The past couple of months, I’ve had serial killers on the brain—particularly cinematic serial killers—which isn’t all that unusual of an occurrence for me, but this time around is particularly because I’m writing a book on Fritz Lang’s seminal M (1931). Lang is undisputedly a master of the loosely defined serial killer subgenre; while M is often regarded as the film first to feature a killer as a protagonist, others like House by the River (1950), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) have proved influential in their own right on horror and film noir. Arguably, Lang’s primary competition over the years, particularly where thrillers are concerned, was Alfred Hitchcock; even around the time he was making M, Lang was up against Hitchcock’s take on Jack the Ripper with The Lodger (1927), though the British director took quite a different approach to similar subject matter. And, at least among mainstream audiences, it is Hitchcock who is remembered for bringing serial killers into homes everywhere with Psycho (1960), the film that singlehandedly changed the shape of both the thriller and horror genres.
When I learned that IFC Films was releasing a new documentary analyzing Psycho’s key sequence—the iconic death of Marion Crane in the shower at the hands of an unknown, possibly female assailant—I was curious, but not all that enthused. I’m a sucker for anything Hitchcock related, but I also have to reluctantly admit that Psycho is not one of my favorite of Hitchcock’s films, though it is one I enjoy quite a lot. But I’m happy to say that Alexandre Philippe’s documentary was a pleasant surprise and offered up some new analysis of one of cinema’s most overanalyzed works, and actually gave me a new appreciation for why the film is such a triumph.
The documentary works on two levels and essentially has two chief aims: first, it obsessively and lovingly analyzes the shower scene; second, it looks at the influence and contemporary relevance of Psycho in general, particularly in terms of how Crane’s death created a radical shift within horror cinema. The 78/52 of the title comes from the 78 camera shots and 52 edits required to create the shower scene itself, which is symbolic of how important the sequence was to Hitchcock and the sheer amount of attention he paid it. Philippe’s quickly paced documentary lovingly fixates on this scene, showing not only how it was achieved, but breaking down the editing, featuring extensive interviews (such as from Janet Leigh’s body double, Marli Renfro, who has some of my favorite on-screen moments), and actually reenacting the shooting of the scene. I tend to find reenactments horrifying, but there’s something so respectful about these segments, as if Philippe has to recreate the scene himself in order to really get inside of it. Of course he brings up along in that process.
For those of you who have not yet seen Psycho, a) that is astounding and b) I’m about to get into some spoilers. What I find so inaccessible about Psycho is the degree of betrayal and trickery that still makes me angry, even though I’ve now seen the film at least 10 times in the last 20 years. It settled on a protagonist, the flawed but endearing Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), and gives her a lurid back story: she’s having an extramarital affair, she’s stolen thousands of dollars, and is on the run. Hitchcock’s later Marnie (1964) begins with a loosely similar premise, and both films center on the trademark Hitchcock blonde, this time around a fallen woman running from her past. And while he forces the titular Marnie (Tippi Hedren) to get married—and endure a rape from her own husband during her honeymoon, no less—in order to overcome her misdeeds, Hitchcock waits for us to fall in love with Marion, gives the character a realization that sets her back on the right path where she will presumably atone for her sins, and then he abruptly, violently kills her.
For years, I railed that this was a dirty twist, it was poor writing, and so on. But what I’ve come to realize—though I’m sure this is glaringly obvious to everyone else—is that Marion Crane is only in the film to be lost, to be likable, and to die. More or less, the plot does not matter and the script swirls around the victim and her wholly sympathetic killer; Hitchcock is making a fairly sickening statement about our desire to see murder as art, death as entertainment. It’s this idea that 78/52 hammers home without judging the director (as so many of his biographers and documentarians are wont to do), but contextualizing that within modern culture.
And in this sense, it has plenty of the standard documentary trappings you would come to expect. There are a lot of talking heads that run the gamut from celebrity fans of the film, like writer Bret Easton Ellis and Peter Bogdanovitch, to genre directors like Karyn Kusama, Richard Stanley, Guillermo del Toro, or Mick Garris, and people associated with Psycho in various ways like Jamie Lee Curtis or Walter Murch. There is a strange balance cut between academics and what I would describe as the director’s famous friends, headed by Elijah Wood. I think these scenes are meant to provide some lightness and comedy—and Elijah and co. do make some good points—but overall these moments are my own real complaint about the film. I do have to applaud Philippe for really covering a wide range of interview subjects and not fixating too much on any one particular background. He also makes good use of some of his filmmaker interviews to have discussions of how some of Hitchcock’s techniques in Psycho relate back to—or are different from—important moments throughout earlier cinema history.
Overall, 78/52 is well worth your time, even if you think you know everything there is to know about Psycho already. If you only have a passing acquaintance with the film, you will find much to learn here and I think, at minimum, it’s a really great example of how a documentary with a narrow focus can succeed at achieving all of its aims and then some. I found myself thinking about it weeks after watching it and, if I have any parting thoughts, I admire how much love went into celebrating such a harrowing moment of genius fixed permanently on screen and rooted in the cultural conscious.
78/52 is currently in select theaters around the country and is available on iTunes.