As a longtime fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, one of my most anticipated screenings at Fantastic Fest 2017 was Alexandre O. Philippe’s new documentary, 78/52. The 91 minute doc is an all-encompassing look at the revolutionary shower scene in the Master of Suspense’s 1960 film, Psycho. The title refers to the number of camera setups (78) and the number of cuts (52) it took to create the scene.
Psycho is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular film. It’s often the first Hitchcock movie people experience and in many cases (including my own) it acts as a gateway drug to his other films. My first run-in with the movie was in the mid-90s at Universal Studios Florida. We didn’t actually watch it there, but Psycho (and the shower sequence in particular) featured heavily in their Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies attraction (as did The Birds). Soon after, I saw the movie on the big screen at a film festival in Holland, Michigan (along with North By Northwest, Dial M for Murder, and Vertigo) and I officially became a fan.
Psycho is a B movie that was given the A treatment. As director Mick Garris so eloquently puts it in 78/52:
“Those of us who work in the horror genre rarely wear tuxedos. This is not a movie that wears a tuxedo either, this is a movie that’s very much ‘jeans and a t-shirt.’ But it’s told by a guy who wears a tuxedo.”
The simple pulp story is elevated by masterful direction, cinematography, and editing, a bone-chilling score by Bernard Herrmann, a Saul Bass title sequence, and the casting of Anthony Perkins (as creepy Norman Bates) and Janet Leigh (as Marion Crane). The entire movie hinges on one scene, and the importance and brilliance of that scene is discussed ad nauseam in 78/52 — much to the delight of Hitchcock fans.
Having read several books and articles on Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho over the years, and watching numerous making-of featurettes on the shower sequence (and checking out the Universal exhibit), I was curious to see if 78/52 could take a 3 minute scene — one that’s already been analyzed to death — and make a captivating feature-length documentary about it. I’m happy to report that the project is a success and the result is both entertaining and informative.
78/52 combines a large amount of Psycho and Hitchcock-related archival footage with a variety of enthusiastic talking heads, including filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Stanley, Karyn Kusama, and Guillermo del Toro, actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Illeana Douglas, composer Danny Elfman, Janet Leigh’s body double, Marli Renfro, and a whole slew of other writers, directors, producers, actors, editors, sound people, critics, and professors. The documentary looks at Psycho in the context of Hitchcock’s career (it was an odd choice of project at the time) and at the impact the movie had on the genre and the industry as a whole. The shower scene is analyzed from a technical standpoint and broken down frame-by-frame with a painstaking level of detail.
Going back to the t-shirt/tuxedo analogy, 78/52 itself wears a tuxedo and classes up the joint with its high production values. The spiffy B&W look of the doc and the original score with string music by composer Jon Hegel are fitting touches. Alexandre O. Philippe’s adoration of the material is apparent and he was enthusiastic when discussing the film at Fantastic Fest. He said that among the people he interviewed, Guillermo del Toro was one of the most insightful and knowledgeable in regards to the subject. When Philippe was asked who doesn’t appear in the film that he wanted to include, a few names stood out, most notably David Lynch, Brian De Palma, and William Friedkin. They either turned him down or didn’t respond to his requests for interviews. I think we all (obviously) would’ve enjoyed their perspectives on this matter.
As someone who relishes documentaries like this (especially ones on my favorite filmmakers), 78:52 was everything I hoped it would be. I recommend it to Hitchcock aficionados and casual movie fans alike, along with a warning that it will make you want to ditch all responsibilities and start a Hitchcock movie marathon.
4 out of 5 Nerdskulls
78/52 opens in Houston tomorrow, Friday, October 27th at Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park.
Psycho also plays tomorrow, Friday, October 27th in two capacities: 1) at Jones Hall with a live score by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and 2) at Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park as a free screening for Victory members (seats can be reserved by purchasing a $5 food voucher). It also plays as a free screening for Victory members on Tuesday, October 31st.
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