It’s unusual to do a feature-length documentary on just one scene, especially a scene that lasts less than four minutes. And yet director Alexandre O. Philippe manages it with his new film 78/52. Rather than using the scene as an entry point into Alfred Hitchock’s filmography, Philippe goes in reverse, starting from a macro examination of Hitchcock’s work before zooming in on the famous shower scene from the Master of Suspense’s 1960 classic, Psycho. This deep dive allows the audience to seen in exacting detail why Hitchcock was a master of his craft by using concrete examples illuminated by a bevy of industry professionals. Although 78/52 ultimately reduces Psycho to more of a short film, it’s still a fascinating exploration that will delight film nerds.
The film assumes you’ve seen Psycho and are familiar with all of its plot points. It also assume you’re a Hitchcock fan and are able to intelligently converse about his filmography and other works even if you haven’t seen every movie he directed. 78/52 starts out by looking at the climate that produced Psycho, Hitchcock’s motivation for making it, and then continues to take steps towards the shower scene until it finally reaches those iconic few minutes that arguably changed the course of cinema
78/52 feels like required viewing for any cinema studies student. It illuminates the importance of every aspect of production, down to the tiniest detail. While some films may try to argue that accidents are intentional (for example, 2012’s Room 237 seems to come down on the side that directorial choices are unknowable and thus invites all speculation), 78/52 points out that when you have a director working at Hitchcock’s level, nothing is done by accident. Even the painting that covers Norman Bates’ peephole, a painting that is glimpsed for all of two seconds, is a hint about the violence that’s about to come. That 78/52 even includes a brief history lesson about this painting and why Hitchcock probably chose it is to Philippe’s great credit. 78/52 looks closer, and when it does, it finds that there’s something there.
Even when talking heads have differing opinions, those opinions feel like they’re backed up by rational arguments rather than innuendo and wild speculation. One director may feel like Psycho is very much steeped in Hitchcock’s Catholicism with regards to a harsh moral universe, and one where Marion Crane’s action must be met with punishment. Another director can just as easily make the argument that Hitchcock believes in a cold, indifferent universe and that viewpoint is borne out by Marion’s decision to reform only to be brutally murdered moments later. 78/52 isn’t trying to be the final word on Psycho as much as it’s trying to encourage intelligent discussion.
So it’s a bit disappointing that Philippe’s exploration basically ends with the shower scene. While he’s willing to dive into the scenes that precede it, there’s almost no dissection of Arbogast, Norman’s psychology, Lila Crane’s investigation, or any other element of Psycho that comes after the shower scene. For 78/52, the movie basically ends after Marion dies, which shortchanges the entire film. The shower scene is the centerpiece of Psycho and arguably the reason Hitchcock wanted to make the movie, but we can’t simply ignore that Psycho continues for about an hour after Marion dies. To do so diminishes the film as a whole and Hitchcock’s total direction. The shower scene is worthy of deep exploration and discussion, but Philippe doesn’t want to engage with what follows, which lessens the entirety of Psycho.
While it’s a bit disappointing that 78/52 doesn’t look beyond the shower scene to see how the total film come together, it’s ultimately not a movie about Psycho as much as it’s about the shower scene. It’s the double-edged sword of focusing on a few moments at the neglect of what surrounds those moments. Thankfully, that deep dive is such an enjoyment to watch and a thoughtful approach to Hitchcock’s direction that it’s difficult to complain that the documentary leaves us wanting more.
78/52 does not currently have a release date.