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’78/52′ Gets Right to the Bloody Heart of Hitchcock’s Classic Shower Scene

78 setups for 52 shots. That’s what comprises the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the title of this new documentary about the scene. Director Alexandre O. Philippe interviews people from throughout the film industry and beyond to offer new insight into the effectiveness and impact of the scene. Interviewees include Peter Bogdanovich, Jaime Lee Curtis, Guillermo Del Toro, Bret Easton Ellis, Elijah Wood, Neil Marshall, and Eli Roth.

The film offers some fascinating insights into the sequence. It’s broken down shot by shot with some very interesting observations about how each one is used to incite dread and how it perfectly forms this montage of horror. The most interesting aspect for me was the demonstration of how the shot assembly impacts the mood of the scene. For example, by placing two nearly identical but definitely different shots back to back the editor is able to disorientate the viewer or add impact to a subsequent movement. It really explores the assertion made by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov’s  that shots only have meaning by being placed in sequence. This is known as the “Kuleshove effect.” 78/52 is a love letter to editing above all else.

The film does, however, take it’s time in getting to the infamous scene. At the screening the director explained that he wanted the breakdown of the shower scene itself to begin at the forty minute mark which is where it appears in the original film. The attempt to fill this time is not entirely successful. Genuinely interesting interviews with people like Janet Leigh’s body double, Marli Renfro or editors and directors who understand the techniques behind the sequence, are padded out with material such as an art historian talking about the painting that Norman Bates moves aside to spy on Marion.

Sometimes the interviewees merely describe what happens in the scene whilst the scene plays out, very much like old list shows from the 00s. Alternatively, we see people watching the scene and making humorous observations. This material all feels like an attempt to eke out the runtime. This is at its most galling  when in the midst of the scene breakdown we suddenly pause for five minutes while composter Danny Elfman describes working on the universally derided remake.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t find any of this frustrating if I hadn’t absolutely adored the material at the heart of the project. I love watching film fans enthuse about their favourite film scenes. By dissecting the scene Philippe is able to demonstrate the magic of cinema; the incredible power to manipulate the audience’s emotions subconsciously through masterful implementation of the tools of cinema.

It’s also enjoyable how Philippe contrasts opposing views on the film. Guillermo Del Toro talking about how Hitchcock’s Catholicism demands that Marion Crane must pay for her sins and that her last minute atonement will not save her, are contrasted against the view that the universe is uncaring and chaotic and that ultimately her decision to go back and atone means nothing because sometimes you’re just butchered in the shower for no reason. A third view is then offered that this is in fact a feminist movie and that Crane’s real sin, far from being her theft of the money, is that she sexually aroused a disturbed man.

The director told us that he has secured funding for a movie about the chestburster sequence from Alien and hopes to make a series of shorter projects on various important scenes in cinema. He provided examples like the montage from Rocky, the opening shot of A Touch of Evil, and the Copa Copana sequence from Goodfellas. I sincerely hope that he manages to get this project off the ground as I’d love to see more breakdowns of masterful cinema, and I feel a serial format will benefit the analysis more than that a feature film.

78/52 meanders a bit and there are definitely some contributions that are more interesting than others. But the film is filled with a love of cinema. It’s joyous and has me thinking of my own favourite movie scenes that I’d love to see broken down in such a way. It’s a celebration of the effectiveness of cinema and as such succeeds admirably.

4 / 5

Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.