The title 78/52 refers to the 78 separate swatches of film and the 52 splices gluing them together that form the most influential three-minute sequence in the annals of modern-movie horror: the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It could just as easily indicate the off-the-blood-pressure-chart readings that audience members experienced when the film opened.
78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene
“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” When he wrote this, there was no way Edgar Allan Poe could have envisioned the future glut of slasher films that beautify the slaughter of women. For better or worse, Psycho led the charge.
Alexandre O. Phillippe’s documentary opens on imitation: an actress stopping at a roadside motel on a rainy night. Didn’t he learn from Gus Van Sant’s violently insane remake not to take a scalpel to perfection? Janet Leigh’s body double and former Playboy bunny, Marli Renfro, is the first to speak. Next to Pat Hitchcock — she sat this doc out — the sprightly Renfro is the last surviving castmember.
Over the years, there have been many stories perpetuated about the making of Psycho, the most egregious of which involved title-sequence creator Saul Bass. As a director, Bass was the king of all graphic designers. Hitchcock signed over 50 features and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. (Some aren’t as good as others, but there’s not one that deserves to be called bad.) Bass directed one feature, the sterile ant-thriller, Phase IV. Your honor, I rest my case. Still, there have been those over the years who, in their eagerness to discredit the master, have been those foolish enough to dare try and assign Bass sole credit for the shower sequence.
The story goes like this: a frustrated Hitchcock was finding no end of difficulty navigating the flow of the sequence. After he stormed off the set, Bass helpfully took over the reins and the finished product is his creation. The truth: Bass was hired to storyboard the sequence to Hitchcock’s specifications; he no sooner helmed the scene than Hitchcock designed the AT&T logo.
This bit of apocryphal revisionism doesn’t come up during the course of 78/52, but that doesn’t mean the film is free of hair-brained conjecture. I’m not buying any of this hogwash that Hitchcock devised the scene as a metaphor for ’50s culture and the stranglehold it had on the American way of life.
Hitchcock would gladly lie to his audience, particularly if it made for good copy. (For years he falsely claimed he was being watched by the FBI as a result of almost revealing top-secret government information about the atom bomb in Notorious.) But his is a voice that’s not generally looked upon for social commentary. It’s more likely that Hitchcock, the eternal experimenter, designed the sequence to show the fawning whipper-snappers at the French New Wave that the old man still had it in him.
Here are a couple of more lies that come to light. Hitchcock knew (spoilers ahead if you somehow don’t know what happens during the shower scene that is the focus of this film) that audiences would be shocked by the early demise of the film’s marquee name. But he wasn’t about to keep a good feminine shriek out of his trailer. So, in order to throw savvy viewers off the trail, he brought in Vera Miles to sound off and saved Leigh for the paying customers. And that’s not a knife-wielding Anthony Perkins underneath the Mrs. Bates wig: it’s a stunt double standing in for the actor, who was was in New York rehearsing for a Broadway role.
The following telling of the making of Psycho came to me in my late teens from a college professor deemed a reliable source. It makes as much sense as anything up for discussion in the picture. For years, Hitchcock’s critical reputation had been in decline. When To Catch a Thief came out in 1955, critics dubbed it a light and frothy Parisian romp, nowhere near as substantive as Hitch’s previous film, Rear Window. Thief was followed by The Trouble with Harry, a downbeat little black comedy, the general consensus about which was: it was nowhere near as good as To Catch a Thief. Then came The Man Who Knew Too Much, seen by many as an inferior remake of Hitchcock’s 1932 British version, and nowhere near as good as The Trouble with Harry. Vertigo, considered by many to be the master’s masterpiece, was a critical and commercial flop, thought to be nowhere near as good… You get it.
North by Northwest was a huge success, but don’t think there weren’t some who complained of Hitchcock’s tendency toward big-budget, self-indulgent Technicolor extravaganzas and about his kow-towing to superstar salaries. In response to this, Hitchcock decided to shoot his next feature, Psycho, in black-and-white and with a relatively no-name cast and crew. Janet Leigh was the big box-office draw, but seeing how she’d be done in a third of the way through the picture, her billing was there to shock. Working on the cheap, the crew consisted of cinematographer John L. Russell, hair and makeup artists Florence Bush and Jack Barron, set decorator George Milo, and other members of his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
The only mention of the TV show here comes from Hitchcock’s granddaughter, who suggested that Grandpa, dissatisfied with the finished product, was going to cut it down for a TV airing. It was then that composer Bernard Herrmann stepped in and asked to take a look at the film. Herrmann’s slashing violin strains were the icing that forever cemented the horror. When Hitchcock thumbed his nose, he did it in a big way. Psycho turned out to be the director’s most profitable film.
Having seen Psycho well over 50 times, I had trouble believing that I would find any new bits of information in a fanboy documentary. Wrong! In the trailer to Psycho, Hitchcock refers to the painting that conceals Norman’s voyeur-hole as a “picture of great significance.” Thanks to Phillippe for alerting me to the weightiness of Hitchcock’s choice of Susanna and the Elders.
Look to Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, and Stephen Rebello for added insight. Contributing nothing are Eli Roth and Elijah Wood, the latter joined by two stooges to form something akin to MST3k schtick.
78/52 opens Friday at the Digital Gym. Those who have never seen Psycho are urged to spend their Halloween evening at the Angelika Film Center where it caps off this year’s annual Hitchcocktober fest.