While many critics agree that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was a cinematic game-changer, highlighted by a sensational plot twist less than an hour in that no one saw coming, fewer, relatively speaking, can decide on what the 78/52 in the title of Alexandre O. Philippe’s inconsistent documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene actually refers to. The majority say it’s the 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits required of the sequence, whereas others claim it refers to 52 shots in a 78-second sequence (more plausible, frankly). Some even say the complete opposite: “78 shots that comprise the 52-second sequence,” or “the ratio of edits to seconds.” What’s odd is that those numbers are never explained in the film itself, let alone discussed. There’s an early throwaway reference to “78 pieces of film” by Hitchcock himself, but it’s never explored. And no mention of 52 whatsoever.
Nobody, not nobody, seems to have counted correctly. I guess it depends on when the shower sequence actually starts; it’s pretty obvious when it ends.
And that’s the surprising—and frustratingly insurmountable—thing about Philippe’s doc. Psycho’s shower scene has been referred to, imitated, parodied, and dissected a million times over the years, but rather than an in-depth, shot-by-shot breakdown of the scene itself, as promised, we get little stabs at analysis and a lot of fawning and filler. Interesting tidbits and factoids are plopped in here and there but never pursued. The film is largely a collection of fanboy/fangirl interviews with a wide-ranging assortment of adoring actors (among them Jamie Lee Curtis, Elijah Wood, Illeana Douglas) and directors (Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Eli Roth), as well as editors, sound engineers, film historians, whathaveyou, who clearly love the film but rarely venture much beyond singing its praises. When they do—editor Walter Murch, Janet Leigh’s body double Marli Renfro, composers Danny Elfman and Kreng—the film takes a much-needed turn for the better.
But it needs much more cut-by-cut examination, and much less rah-rah repetition.
We never see the infamous shower sequence in its entirety, for example—how dumb is that? Gus Van Sant’s psycho Psycho remake (from 1998) is mentioned of course, but simply in the context of other slasher films that were inspired by Hitchcock’s original (!?). Philippe also stages some black and white reenactments of some of Psycho’s pivotal sequences to offset the talking heads. Again, a strange decision; why not use the original footage?
For some reason, the director also thought it was a good idea to keep returning to the aforementioned Elijah Wood (who contributes next to nothing) and filmmakers Josh C. Waller and Daniel Noah (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Greasy Strangler, Camino), the three of them sharing a couch and blandly pontificating on the parlor scene as it plays out on the TV screen in front of them. All I can think is that this tiresome triumverate—founders of the SpectreVision production company—must have provided some kind of financing in return for their (questionable) on-screen input.
I had heard, many moons ago, that it was Saul Bass, not Hitch, who had shot—maybe even directed—the shower sequence. Bass’s name is mentioned exactly once in 78/52 with little insight. Likewise editor George Tomasini. We learn how Tomasini employed a groundbreaking optical shot of Janet Leigh’s unflinching eyeball superimposed over the shower drain that slowly spirals into regular 24-frame rate footage but that’s about it. In his book on the history of American Cinema, The Sixties: 1960-1969, Paul Monaco describes Tomasini’s contributions this way: “Tomasini’s most important work with Hitchcock was the memorable shower scene in Psycho (1960). Its aesthetic and dramatic accomplishment was achieved largely through the editor’s skill. The completed forty-five second sequence that Hitchcock originally storyboarded was compiled by Tomasini from footage shot over several days that utilized a total of over seventy camera setups. From that mass of footage, Tomasini selected sixty different shots, some of them very short, through which he elected to rely heavily on the techniques of ‘associative editing.’”
60 shots. 45 seconds. Again, the numbers don’t add up.
The stuff we do learn in 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene—the subtle and not so subtle foreshadowing, the multiple layers of voyeurism, how Hitchcock managed to cheat the censors, the role of casaba melons and Hershey’s chocolate syrup—makes it worth a look, but I felt like I had more questions about the iconic sequence coming out of the film than I had going in. And that, surely, is not what anyone would have intended.
(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth