The shower murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” sits alongside the opening of “Citizen Kane” and the climax of “2001: A Space Odyssey” as one of the most famous movie scenes in history, but the reasons are both obvious and elusive. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 proto-slasher film jarred audiences with the sudden death of leading lady Janet Leigh midway through, in a grisly, taboo-shattering bout of nudity and knifing at the ends of a shadowy, cross-dressing Norman Bates. As a complex narrative strategy and a subversive stunt, it kickstarted decades of conversations, so it’s surprising it took so long for someone to make a movie about it.
Enter “78/52,” the latest film-history deep-dive from Alexandre O. Phillipe (“Doc of the Dead,” “The People vs. George Lucas”). A compendium of appreciations, close readings, and reminiscences on the bloody death scene and its lasting impact, Phillipe’s brisk cinematic essay consolidates the enthusiasm for Hitchcock’s achievement with satisfying results.
“78/52” (the title refers to the number of setups and cuts in the two-minute scene) opens with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe, who calls the death of a beautiful woman “the most poetical topic in the world.” That disturbing observation outlines the strength and limitations of Phillipe’s worshipful portrait. If you know the scene — and if you don’t, you probably aren’t watching “78/52” — you won’t find much in the way of groundbreaking new material, but it’s fun to revisit anyway.
In the non-fiction subgenre of movies about movies, Phillipe’s documentary isn’t as audacious as”Room 237,” Rodney Ascher’s pileup of “The Shining” conspiracy theories; most “78/52” interview subjects offer sensible assessments of the craftsmanship and power of Hitchcock’s approach. And unlike Kent Jones’ 2016 documentary “Hitchock/Truffaut,” about the influence of the famed conversation between the two noted directors on future filmmaking generations, Phillipe casts a wide net. He includes interviews with close to 40 directors, writers, historians, and others, and finds enough variation to dodge a redundant fan tribute. Instead, the movie works like a breezy lecture, drifting from one eager thought to another. History buffs won’t find much new material, but Phillipe hits the key topics.
Seating most of his subjects against a simulated black-and-white motel backdrop, Phillipe finds his strongest elements by providing historical context and nuanced breakdowns of the scene’s visual language. No major point goes untouched: Peter Bogdonavich provides an amusing anecdote about watching the movie at an early press preview, where a recording of Hitchcock’s voice warned audiences not to reveal the ending, effectively setting the stage for a spoiler-conscious culture; historian David Thompson compares the shock of the scene to audiences reacting to the arrival of a train in the Lumiere brothers’ early demonstration of film technology. Later come the contemporary reverberations, from the unexpected death of Ned Stark in the first scene of “Game of Thrones” to fan videos like “Lego Psycho.”
Other subjects dig deep into the craft, including editing legend Walter Murch, who acknowledges his debt to “Psycho” for a scene he cut years later in Frances Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.” But the most effective filmmaking observations come from editor Amy Duddleston and composer Danny Elfman, who both worked on Gus Van Sant’s much-maligned shot-for-shot remake and acknowledged their failure to replicate the intricate montage of the shower scene.
Filmmakers and writers zip past — Bret Easton Ellis, Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Mick Garris — with tidbits of observations, some sharper than others. More often than not, their admiration carries the underpinnings of envy. When the movie acknowledges Hitchcock’s own anxieties around losing his shock-genre prominence after the release of Henri George Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques,” it’s clear that part of the mission of “78/52” is to show just how meticulously Hitchcock designed his set piece so that people would keep talking about it. The movie’s very existence is a validation of Hitchcock’s intentions.
While the range of talking heads never cease to be engaging, they do suffer a crucial deficiency in the minimal representation of female voices. While the words “male gaze” are never mentioned, they’re constantly implied. Elijah Wood and his cohorts from genre production company SpectreVision offer plenty of endearing observations, but when they lean forward to watch the scene on a monitor and speak in whispery, reverential tones, it’s hard to ignore that we’re watching three white guys marvel at the beauty of a woman’s grisly death.
The women that do surface in “78/52” don’t help much. Jamie Lee Curtis acknowledges her complicated relationship to the scene, but mainly focuses on her decision to recreate it for a goofy cameo on “Scream Queens.” Filmmaker Karyn Kusama offers a brief respite from the movie’s masculine perspective when she deems the shower scene the “first modern expression of the female body under assault.” However, that’s not enough to do justice to a crucial aspect of the movie’s identity, and its minimal presence stands out as a gaping hole in an otherwise compelling assemblage of ideas.
There is one crucial exception: Marli Renfro, the octogenarian who was Leigh’s body double in the scene, becomes the documentary’s most revealing participant. Her role as the footnote to a major force in film history speaks to the way even this all-too-familiar achievement still has a few unexplored crevices. Complimented by dozens of reminders of why it’s so great, she’s the true star of “78/52,” which ultimately manages to expand on the significance of the scene and add a few details to its ever-expanding legacy.
“78/52” premiered in the Midnight section of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.