Sunday 5 November 2017
2017 USA Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe
UK cinema release print.
78/52 is an unusual documentary in that it spends an hour and a half examining what is, after all, a scene which last less than a minute in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho... the (in)famous shower scene. Of course, the power and initial shock (on first viewing) of this sequence more than justifies the importance and influence it has had on cinema history and modern pop culture but... well, if anything I could have done with a slightly longer movie on the subject (but I’ll come to why I think that in a minute or two).
The film is certainly interesting and the writer/director Alexandre O. Philippe has obviously put in a lot of time and effort piecing together small pieces of footage from a wealth of interesting people from both behind and in front of the camera... giving us a kind of collective ‘expert witness’ of the quality and visceral effectiveness of this effective short sequence. This includes some interesting little moments from Janet Leigh’s body double, who spent a lot of the time filming the scene... her body is in the majority of the short scene, which took seven days to film. Basically, if you see any shots without her face in clear view in the shower scene in Psycho (including the dead body in the clean up following the murder), you’re almost certainly looking at actress/model Marli Renfro, playing the part of the ‘cut down before her time’ character of Marion Crane.
And there are some interesting nuggets to be found during the vivisection of the sequence, some of which I actually didn’t know and some of which are, if you watch the film, self evident. For example, the awkward cut back one last time to the shower head in the pan away from Marion’s body before you get to the money is picked up on by one of the people being interviewed and then explained by another as a mistake in that it was later found that Janet Leigh had taken a visible breath. So that moment had to be eviscerated from the movie as quickly as Norman Bate’s knife made short work of the red herring of a character whose demise is depicted in the scene in question.
There is also a great little moment where the relevance of the painting that Norman Bates (played in Psycho by Anthony Perkins) moves out of the way to reveal the ‘spy hole’ is explained, in terms of both its relevance in the world of art but also its purpose in its placement in the film. I won’t go into it here because... you know... you can watch the film and find out for yourself but, basically, the voyeur is removing a famous interpretaion of a voyeuristic scene to be a participant in the very act that the painting is depicting. And this is all very interesting and revealing, to be fair.
That being said, I did find the documentary to be lacking in many ways, too.
For instance, the long list of people included, most of them extremely briefly, like Mick Garris, Walter Murch, Danny Elfman, Guillermo Del Toro, Neil Marshall and Peter Bogdanovich... are people you would trust to make an observation on this movie but there are others in here who, while very enthusiastic, well... you have to wonder what warranted their inclusion. Presumably, for instance, Elijah Wood is here mostly to comment on the acting in the parlour scene (which is also discussed here) since he’s played a notable psycho or two on screen himself (such as in the recent remake of Maniac or as Kevin in Sin City). Some of the others, however, you have to wonder about.
The biggest problem with the people interviewed, however, is that most of them have such a limited amount of screen time that I would have liked to have seen and heard more from all of them and I reckon the film could have done with being another half an hour longer, in all honesty.
Another fairly large problem with the movie are the re-enactments of certain scenes in Psycho which make you wonder why the director bothered with that when he could have just tracked in scenes from the original. Similarly, the film has a lovely string soundtrack by Jon Hegel (which I really wish was on CD so I could listen to it out of context) and it’s playing over everything, including clips from Psycho and... well you just have to wonder why they chose to go with an original score for this when Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score to Psycho, which the score to 78/52 is obviously trying to invoke in some way, was surely available. I also think that Bernard Herrmann’s astonishing contribution to the film could have been covered a little more in depth, especially since the story of Hitchcock’s insistence that the shower scene needed no music on it until Herrmann proved him wrong is nowhere in evidence in this documentary.
Another thing which is absent here is the very obvious ‘elephant in the room’ of the fact that, as far as I can tell from sorting out various bits of second hand testimony and evidence in books and interviews over the years, Hitchcock didn’t actually direct the shower scene himself but, instead, left it up to the scene’s designer, Saul Bass (one of my hero’s). Now there seems to be a lot of contrary evidence to both support and disregard the claims of both Hitchcock and Bass that they directed the scene and this film doesn’t mention this to weigh in on either version of events. It simply ignores it although, to be fair, it does take a little time to show a few of the many gazillions of story boards that Bass designed for his shoot... I know who I believe but I guess that’s an argument for a different time, especially since, as I said, the auteurial ownership of the scene does not come up in this piece. In fact, it would also have been nice to see the original shower scene actually played out before us in one piece as a reminder of the visceral power of it too, it seems to me. It’s surely been a while since a lot of movie goers watched Psycho.
Another thing which might have been made clearer... and I don’t remember it coming up in the film itself although it might have been so quick that I somehow missed it, is the reason for the title of this film. Apparently, according to the IMDB, it’s because the short scene under scrutiny here, is made up of 78 different camera set ups and 52 edits... which could have done with a little clarification, I think. I suspect some people are going to be walking away from the screenings on this one puzzled about it.
Something else which would have been nice to have been touched upon, since Marli Renfro, the cover girl of the September 1960 Playboy bunny girl, was on hand... was the mysterious and bizarre story of her apparent murder and the confusion of a killer who actually murdered the wrong ‘girl in the shower’ stand in... or some such. I actually don’t know the ins and outs of that story myself (the book on the subject is in one of my many ‘to be read’ piles) but it seems like it might be, at the very least, of passing relevance here.
All in all, I quite enjoyed certain parts of 78/52, such as the sequence showing the stabbing of different kinds of melons to establish the perfect sound of a knife passing through human flesh and it was nice to hear Jamie Lee Curtis’s own thoughts on her mother’s demise in the scene in question. It’s something which fans of the movie should probably take a look at sometime but I did come out of the cinema feeling fairly unsatisfied with the production. On the other hand, it did provoke some discussion between me and a friend who I saw it with in the pub afterwards... so that was a good thing. This won’t be making any of my top ten lists this year but, as I say, if you are a Hitchcock or Psycho fan, then you might want to give this one a go.