One of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history receives a thorough examination and analysis in Alexandre O. Philippe’s intriguing yet overlong documentary 78/52. The film’s title refers to the 78 camera set-ups and 52 cuts which Alfred Hitchcock used to capture the infamous shower scene in Psycho. Assigning a full 7-days of a 30-day schedule to filming the short sequence, Janet Leigh’s brutal murder in the shower at Bates Motel is renowned as one of the most bold, shocking and influential scenes dedicated to film. 78/52 extensively explores every aspect of the sequence from its context, construction, and impact.
78/52 gathers some high-calibre interviewees including Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Peter Bogdanovich, Walter Murch, Jamie Lee Curtis, Karyn Kusama, and Elijah Wood. The film locates Psycho at a transformative period in US history, almost acting as a pre-cursor to the social turmoil that would dominate 1960’s America. There’s some interesting contextualisation which places Psycho against the changing roles of women in film and as an expression of Hitchcock’s own world views. 78/52 also provides some insightful shot-by-shot deconstructions of the scene and delves into how Psycho has become ingrained in cinematic culture. The expansiveness of the analysis succeeds in highlighting Hitchcock’s mastery, everything is packed with significance and nothing appears accidental.
The array of talking heads provide much absorbing, articulate debate around the many facets of the shower scene and the depth of the research is undeniably impressive. Stand-out segments include a fascinating account from Bogdanovich of the reactions in the first public screening of Psycho, a look at the melon-based sound design involved in the sequence and archive footage of Hitchcock explaining that Psycho is intended more as a laughable romp. But, it’s an unfamiliar face that gives the most original insight – former pin-up model and Leigh’s nude body double Marli Renfro. While much of 78/52’s information has been covered elsewhere, Renfro’s first-hand experience of shooting the scene provides the most revealing, fascinating material in the film.
However, 78/52 does feel unnecessarily padded out in parts and some of the contributions, such as several reaction-style shots of participants watching and admiring Psycho, add little to the overall discussion. The film also lacks a critical edge – it brushes over the disturbingly intense relationships Hitchcock had with his actresses – and its one-sided praise does begin to wear. Considering 78/52 is examining a scene of violence against a woman, there’s a distinct lack of substantial female interviewees and the film gives director Karyn Kusama disappointingly short shrift despite some well-made points.
While 78/52 feels stretched-out and would have undoubtedly worked better as a shorter feature and with increased female insight, the film offers an engaging, perceptive, accessible study of one of cinema’s most impactful, transformative moments.
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Writer: Alexandre O. Philippe
Stars: Alan Barnette, Justin Benson, Peter Bogdanovich