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'78/52' is a compelling and sobering look at a famous piece of Hitchcock horror

Posted February 2

"78/52" — 3 stars — written and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe; not rated, probable R-rating for violent content, nudity and profanity; Sundance Film Festival

It is interesting to note that a 90-minute documentary about the famous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” would only draw an R-rating because of clips from the many slasher films it inspired. “78/52” says many things about the scene and the man who created it, but one of its most compelling — and perhaps unintended — messages is that often the best creativity comes from limitations.

Made in a more conservative era before the modern rating system, there are few scenes in film history as well-known or celebrated than the moment Norman Bates took a butcher knife to a screaming Janet Leigh in a lonely motel shower. Director Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary “78/52” — which refers to the scene’s 78 setups and 52 cuts — is a thorough deconstruction of that scene and an insightful analysis of its impact on popular culture.

Early on, in-between testimonials from industry insiders as they marvel at the greatness of “Psycho,” Philippe places the shower scene in a greater context. Among other things, he demonstrates how various elements early in the 1960 film foreshadowed the scene, and how the iconic moment was a reflection of themes — such as mother issues — Hitchcock had already been flirting with in his other films.

Over the course of 91 minutes, “78/52” examines the textual and contextual content of “Psycho,” including George Tomasini’s editing choices and composer Bernard Herrmann’s infamous soundtrack strings. Commentary is offered from familiar faces like director Guillermo del Toro, actress Jamie Lee Curtis (Leigh’s daughter) and Marli Renfro (Leigh’s body double in the film), all shot in black and white and backed with their own string-heavy soundtrack to mirror the subject matter.

One of the most fascinating takeaways from “78/52” is the realization of the craft and time Hitchcock put into his work. The shower scene took seven days to film, an unheard of effort for the time, and required a number of innovations that almost pass unnoticed in the film, such as a shot directly into a running shower head that somehow never gets the camera lens wet.

Hitchcock’s fastidious attention to detail runs in an interesting contrast to the director’s own insistence that the film was intended as a bit of a joke. The truth of that statement is debatable, but the impact of the scene — and the film — is more difficult to dispute.

One of the more sobering items to consider is the greater cultural impact of “Psycho.” “78/52” explains that the film was released in a post-atomic age that still preceded the civil rights movement, at a time that radiation monsters and rubber-suited boogeymen still dominated movie screens.

“78/52” explains how “Psycho’s” shower scene is viewed as Hitchcock’s almost spiteful message to audiences — especially American audiences — that their most private and sacred spaces were no longer safe. The herculean effort he and Tomasini take to ensure that the audience doesn’t actually see what they think they are seeing stands in stark contrast with the work of later directors, who splash graphic violence and sexual content on the screen without ever having to worry about something like a “Legion of Decency.”

Taking everything into consideration, “78/52” — and “Psycho” itself — can be read in a couple of ways. Phillipe’s documentary is a fascinating examination of a piece of masterful cinema, but it is also a sobering examination of a film that took the industry, and the culture, down a much more graphic and explicit path.

"78/52" is not rated, but would have a probable R-rating for violent content, nudity and profanity; running time: 91 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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