenings of the film readjusted audience expectations. To that point, people would often come and go during films (which was shocking enough for me to even think about); with Psycho, Hitchcock put in the provision that everyone must be there in the beginning, and could not come and go as they pleased.
78/52 celebrates a pivotal moment cinema, even if it does sometimes devolve into tedium. A few of the celebrity interviews, sometimes shot as they are watching the scene on a monitor somewhere off camera, feel a bit contrived. But for movie historians and film geeks, there is more than enough to chew on here. No matter how much you might know about the shower scene, odds are you will learn something new somewhere in these 90 minutes.