With its 78 camera set ups and 52 cuts in just three minutes, the brutal shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of cinema’s most iconic, writes Natalie Stendall.
Now director Alexandre O. Philippe brings us an enthusiastic documentary examining the scene’s wider impacts on pop culture.
Exploring Psycho in its cinematic and socio-political context, 78/52 is a movie for cinephiles that worships Hitchcock’s achievement but fails to latch on to any significant angle.
Philippe amasses an impressive array of contributors from Pan’s Labyrinth writer-director Guillermo del Torro to Oscar-nominated composer Danny Elfman.
Passion for the scene oozes from each and every observation. Philippe lovingly weaves in archive footage of Hitchcock and beautifully remastered scenes from Psycho. At times this deluge of praise seems to wash away anything of real of substance but, love-in aside, the film makes some fascinating comments about the technical aspects of filmmaking.
A shot-by-shot analysis of the scene examines how abrupt jump cuts work upon our emotions to jar and shock.
Philippe’s contributors discuss individual shot compositions - the inclusion of negative space at the the left hand side of the frame for instance - to draw our attention, unsettle us and create suspense. They highlight, too, the building of visual symbols that mirror and foreshadow those in the shower scene - rain falling violently on car a windshield, the slashing of wiper blades - to illustrate Hitchcock’s level of detail and forethought. It’s fascinating and insightful.
This detailed analysis also introduces us to some of the obstacles and practical solutions found both on set and in the editing room.
Following the technicolour movies of the 1950s (Hitchcock’s North By Northwest for instance) Philippe explores the director’s decision to make Psycho in black and white as part of a belief that “if it had been done in colour the draining away of blood would have been too repulsive”.
In doing so, 78/52 puts Hitchcock’s work in the context of the then Production Code of Administration and National Legion of Decency, considering how Hitchcock’s unique position in Hollywood enabled him to take steps unavailable or potentially damaging to other filmmakers.
Yet 78/52 forgets to stop fawning and take issue with some of the less desirable impacts of Psycho’s celebrated shower scene. While the documentary suggests that the female slaughter in Psycho works as a metaphor for a turning point in the golden age of cinema when leading actresses once receiving top billing were eclipsed by men, Hitchcock’s own attitude to the female form on screen is referenced but never fully explored.
His belief that “the whole theory is that you have to discover the sex in the woman and not have it stuck all over her like labels” is uncomfortable and while 78/52 alludes briefly to the shower scene’s influence on slasher movies of the 70s and 80s, in which female nudity became synonymous with bloody sexualised violence, this important thread is left dangling.
Composer Kreng’s deconstruction of Bernard Herrmann’s innovative score provides a fascinating but brief glance at the other talent involved in the making of Psycho.
It leaves us with the sense that 78/52’s overwhelming emphasis on Hitchcock himself has been somewhat remiss. The approach is costly. At just 91 minutes Philippe appears to lose direction, running out of things to say and 78/52 disappears into a disappointing non-ending.
78/52 is in select cinemas nationwide and is also available to stream the same time as cinemas