‘78/52’ Review: A Deep Dive into the Most Famous Shower in Movie History
Here’s the the best endorsement I can give 78/52, a new documentary about the making of Psycho’s famous shower scene and its enormous impact on popular culture. I’ve seen Psycho countless times, and I’ve watched the shower scene on its own countless more. I’ve read Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, I took a class in college dedicated to Hitchcock’s career, and I once went through the shower scene a shot at a time with a scholar who had studied the film for decades. Despite all of that, I still learned new things about Hitchcock, Psycho, and the shower scene from 78/52. And I had a good time learning them.
If you’re looking for a documentary as formally adventurous as Hitchcock’s groundbreaking horror film, however, look elsewhere. 78/52 (the title refers to the shower scene’s 78 camera set-ups and 52 cuts) takes the shape of a fairly standard talking-head documentary, mixing a few recreations of the shower scene with a couple clever touches (the interview subjects are shot in black-and-white in a recreation of the Bates Motel cabin where poor Marion Crane met her fateful demise). Those subjects run the gamut from directors who’ve drawn inspiration from Hitchcock, like Guillermo Del Toro and Richard Stanley, to historians and critics who place Psycho in a larger cultural context. A variety of movie craftsmen speak to the formal aspects of the scene: Editors who consider the unusual structure of shots and cuts, actors who talk about Janet Leigh’s choices, sound designers who can parse why Hitchcock chose specific effects, and composers who measure Bernard Herrmann’s iconic staccato score.
Director Alexandre O. Philippe (The People vs. George Lucas) doesn’t explore any of these subjects at length, but he presents a nice overview of a lot of elements of filmmaking. Different sections touch on the art of screenwriting (comparing the shower scene from Robert Bloch’s original novel to the script’s version by Joseph Stefano), the depiction of onscreen violence, and even exhibition — amongst other things, Psycho forever changed the way movies were shown, since Hitchcock demanded every theater that screened Psycho deny admittance to anyone after it began, going against the then-common practice that people would come and go in the theater as they pleased.
Most of Psycho’s creators are long dead, but Philippe did manage to track down one notable participant: Marli Renfro, the woman who served as Janet Leigh’s body double for much of the shower scene. Renfro identifies a few of the specific shots where she appears (including the memorable one where Marion reaches for the shower’s curtain — look for Renfro’s slightly deformed ring finger) and talks about the atmosphere on the set while Hitchcock spent an entire week on the shower scene — an incredible amount of time for a movie like Psycho, which was shot very quickly and inexpensively. There are also brief appearances from some of relatives of Psycho alums; Hitchcock’s granddaughter, Tere Carrubba, talks a little about her grandfather and grandmother, and Anthony Perkins’ son Osgood reveals a few behind-the-scenes tidbits.
Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh’s daughter, does make a small contribution (which mostly doubles as a plug for her television show Scream Queens) but it’s so short it’s more disappointing than illuminating. It would have been nice to hear more from her and others close to the film, and less from a few of the other talking heads who approach the material more as enthusiastic fans than experts. Still, it’s hard to be too critical of a movie that has legendary film editor Walter Murch take you on a guided tour of the shower scene one cut at a time. That portion alone makes 78/52 a movie nerd’s dream.
Important movies only stay important if each new generation of movie lovers is taught why they matter. 78/52 does that for Psycho in entertaining fashion. Even if much of this material has been presented in various DVD special features and books before, the way it’s assembled here in an easily digestible documentary (one, it should be noted, that is almost as long as Psycho itself) makes 78/52 a valuable resource for burgeoning film fans and casual cinephiles. Hardcore Hitchcock nerds might discover a few new nuggets too. Did you know what painting Norman Bates pulls off the wall of his office to spy on Marion through his peep hole? Did you know it was very deliberately chosen to comment on the scene’s themes? I didn’t. Now I do.