Alfred Hitchcock’s most iconic sequence is gone over with a fine toothed comb in this adroit yet rather simplistic documentary
Hitchcock has always been known to be a game-changing filmmaker. From The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1928) to Birds (1963), Hitchcock has seldom left the conversation of filmmaking. Indeed, over the span of half a century, the British director has churned out more masterpieces than even the most prolific filmmakers. But it seems that that appreciation has reached a critical crescendo of sorts, with a new film celebrating the life and times of Hitchcock being released every few years.
Whether it was the recent Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary (2015) or the biographical drama Hitchcock (2012), the seminal director has been the focus of many cinematic endeavors. As an ardent fan of the director, this is nothing but news as newer generations become more accustomed to the filmmaking prowess of a bygone auteur. Now to add to the onslaught of Hitchcock fandom is Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52–a film that derives its name from the the 78 camera set ups and 52 cuts that helped create the infamous shower slasher scene in the groundbreaking Psycho (1960).
Hosting a bevy of filmmakers, producers, cinephiles, professors, actors and Hollywood insiders, 78/52 plays like it should be a cinephile’s wet dream. The most informative, knowledgeable, and appreciative people dissecting one of the most iconic scenes in film history? All the cards were on the deck for this to be a wonderfully compelling documentary that takes one scene and uses it as a springboard to not only explain the phenomenal film it belongs to, but also the masterful filmmaker that envisioned it.
And yet, the film seldom does that. Yes, while many of the talking head interviewees provide tantalizing information regarding the scene, film, and filmmaker, it is just that–talking head interviews. It almost comes out as ironic that one of the most groundbreaking and innovative scenes in cinema is reduced to a banality–a quality that Hitchcock often biblically punished his characters for in his films.
That is not to say that Philippe deserves the same sort of treatment that Hitchcock reserves for his characters. Quite the contrary, Philippe does an excellent job of collecting a bevy of wonderful people to discuss the shower scene. From Guillermo Del Toro and Peter Bogdanovich to Elijah Wood and Jamie Lee Curtis, a multiplicity of people step in to explain why this scene is one of the greatest ones in history. They take the time to unpack not only the scene’s precision, score, editing, composition, form and more, but also the underlying critique of 1950’s tranquil naiveté and the film’s place within the lexicon of Hitchcock’s filmography.
It’s a doozy of a film that at times has the potential of leaving many viewers who are unfamiliar with art history, filmmaking and film history in the dust as cinephiles keep up with the drag race like intensity of unpacking the scene. But if one is familiar with Hitchcock, American culture (both profilmic and social), and the phenomenological appreciation of cinema, then 78/52 is a wondrously satisfying film. And while it may not reinvent the wheel–as Hitchcock had done so many times–it is still a good movie that works tirelessly to paint the picture of a genius.
78/52 screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival. You can catch it now at the IFC Center and On Demand.