78/52: A 90-minute documentary about the 2-minute shower scene in Alred Hitchcock’s Psycho

I love a good nerdy love-in.  Helvetica, a feature-length documentary devoted entirely to one font, made me so happy.  It made me look at something so taken for granted, and it gave it the aura of something newly discovered.

In a similar way, Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52 left me with a deeper appreciation for the art, thought, care and history that went into the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.  This 90-minute film about a two-minute scene was a joy from beginning to end.

Shot in black and white, like the film it examines, 78/52 features a sequence of Hitchcock historians, horror aficionados, filmmakers, critics and actors dissecting the scene, frame by frame, allusion by allusion, impact by impact.  That many of them are seated in sets from Hitchcock’s films adds to the film’s own wry take on homage documentary.  Just as Hitchcock used to speak to the camera to comment on his own films from their sets, these experts, fans and actors speak to us from in front of the film as it rolls on a television set from the 1960s.

At the very beginning of the film, we see Hitchcock in an interview calling Psycho “a big joke,” but it’s clear that this film and its enduring power and influence are anything but.  Beginning with establishing Psycho‘s place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre and in 1950’s American culture, the film goes on to examine how Psycho broke so many of the established rules of Hollywood and broke new ground for the filmmakers who followed.

The film’s thesis is that Psycho, which showed violence more explicitly and more frighteningly than anything that had come before, is Hitchcock’s own act of aggression.  The filmmakers read Psycho as Hitchcock chastising Hollywood for being naïve about the threat of Hitler and the horrors of World War II.  He is also breaking with the lush “technicolor baubles” of the 1950s, including his own films.

When Psycho was first shown in cinemas, Hitchcock established a strict policy that no one would be admitted late into the movie.  The film’s star, Janet Leigh, is killed off at the end of the first act.  As Guillermo del Toro notes, this is a bold move that broke one of the most well-established covenants between filmmaker and audience.  He did not want latecomers asking, “Where is Janet Leigh?”  He established strict viewing rules so as best to preserve the impact of the rule-breaking that goes on in his movie.  As one  reviewer notes, it was impossible to hear the movie over the screams of the audience.

Having established these contexts, the commenters then look at the scene frame by frame, and there are fascinating discussions of the editing, set, storyboards, music, sound effects and censors. The film’s title 78/52 refers to the fact that this short scene required 78 camera set ups and 52 cuts.  The genius of this film is that it makes you see why such precision was necessary.

This is a great film in Halloween season, and a reminder of the genius of one of the progenitors of scares on the screen.

78/52 has a one week engagement in Toronto, starting on October 13 at Tiff Bell Lightbox.



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