78/52 (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Anatomy of that infamous shower scene

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Among many notable works by Alfred Hitchcock, “Psycho” (1960) is one of his greatest works for many good reasons. While he was already regarded as the master of suspense at that time, he wanted to do something different for shocking and scaring his audiences, so he went all the way for it when he came across Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, and the final result turned out to be far more successful than expected. While it was the biggest hit in his long, illustrious career, it has also influenced countless works since it came out in 1960, and, above all, it has not lost any of its disturbing power even at present.

As many of you know, the most memorable moment of “Psycho” is that shower scene, and documentary film “78/52” delves deep into that infamous three-minute scene, which was created from 78 camera set-ups and 52 cuts as reflected by the title of the documentary. While many things presented in the documentary are quite familiar to me, it is still an enjoyable analysis piece on one of the most famous moments in the movie history, and I surely appreciated its considerable effort and enthusiasm during my viewing.

While dissecting the shower scene bit by bit, the documentary makes an interesting point on how “Psycho” was the culmination of what Hitchcock tried to convey to his American audiences for years. Many of his thriller films made during the 1940-50s often reflected darkness and danger in the world outside, and that aspect was particularly exemplified well in “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), a chilling masterpiece which is memorable for its striking contrast between evil and innocence. As finding himself competing with other skillful thriller directors such as Henri-Georges Clouzot, Hitchcock wanted to push boundaries further, and, fortunately, he was at the right time for that in 1959. Hollywood began to unshackle itself from the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, a.k.a. Hays Code, thanks to the critical/commercial success of “Some Like It Hot” (1959) and “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959), and he could afford to take risks thanks to the success of “North by Northwest” (1959).

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While preparing for the production of “Psycho”, Hitchcock paid a lot of attention to setting the stage for the shower scene in the movie, and the documentary demonstrates how the first act of the movie deftly misleads its unsuspecting audiences as focusing on the character played by Janet Leigh. The movie initially seems to be about her character’s struggle to free herself from her personal problems, and it dexterously plays with its audiences’ expectation as generating a number of suspenseful moments including the sequence involved with a highway patrol officer.

And then the movie takes an unexpected turn along with Leigh’s character when her character comes to spend a night at a remote motel, which is run by a young man who turns out to have a very dark secret behind his seemingly benign façade. Although the documentary does not dig enough into how perfectly Anthony Perkins was cast in his role, it presents to us several subtle touches in his iconic performance, and I came to appreciate more of how important his performance is in the effective setup for the inevitable narrative point waiting for Leigh’s character.

While the shower scene of “Psycho” may not look that shocking these days, it was quite a shock to many audiences when it was released in 1960, and Peter Bogdanovich, who worked as a movie critic at that time, still remembers well how much the audiences around him were shocked as watching the shower scene. The movie broke through a sort of safe barrier between itself and its audiences, and, as many interviewees in the documentary say, the movie industry was forever changed after that milestone moment.

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As we listen to various interviewees including Walter Murch, Guillermo del Toro, Danny Elfman, and Marli Renfro, who was the nude double of Janet Leigh, the documentary gives us a detailed shot-by-shot analysis on the shower scene. Its every shot and camera angle were carefully and precisely planned and then executed for the maximum level of terror, and the documentary later tells us an amusing anecdote about how Hitchcock and his sound effect crew members tried to get the right sounds for the shower scene.

It is a well-known fact that Hitchcock was not so sure about the movie and even considered trimming it down to a one-hour TV movie. Fortunately, his composer Bernard Herrmann came to the rescue of the movie, and the documentary naturally pays some attention to how crucial Herrmann’s music is in the shower scene. The shrieking sound from string instruments is so effective that it has been steadily quoted or imitated during last 58 years, and I certainly remember well how it was jockingly used in one episode of “The Simpsons”.

Overall, “78/52”, which is currently available on Netflix at present, is a modest achievement, but director Alexandre O. Phillippe did a commendable job of presenting his endlessly fascinating subject, and the documentary reminds me again of the greatness of Hitchcock’s unnerving masterpiece, which virtually opened the door for many subsequent shockers including “The Texas Chainshaw Massacre” (1974) and “Halloween” (1978). Come to think of it, it has been a while since I watched “Psycho” for the last time, and I guess I really have to appreciate its greatness again as soon as possible.

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