Alfred Hitchcock, knew how to scare the wits out of people. The shower scene in “Psycho,” for example, is a benchmark in cinematic fear. If he had any doubts about the effectiveness of that sequence they must have been put to bed when he received an angry letter from a father whose daughter stopped bathing after seeing the bathtub murder scene in “Les Diaboliques” and then, more distressingly, refused to shower after seeing “Psycho.” Hitch’s response to the concerned dad? “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
“78/52,” a new documentary from Alexandre O. Philippe spends ninety minutes exploring not only why the fifty-two second scene continues to terrify but also how it changed cinema. Drawing its title from the 78 shot set-ups it took to film the scene, the movie is an exhaustive but not exhausting look the shower sequence.
A mix of fan info and academia, it covers some familiar territory but more intriguingly looks to experts like filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and editor Walter Murch to dissect the nuts and bolts of the scene. Shot-by-shot they get inside Hitchcock and collaborator Saul Bass’s mindset, delving into the decisions, both artistic and practical, that give the sequence its power. First hand recollections come from a new and spirited interview Janet Leigh’s nude model stand-in Marli Renfro and archival conversations with Hitchcock and Leigh.
“78/52” is likely the final word on the infamous shower scene. The level of detail will enthral film geeks and Hitchcockolytes but shouldn’t dissuade more casual viewers. The enthusiasm of several of the talking heads—most notably Elijah Wood—is infectious. We can learn how and why the scene works but their passion shows why the scene is so successful from a strictly personal point of view.