by Jamie Brown
If there’s one thing we can learn from watching 78/52, it is that timing is everything. Existing for years at a safe distance from the average cinema patron on the shelves of university libraries has been a world of exhaustive (and often exhausting) movie criticism, written by academics and read by students. After spending a while tunnelling its way into the public consciousness via DVD bonus features, it has arrived in the age of the geek, ready to be unleashed as the entertainment itself. It makes such perfect sense, and do you know what? It works.
In another way though, the release of this documentary, a feature length surgical examination of arguably the most famous single scene in all of cinema – the slaughter-in-the-shower of Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – is appallingly timed, and in the current climate it is perhaps wise to mention up front the moments that are, at best, likely to induce a wince.
78/52; dir.: Alexandre O. Philippe; USA 2017, 91 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★★/5
First of all, as stories pour into the news cycle of movie-set harassment (and worse) at the hands of power-abusing men, here we have a film lauding the skills of an alleged offender. Obviously, Hitchcock is such an important figure in cinema that the idea of a future in which his movies are no longer widely studied, and, yes, enjoyed, is neither appealing nor likely, but it’s probably fair to say many won’t be keen on the idea of a love-in just now.
Along with that general issue come a few specifics: the film’s opening contribution comes from Marli Renfro, the former glamour model and showgirl who was Leigh’s body double. Renfro’s anecdote about stripping off for the director’s approval begins proceedings on an awkward note. Minutes later, describing the impact of an early screening of Psycho in Times Square, Peter Bogdanovich unwisely recalls his emotions on leaving the cinema as “I felt like I’d been raped”. Then, around the halfway mark, director Alexandre O. Philippe naively uses some archive video of Hitch pontificating like an expert on how female sexuality is best represented on screen.
If you can stomach that stuff, 78/52, distributed by the always-reliable Dogwoof, has a lot more going for it than against. In an entirely black and white tribute, the gorgeous opening reconstruction of Marion Crane’s arrival at the Bates Motel is a visual treat to whet the appetite. The monochrome isn’t the only homage to the real deal either, this documentary also comes with its own Bernard Herrmann-esque score by Jon Hegel. Best of all though is the way that Philippe structures his film to deliver the shower scene itself at almost the exact same point – around 47 minutes – as Hitchcock did. Very cute.
That choice makes 78/52 a film of two halves. The first section puts Psycho, and its iconic scene, into sociocultural context. The movie hit America in 1960, at the ideal moment to stick the fear of God up the masses. Fear was about to become America’s theme; fear of the Russians, fear of losing the fifties feelgood factor, fear of new-fangled ideas, and new-fangled families. Mom was very important to America. What the hell kind of Mom was this? In hindsight, the moral tension in Psycho feels like the sixties stirring from a distance. The movie even brought with it a fear of losing Hitchcock as he was known and loved – a prime-time TV star then. A year earlier, audiences had been treated to the Technicolor magic of North by Northwest, a thrilling, romantic chase across the Midwest with a suave adman. Now, they found themselves holed up in the middle of nowhere with a runaway amateur thief and a strange loner, and in black and white. What was going on?
If choosing to cover three minutes in ninety minutes strikes you as either an indulgence or an impossibility, consider that the shower scene took the best part of a week to make, and this documentary’s unusual title refers to the number of setups and cuts the scene is formed of. There’s actually plenty of material there. Besides, if you’ve signed up for this, you’d surely be hoping for fine detail. You won’t be disappointed, though some elements work better than others. The pre-shower build-up includes full read-throughs of the scene as penned in both the source novel and Joseph Stefano’s adapted screenplay, lasting about five minutes in total. Much more engaging is an eye-opening (sorry) analysis of the painting chosen by Hitchcock to cover Norman Bates’s peephole.
“Once more into the breach” says a contributor, as Philippe’s film arrives in the bathroom of Room 1, where the rest of 78/52 will remain, as the magnifying glass moves in even closer. Herrmann’s legendary screeching strings get a significant chunk, and the score comes across as the best-loved component of perhaps the whole film. The man given most screen time for this part of the discussion has Herrmann’s cue tattooed on his arm.
Perhaps the film’s prime talking head of a group that includes stars from both sides of the camera, academics and superfans is Guillermo Del Toro. The Mexican earns his money when brilliantly articulating how Hitchcock’s Catholicism informed his treatment of moral transgression, and his thoughts are slotted in neatly by Philippe as others observe the shower cleansing Marion Crane, the sinner who has just vowed to atone. When the infamous blade arrives to deny her, it is never seen piercing flesh. A comical nerd-out ensues over the sound effects used to create the suggestion, with Hitchcock listening to numerous varieties of melon being stabbed before announcing, in his usual statesmanlike tone, “Casaba”.
One thing I have to mark 78/52 down for is bringing in a couple of comparisons with the shower scene shot by Gus van Sant in his utterly pointless 1998 remake of Psycho, which should not have been dignified with an acknowledgment here. On the whole though, Philippe’s use of clips from other movies – and there are upwards of one hundred – are what really make this a work of cinephile art. In a late sequence covering the shower scene’s extraordinary legacy, an epic montage shows one movie after another stealing from the masterpiece.
Speaking at the London Film Festival last month, Philippe wasn’t shy about his desire to turn this project into a new genre, and already appeared to be lining up John Hurt’s ‘birth’ scene in Alien as his next subject. In a pop culture environment friendly to nerds and demanding nostalgia, he may well have found the ideal time to make it happen.