Seventy-eight. Fifty-two. Just numbers, sure, but also the precise alchemical formula for creating the most iconic scene in cinematic history. In around 45 seconds, the legendary auteur Alfred Hitchcock used seventy-eight setups and fifty-two cuts to craft Psycho’s shower scene, an unforgettable sequence that transcended the confines of the screen into immortality. Not only are film students destined to pore over it for generations to come, trying to unlock its many secrets, but it has also shaped key areas of our shared cultural consciousness. How? As well as restyling the depiction of violence on screen for future filmmakers to come, the shower scene reimagined the representation of violence onscreen towards women, with Karyn Kusama, director of several thrillers herself, calling it the “first modern expression of the female body under assault”. Not to mention the fact that it transformed that most private of havens, the bathroom, into nothing more than a slaughterhouse, rendering it as fallible as any other location for murder and butchery.
In his latest feature-length deconstruction then, documentary-maker Alexandre O. Philippe, director of Doc Of The Dead and The People Vs. George Lucas sets out to provide a definitive anatomy of the sequence which changed the way filmmakers approached violence. With the world currently girding itself for the return of one of the ‘torture porn’ progenitors in the form of the Saw franchise’s resurrection, it seems timely that someone has taken the time to delve into the sequence that arguably kickstarted it all.
And time is right. The film lavishes an incredible amount of it embellishing the cultural context surrounding the shower scene, positing myriad theories as to how the iconic sequence was conceived. From an attack on Hollywood, to simmering personal rivalries, from Hitchcock’s perspective on America’s naivety to simply being a product of its environment, an array of talking heads offer up an intriguing series of explanations to codify the sequence’s birth. If you’re familiar with Room 237, the interesting Kubrick documentary that explores the many readings of The Shining, you’ll have seen this approach before, but unlike Room 237, 78/52 never shifts into full-blown conspiracy theory, preferring instead to take a more measured approach.
It’s compelling, not least because the visual presentation, black and white, with a motel room background sets the various interviewees amongst the unmistakeable iconography of the film. So complete is the film’s contextual grounding of the shower scene that this reviewer forgot all about his longing to see a systematic deconstruction of the sequence itself; instead I was absorbed by the film’s opening third as it searches for an answer to the scene’s origin.
When the blow by blow deconstruction finally comes, it’s utterly comprehensive as one would expect from a feature-length documentary on such a short scene. Links to the original screenplay and storyboards follow, as does a dramatised recreation of the same extract from the source novel, although this interesting comparison loses its impact somewhat due to an ill-advised attempt to recreate the novel’s account of the murder on film. This of course, does not work. There can only be one truly meaningful filmic rendering of Psycho, as Gus Van Sant was to find out in 1998.
Van Sant doesn’t appear here to discuss his interpretation of the shower scene which is a shame, but composer Danny Elfman, star Anne Heche and producer Amy Duddleston gamely do, all of whom were involved in the ill-received nineties remake, and their respectful contributions only add to the sense that the original shower scene is an irreplaceable cultural touchstone. My favourite contributor was the illuminating Guillermo del Toro, whose artful articulation is a joy to behold. Honestly, I’d listen to that guy read out his laundry list (and then maybe do his laundry if he’d read it to me again). Elements of del Toro’s own impressive filmography such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak have sometimes aimed to use similar symbolism to Psycho, such as his predilection for the symbolism of eyes; seeing the genesis of such ideas in the shower scene creates an interesting continuum line between two generations of filmmakers and only serves to strengthen Psycho’s legacy. However, connections like these are often much reliant on your own cinematic knowledge although there are a few interesting examples picked out by the film’s commentators.
Nonetheless, it’s truly fascinating to watch a range of gifted filmmakers and critics pick the scene apart, each of them picking out different beats and details, to decode the scene’s meaning. Perhaps the most fun is seeing some of these talking heads discover fresh meaning as they view the scene again, the joy of discovery etched on their faces; truth be told, it’s like a dead arty Gogglebox for cinephiles. All this, of course, only serves to emphasise the scene’s brilliance, the sophistication of its construction, that it’s still revealing its secrets to these intrepid seekers of meaning, years after they’ve first encountered it. Hitchcock himself wanders through the documentary in the form of archive footage, offering nuggets of wisdom, that the interviews then expand upon.
Throughout the course of the documentary, comprehensive attention is given to the scene’s cinematography, sound design, set dressing and especially, its editing which offers some intriguing glimpses into the art of its construction. Of course, no breakdown of Psycho’s iconic shower sequence would be complete without a discussion of Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable music and the film’s treatment of the score doesn’t disappoint; neither does the documentary’s own score which combines effectively with the black and white aesthetic that is redolent of the original film’s feel. Dressing the documentary in this way is fun as gradually, construction and deconstruction begin to merge together. As a result, we, the audience are transformed into the voyeur, into Norman Bates peeping through the hole in the wall, gratified by the undressing of the film’s secrets as it is divested of its many mysteries. It’s a fruitful technique, different to the courtroom debate approach he sporadically used in The People Vs. George Lucas, but effective and aesthetically impressive. One wonders how Philippe will seek to frame his next documentary, Chestburster! which will focus on the iconic scene from the original Alien. Is it too much to ask that the original cast and crew will reprise the chestburster moment? (Even if that doesn’t happen, I’d pay good money to see a leaked tape of him trying to convince Ridley Scott to do it…)
Other highlights include a detailed look at how the stabbing sounds were achieved, a lengthy process which almost tops the crazy lengths the sound designers of Fight Club went to to achieve the perfect punch sound. (Chicken carcasses, walnuts, bats and the Skywalker Sound Ranch basement in case you were interested!)
The documentary also briefly explores the various film movements that influenced Hitchcock’s vision. A montage of many of the parodies, homages and pastiches is also fun and acts as a further reminder of the scene’s undeniable cultural impact. For film buffs especially, it’s a treasure trove of easter eggs and analysis that won’t fail to please. From The Simpsons right through to Game Of Thrones, the legacy of Psycho is omnipresent and explored here in loving detail. Cinephiles, fans of Hitchcock, fim history geeks, slasher movie lovers or those who are simply into good old, well-made documentaries won’t be disappointed.
78/52 is in selected UK cinemas now.