The indisputable Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, has been captured in practically every entertainment medium, from books to film. With so many works written about Hitchcock in general it’s about time filmmakers start delving into the nitty gritty. Alexandre Philippe’s 78/52 wades deep into one of Hitchcock’s most legendary moments, the shower scene from the 1960 horror film Psycho. Though at times stretching some of its assertions in a way that can be reminiscent of The Shining documentary Room 237, 78/52 is a film nerd’s paradise anchored by an enthusiastic group of Hitchcock talking heads.
Focusing on the 78 pieces of film used in 45 seconds to create Hitchcock’s shower sequence in Psycho, Philippe’s documentary attempts to go beyond how the director “invad[ed] the sanctity of the bathroom.” The doc spends its lean 90-minutes deconstructing every facet of the film, going down avenues you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
The first and most obvious route is found in the film’s opening quote from Edgar Allen Poe: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” A look at the role of women in a movie with the most famous murdered woman in filmdom is no surprise, but it’s how Philippe utilizes that as the entry point that’s interesting.
Audiences are given their first opportunity to hear about the making of Psycho from Marli Renfro, the woman who, as a 21-year-old pinup model, was tasked with being the body double to actress Janet Leigh. In a moment that would be considered inappropriate today Renfro discusses having to strip for both Leigh and Hitchcock as a means of helping them figure out if she was the right type. Considering Hitchcock’s history with women, both positive and negative, the film doesn’t look so much into how Renfro was treated as it does how the film treats its heroine Marion Crane. Director Karyn Kusama calls Psycho the first depiction of the “female body under assault.” Comments like these are more insightful that a rather tone-deaf comment from Peter Bogdanovich about feeling “raped” after seeing the film.
Philippe brings together a variety of interview subjects of all stripes, from directors like the aforementioned Kusam and Eli Roth, to authors like Brett Easton Ellis and historians like Marco Calavita. A large section of 78/52’s runtime looks at the historical significance that aided in the shower scene holding such a long-running appeal.
The talking heads set up a dialectic focused on film history that plays like the best film history class without the exams. Even if you know the basics of where Psycho fits in film history – the presumed creation of the “serial killer” on film came from here – 78/52 explains that the late ’50s were dominated by death and vice, from the murder of the Clutters that inspired the novel In Cold Blood, to the opening of the Playboy Club and the creation of the birth control pill. This all packs Psycho with the weight of carrying audiences into an uncertain new decade where all bets are off. Several of the interviewers discuss how Hitchcock made people feel unsafe in the safest of places. “You think you’re safe in your shower? At home?” Calavita says.
As much as 78/52 wraps audiences up with its discussion of history and the filming of the sequence, what’s also interesting is how the interview subjects discuss him. Philippe takes the unconventional route of letting the interview subjects watch the scene and discuss it in real time, lending a DVD-like commentary feel and spontaneous reactions. The group shares their individual theories, memories and appreciation of the scene alongside the longer form theories of how the sequence plays into culture. Some theories can appear far-fetched, like the connection to the Renaissance painting Susannah and the Elders, which leads to a whole discussion of Hitchcock’s vision of God and religion.
78/52 is a documentary that won’t please everyone, particularly if you’re looking for a discussion of the shower scene in general. What remains is an intriguing, if a bit exaggerated focus on the Master of Suspense and how his work was both influenced, and would go on to influence, others.