Is there a scene more ingrained into the popular consciousness than the shower scene from Psycho? That question is answered by Documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe in his film 78/52. He applies a laser focus on those 78 setups and 52 cuts to discuss this watershed moment for horror from every conceivable direction. The talking heads belong to actors and directors, from Guillermo Del Toro to Eli Roth and Elijah Wood who present their appreciation, professional film editors who break down each individual cut, historians, peers of Hitchcock (Peter Bogdanovich) all the way to the model who body doubled for Janet Leigh. Exhaustive is the word. This is a brand of film criticism that some may argue is closer to a DVD extra than a legitimate film of its own volition but with the likes of You’re So Cool, Brewster! (Fright Night) and Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy garnering such critical acclaim, perhaps we have hit a watershed moment for film appreciation documentaries?
There is more to Phillipe’s documentary than the laborious analysis of those few minutes, 78/52 discusses the mood in America in an act of fascinating contextualisation. In the late 1950s, horror was fantastical and largely the realm of creature features and B-Movies, also, at the time Hitchcock was neck deep in his golden era of slick technicolour Hollywood confirms his status as part the establishment. A status quo that was shaken to its very foundations by Henri-Georges Clouzot with his 1955 masterpiece Les Diaboliques; a film which out Hitchcock’d Alfred Hitchcock. From that and from a dissatisfaction with the naivete of the American psyche, Hitchcock took Robert Bloch’s Ed Gein inspired book and used it to fabricate an elaborate prank at the expense of Hollywood and filmgoers expectations. Hitchcock hit film-goers at home, the one place they felt safe and made the audience feel naked and vulnerable. Hitchcock also took the wholesome ‘Mother’ the heart the American identity and perverted it. If it was a prank it was an effective one as it set horror cinema on a path to continues on today.
In constructing the world in which Psycho was unleashed upon, Phillipe’s documentary is at its most enthralling. It is in the appreciation that the film becomes a little more shallow. While the staggering depth of technique that editors and their kin go into is one thing, the industry professionals who try to unleash their inner appreciation without appearing like squawking fans is another story altogether. It’s in this that we are subjected to a litany of high profiles names declaring how ‘awesome’ this scene is and unfortunately the film lives and dies on the strength of its collaborators. The positives come from the likes of Guillermo Del Toro who, like Scorsese, is a joy to listen to as he expresses his adulation with an intoxicating eloquence, musicians too the way they evangelise Bernard Herman’s composition brings a whole new appreciation to one of the most well known musical motifs in all pop culture. Where there is good there is bad and that is presented by Elijah Wood’s friends and Brett Easton Ellis whose larger than life personalities numbs there words. Then there is the incessant string accompaniment that stinks of delusional grandeur, music that embodies all the worst BBC4 stereotypes into one neat 90-minute blast.
The major problem with 78/52 is that it is missing any overly critical voices, sans digs at bad haircuts, according to this doc, Psycho is a perfect film and Hitchcock is the least problematic filmmaker who ever was. Even as a fan this one-dimensional praise was a bit much, worse than that, that refusal to incorporate criticism translates into a boring watch. Even if that is the case, 78/52 presents one of the greatest scenes of all time with a degree of professional analysis that it’s like watching Psycho for the first time all over again. Now whether it is a glorified extra or a film of its own right remains to be seen, the one goal this film had is to celebrate a classic and as soon as the credits have rolled you’ll be primed to rewatch Psycho there and then. Surely that makes Alexandre O. Philippe’s film a success?