2017, NR, 91 min. Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 27, 2017
Imagine, if you will, witnessing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho upon its initial release back in the fall of 1960, before the rest of the world had seen a film that dramatically transformed the trajectory of American cinema. For the first third of the movie, you’re engrossed in Marion Crane’s intriguing but nonthreatening narrative, the story of a good woman who’s made some bad choices, a sympathetic person who ultimately decides to make it right. In an act of symbolic cleansing, she steps into a bathroom shower at the Bates Motel, the burden of her sins lifted. But without warning or precedent, a darkened figure enters the blindingly white room and pulls back the plastic curtain to expose her vulnerable body, the outline of a raised butcher knife poised to carry out the unthinkable. A prolonged shriek – from the audience – follows. And nothing is ever the same.
In this effusive documentary dedicated to what many consider Hitchcock’s crowning achievement, then-critic Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) recalls seeing Psycho one September afternoon in New York City around the time of its premiere, comparing the filmgoing experience to something akin to rape. Indeed, that hasn’t changed. The now-infamous shower scene remains a cinematic assault on the senses: John L. Russell’s alternatingly crisp and blurred black-and-white cinematography; George Tomasini’s unnerving editing, defying every convention; and, most memorably, Bernard Herrmann’s stringed score of screeching violins mimicking Marion’s screams as she’s brutally murdered, all in the service of a genius filmmaker without peer. The audacity of it: killing off the leading lady in only the first third of the movie, for no apparent reason at all. In less than a minute, Hitchcock rewrote the rulebook, smashing taboos with the confidence of a master magician. Aside from that baby carriage tumbling down the Odessa steps in Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film classic, it may be the most famous sequence ever preserved on celluloid, still potent, still terrifying, still breathtaking after more than half a century.
The documentary’s title refers to the 78 camera setups and 52 cuts that comprise the scene, which took seven days to shoot. With Hitch, nothing was an accident. The windshield wipers methodically crossing Marion’s gaze as she drives on a rain-soaked highway foreshadow the impressionistic slashing of the blade across her torso in the shower; the spiraling imagery of bits of torn paper in a flushed toilet presage the eddy of blood-soaked water swirling down the bathtub drain. While some of the sociological theorizing voiced by a variety of talking heads here may prompt some eye-rolling, the frame-by-frame dissection of the sequence by fanboy and fangirl filmmakers in awe of its artistry (Eli Roth and Guillermo del Toro, among others) is exhilarating. To the casual moviegoer, devoting an entire documentary to a snippet of film may seem silly. But if you’re a movie geek and Hitchcock freak (guilty!) who can never get enough of this kind of stuff, 78/52 will rock your world.