It is fair to ask whether the world really needs a 90-minute documentary about a single scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Director Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene may sound like something made expressly for film students, but the scene in question may be the only one in movie history to deserve such close scrutiny — and 78/52 is anything but dry and academic.
Lavish attention to Psycho's shower scene began with Hitchcock himself. He chose to spend one week of the film's four-week shooting schedule on that taboo-breaking, censor-defying three minutes of cinema. Philippe's film takes inspiration from Hitchcock's obsessiveness and examines the scene's content and underlying methods from every possible perspective. But 78/52 also devotes itself to placing Hitchcock's work in the larger context of the rapidly changing American culture of 1960. Entertaining and deeply immersive, the film wins over even casual viewers without breaking a sweat.
It's not easy to imagine the innocence to which cultural institutions of that time attempted to cling. Psycho was the first Hollywood film to include a toilet (Janet Leigh flushes it just so Hitchcock can thumb his nose at propriety) and the first to show a woman's navel. Those taboos seem positively quaint once the shower scene is unleashed and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) murders a nude and vulnerable Marion Crane (Leigh). The scene shattered countless conventions — or seemed to, as its dizzying visual style left everyone unsure of what they'd actually seen depicted on screen.
In the words of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) — one of many visionary artists interviewed for the film — Hitchcock "breaks the covenant between filmmaker and audience, and the audience cannot wait to see more."
Like Psycho, 78/52 takes about 40 minutes to set the stage for the shower scene. That extended intro allows Philippe to examine a period in which the birth control pill was approved and the first Playboy Club opened, and to explore themes that drive Psycho, such as voyeurism and shifting perceptions of American motherhood. The entire documentary mixes vintage films clips and audio with new interviews and staged scenes to offer a dense and fast-paced viewing experience, like a torrent of insight and intrigue.
The film's title is needlessly technical — 78 is the number of camera set-ups in the shower scene and 52 the number of edits. But by the time the film gets to its analysis of the scene, sophisticated interview subjects like editor and sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) are more interested in how images and sounds are perceived by human beings than in the technology of cinema. The documentary manages to decode a bit of the movies' singular magic.
The interviews are presented in black and white, shot in front of a green screen and later made to look as if they were conducted inside a room at the Bates Motel. It's a surprisingly subtle effect that also helps new and vintage footage blend seamlessly. A special camera set-up often has interview subjects looking directly at the audience to amplify the voyeurism theme and give the film a weirdly intimate vibe.
The film covers a lot of ground. Its central idea is that Psycho not only anticipates the social upheaval and violence of the 1960s — from political assassinations to the civil rights movement — but actually helped open the floodgates to a modern era in which innocence would be lost and hard truths revealed. That is how a single scene in a horror movie earns a documentary of its own.