There can’t be many single scenes in cinematic history which deserves their own full-length documentary. But then there aren’t many scenes which have had the impact, both on and off screen, as the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Director Alexandre O. Philippe has assembled a fascinating and eclectic array of commentators – Alan Barnette, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bret Easton Ellis, Martin Scorsese, Elijah Wood to name a few – to don filmic nerd-hats and delve into possibly the most iconic moment ever recorded on film
Putting the specifics of the shower scene to one side for a second, 78/52 does make a very interesting standalone social piece. In an America still sitting squarely between the end of the war and the start of the civil rights movement, the core ideals of the white picket fence and its supposed suburban utopia were quickly being eroded. The Starkweather murders suddenly introduced the terrifying idea that the neighbours so often depicted as giving a friendly morning wave on the way to work, could in fact decide to come and murder your entire family. The ever-affectionate, apple pie baking mother figure was suddenly being questioned as domineering and over-protective. Better national traffic networks and commercial air travel were creating ghost towns across the country, establishing the vast ocean of economically shattered small towns still seen today. America was becoming confused, angry and paranoid.
Although the socioeconomic section of the film would make for interesting viewing for most, once the shower scene becomes the full focus, it slips into pure film-making geekdom. Not that this is a bad thing. Hitchcock spent 7 weeks filming it, even by today’s standard an unthinkable amount of time to shoot a single scene. Phillipe breaks down the 45 second section down frame by frame, analysing each moment and cinematographic trick in incredible detail. As with any piece of art being scrutinised by experts and commentators, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the creator’s intention from the critic’s analysis. Did Hitchcock really propose to correlate Janet Leigh’s windscreen wipers to the arc of the fatal kitchen knife? Was she really cleansing herself of adultery in the shower? Was the painting Bates used to hide his peephole a grand gesture to Rembrandt and Frans Van Mieris’ counter-reformative motives in 17th century art? With Hitchcock, most likely, yes.
It’s easy today to underestimate the impact of certain taboos being broken in the late 1950s. Psycho was the first film to show a toilet on screen, the first to show a toilet being flushed. It’s worth reflecting on that for a moment before considering how Hitchcock kills off his main character with a kitchen knife by a man dressed as his dead mother, all while she’s completely naked in the shower. That Hitchcock, by far the biggest director at the time, decided to follow up his gigantic hit North by Northwest, gloriously filmed with the latest technicolour technology, with a black and white voyeuristic vision of murderous middle America is nothing short of astonishing.
The scene’s legacy too is incredible. Scorsese readily admits to copying it edit by edit for Raging Bull, Bernard Herrmann’s piercing strings are the blueprint of any terrifying moment, on screen or in the playground, the cinematography is unparalleled in its influence. The technique of suggestion over visual detail – at no point is the knife ever shown to hit the body – is still the hallmark of most great horror films.
The level of detail examined in 78/52 may not be to everyone’s taste. Even a vague attraction to the creation of film or just a passing interest in the movie itself, however, will be enough to relish this unique insight into the mindset of one of the world’s finest directors.
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Cast: Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Guillermo del Toro, Martin Scorsese, Elijah Wood
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Review by Colin Lomas