78/52: HITCHCOCK'S SHOWER SCENE
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Running Time: 1:31
Release Date: 10/13/17 (limited); 11/10/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 9, 2017
Few will take 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene as thorough film analysis, but Alexandre O. Philippe's documentary about the iconic shower scene from Psycho is a good starting point for anyone who wants to look at movies in a bit more depth. Call it a primer in film criticism and analysis, as well as a testament to Alfred Hitchcock's mastery of form, which allows for a feature-length film to be made out of three minutes or so from one film in his six-decade career.
Philippe has gathered an assortment of talking heads for his study. You'll recognize some of them, while others will be known primarily from their work. Obviously, there are other filmmakers here—directors and editors, mostly—as well as one actor, whose presence is underutilized in the discussion of his own craft, and a fairly well-known music composer, who adapted Bernard Herrmann's unforgettable score for Gus Van Sant's failed attempt to remake Hitchcock's thriller. Amy E. Duddleston, the editor of that 1998 blunder, discusses how she and Van Sant first approached the shower scene with the mind of recreating every shot and edit. She's forthright about it: It didn't work, and the whole movie was, by her own reckoning, a "mistake." Van Sant's absence is notable, but who could blame him?
A shot-for-shot recreation couldn't have worked, and Philippe's documentary more or less explains why, without putting too fine a point on it. Psycho, as it exists, could only come from Hitchcock, with his particular obsessions, his desire to push taboos, and his macabre sense of humor. That's Philippe's argument in the documentary. It's founded on the Auteur Theory, even though the phrase is, surprisingly, never spoken. I guess that's evidence as to how entrenched this critical line of thought has become. It's taken for granted as the only or, at least, the primary lens through which to view a film.
Philippe, through his assortment of experts, starts that way. At one point, one of the subjects admits that it's impossible to view the shower scene as its own entity. There's an entire film surrounding it, and the context of how and where the scene fits into the film is as vital as Hitchcock's technique for the scene. The talking heads take it a step further, viewing the scene and Psycho itself within Hitchcock's oeuvre.
Psycho came on the heels of his success with North by Northwest, a fact at which pretty much everyone here chuckles. A breezy piece of Technicolor entertainment was followed by a black-and-white horror film about muddy morality, insanity, and bloody murder. Hitchcock famously called Psycho a comedy, in one of a few archival interviews with the man that are spread throughout the documentary.
None of the interview subjects—including Peter Bogdanovich, Danny Elfman, and Guillermo del Toro—sees it that way. They take it very seriously, and we watch as some of them watch the shower scene—repeated and rewound to highlight various compositions, setups, and cuts (The title comes from the scene's 78 setups and 52 edits)—with a mixture of gleeful and terrified admiration. The real-time viewers include actor Elijah Wood (who gets so lost in watching the film that he seems to forget to comment on the acting), director Scott Spiegler, and director Oz Perkins, who's also the son of Psycho star Anthony Perkins.
Just about everything prominent about the scene is covered here: the pacing, the music (or lack thereof for about half of it), the technical issues and workarounds, and the evolving editing style as a routine action becomes something horrifying. One editor keeps track of how long each shot lasts, noting that the shots become shorter and the cuts more frequent once the killer pulls back the shower curtain. Someone notes how the knife comes at the camera, as if the killer is stabbing at the audience or, as the screenplay puts it, cutting at the very fabric of the film (It's noteworthy how effective the scene is as written by Joseph Stefano, especially compared to the brevity of the scene in Robert Bloch's novel, which is also read here). There's Hitchcock's easy solution to shooting a showerhead straight-on, and naturally, the anecdote of chocolate syrup being used as blood being confirmed by Hitchcock and re-confirmed by Marli Renfro, who was Janet Leigh's body double during the scene.
The less-obvious information is helpful. Renfro was on set for the entirety of scene, and she ended up spending more time shooting it than Leigh spent shooting the entirety of her appearance in the film. It's a noteworthy observation, if only because it emphasizes Hitchcock's priorities in the making of the film. It might be taking it a bit far to say—as someone does here—that Hitchcock made the film solely for the shower scene. The idea dismisses everything else that he does in the film, but based on what we see from the scene and learn from the background stories, there's no denying that the shower scene was of key interest.
Philippe and his subjects commendably pick apart the scene, as a specific piece of filmmaking and within a broader context, and its cultural impact. They do so without stretching things too far (Some observations about foreshadowing within the film seem a bit like making something out of very little, but they're not necessarily wrong) or touching upon the same points over and over again. 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene might seem as if it's just scratching the surface, but that's not Philippe's fault. It's just a sign of how much there is to discuss here.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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