Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Cast: Alfred Hitchcock, Guillermo del Toro
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In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock spent a whole week of Psycho’s production filming a single scene – and the world has spent several decades replaying it since. None more so, perhaps, than Alexandre O. Philippe, the director of 78/52, a fascinating, thrilling documentary that dissects the Master of Suspense’s masterpiece with a forensic precision.
The film takes its name for the number of camera set-ups and cuts that comprise that brief central sequence, a set piece so iconic and so horrifying that merely the words “the shower scene” conjure up the sound of stabbing strings and the spectre of Norman Bates’ mother behind the plastic curtain. Over 90 nerd-gasming minutes, O. Philippe pulls apart the whole thing and reassembles it limb by limb, with the help of all manner of cinema’s great and good.
Part of the fun lies in simply seeing familiar filmmakers all paying respect to Hitch in his bloody prime – a spectrum of horror and thriller talent that ranges from Guillermo del Toro to Spring’s Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. They all “oooo” and “aah” over the scene, Gogglebox-style, while explaining just how audacious the movie really was, arriving at a time when Hitch had just completed the colourful crowd-pleaser North by Northwest – a far cry from the grubby monochrome of Psycho’s seedy scares, which verge on a gigantic practical joke by comparison. One interesting observation places the movie at the apex of a transition in Hollywood, when women stopped topping the billboards and men took over in post-war cinema – Marion Crane’s murder was, in a way, the death of the traditional female movie star.
The music is as memorable as the visuals, something that Danny Elfman is on hand to illuminate, as he recalls the challenge of emulating Herrmann’s harrowing discord for Gus Van Sant’s remake. Thanksfully, it’s not all men commenting on the movie, and Jamie Lee Curtis is on hand to talk personally about recreating the scene in the TV show Scream Queens.
The movie is stuffed with individual interpretations of Hitch’s work, many of which ring true, from the repeated mention of mothers and their negative influences throughout the script to even the slashing of windscreen wipers and spraying of rain water against Marion’s car in the opening segment. O. Philippe even traces a curious fondness for bathrooms by the director, who had a bathroom scene in The Lodger and Blackmail, and even saw the suspected murder in Rear Window take place in the tiled washroom (“He’s washing down the bathroom walls,” observes one, as they guess how the blood must have gushed everywhere).
The notion that everything in Hitchcock’s career built to that moment is an appealing one, but it’s his attention to detail that really makes it plausible: alongside the myriad tiny moments spotted by the excited contributors are some fantastic pieces of behind-the-scenes trivia that remind you just how tehnically accomplished Psycho was: Bates’ mother, for example, was blacked out to make sure we couldn’t see her real face, while the storyboard conceived by Hitch was followed slavishly to the letter, including no actual shots of penetration. (Gus van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake in the 1990s inserted one banned shot back into the sequence, which sees Marion slumped over the bath at the end, knife marks in her back.)
The result is paced with the just the right balance of Gogglebox passion and academic analysis, resulting in an absorbing essay that will leave you dying to see the original again as soon as possible. This is catnip for cinephiles, lovingly assembled and insightfully cut together. Films about films don’t come much better than this.