It took 78 setups and 52 cuts to film the now infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Now a new documentary from Alexandre O. Philippe gets under the skin of the murder scene that shook the world. 

When audiences were first introduced to Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock disallowed them from spreading the secrets of the film. He warned them that nobody would be allowed inside the cinema once the film had begun, unheard of prior to Psycho, and, unbeknown to them, would change their expectations of sexuality and violence in cinema from there on out.

It’s a scene few people have gone through life without seeing. The bright, white bathroom, symbolic of purity and sanitisation, the translucent shower curtain, behind which a nude Marion (Janet Leigh) bathes herself under a stream of steamy water. Even for those who haven’t seen Hitchcock’s classic 1960, genre-defining slasher, the sound of the screeching strings is undeniably one of the most recognisable sounds in world cinema.

In 78/52, Alexandre O. Philippe seeks to turn back time and dissect the three minutes that changed the cinema industry for better, or worse. The shower scene in Psycho was one of the most daring, violent and sexualised scenes in film thus far. It challenged audiences’ views of Hitchcock’s work following his hugely successful North by Northwest, being shot in black and white with little money to its name.

Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock. Photo: Dogwoof

Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock. Photo: Dogwoof

For his documentary, Philippe has roped in a number of big names to discuss the impact the film has had on their life and work. Elijah Wood, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eli Roth and Guillermo del Toro all feature in black and white to eviscerate the double meanings, illusions, and indeed allusions, and symbolisms that pepper the scene.

For film buffs, it’s an illuminating journey into the mind of a dark, directorial genius. For everyone else, it’s probably all a bit too much. Yet the likelihood is that if you’re watching 78/52 you probably are one of the film nerds that read the trivia section on IMDB. If so, you’ll relish titbits about Hitchcock’s constant motif of the eyes of death, his use of reflection and shadow, and disturbing references to birds.

 

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Photo: Paramount/Universal

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Photo: Paramount/Universal

Despite what some critics might say, film history is no different to that of the history of art, or the history of novels and manuscripts. A film is a unique reflection and commentary on, intentionally or otherwise, of the time in which it was made and received. HItchcock’s taboo-busting scenes of homosexuality, transvestitism, mental health problems and unmarried sexual relationships tore up the rule book. Even the presentation of a toilet was considered vulgar by censors, and had not been shown before.

That said, rose tinted glasses do often attribute fantasy onto reality, and some of Philipps contributors seem to go rather too far in suggesting that Psycho was an evisceration of the role of the mother in the post-1950s domestic era per se. Also abstained from is any discussion of the misogyny of the scene, or any statements contrary to the genius of Hitchcock.

With 78/52 Dogwoof have proven yet again that they are rarely beaten when it comes to documentaries that turn something you never knew you cared about into something you feel overtly passionate about come the credits. It’s amusing in that respect that their subject probably wouldn’t have seen it like that.

“The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke,” said Alfred Hitchcock, “I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.”

False modesty, self-deprecation, the retrospective imposition of sycophantic theories onto history? Who knows whether Hitchcock knew that Psycho would become arguably his most revered film, but it certainly says something that 78 camera set-ups, 52 cuts, and nearly sixty years later, we’re still talking about a three minute scene in Psycho.

78/52 is on general release now and out on DVD on 11th December.

★★★☆☆