78/52: Hitch’s Shower Scene

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by Glenn Lovell

For filmgoers who can remember a time when black-and-white was de rigueur, the shower sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) conjures indelible memories. We all know where we were when Janet Leigh as Marion Crane shed black bra and slip, unwrapped a bar of complimentary Bates Motel soap, and stepped into that gleaming white tub in the cabin next to the office.

I experienced sudsus interruptus for the first time at a drive-in in Eatontown, NJ. My older brother and I had snuck in and, now seated beside a speaker pole, were introduced to Hitch’s bravura act of misdirection and mayhem. Well and truly terrified, we adjourned to the snack bar where we finished watching the movie. I was 11 years old. Needless to say the moment stayed with me. More, it kicked off a lifelong pursuit of ever more, um, challenging material (compliments of Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, Tobe Hooper).

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Over the years I discussed the scene with Leigh, artistic consultant-credits designer Saul Bass and others involved in the scariest three minutes committed to celluloid. I’ve used “Psycho,” an improvement on Robert Bloch’s 1959 source novel, in my film studies courses. The ultimate example of viewer manipulation, it’s a master class in filmmaking. If you understand why the film works, you’re well on your way to understanding cinema. I’ve probably seen “Psycho” a couple hundred times.

Which made Alexander O. Philippe’s “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene” required viewing. Pitched as the ultimate dissection of Hitch’s most shocking sequence, which required 78 set-ups and 52 cuts, the documentary provides useful contextual info — what was going in the director’s career at the time, in society in general? — and a shot-by-shot breakdown by Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch, best known for “Apocalypse Now” and “The English Patient.” Hitch, in his seminal interview with Francois Truffaut, said he was drawn to the Bloch novel because of the “suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue.” In the novel Marion (called Mary) is decapitated at the end of chapter three.

Hitchcock, realizing this was a squandered opportunity, turned the attack into a sustained symbolic rape, with the phallic knife repeatedly penetrating “Mother’s” new rival for Norman’s attention.

On this level, the film is fairly successful. Murch, Scorsese and Guillermo del Toro provide the kind of sober analysis we’ve come to expect of these practitioner-academics. Art historian Timothy Standring surpasses them in arcane knowledge: he fills in the history of the musty 16th Century painting (“Suzanne and the Elders”) hanging over Norman’s peep hole.

Philippe shoehorns in 40-plus talking heads where 10 or 12 would have done nicely. This gives the enterprise a manic quality and leaves the impression of someone desperate to curry favor with industry insiders. Scorsese, del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis (Leigh’s daughter), composer Danny Elfman, “Hostel” director Eli Roth and Murch are all fine. Murch, who participated in the much better editing doc “The Cutting Edge,” impresses with his evenhanded, shot-by-shot analysis, explaining how seemingly arbitrary edits set us up for the blurred figure behind the shower curtain.

Scorsese tells how he used the shower sequence as a template for the bloodiest boxing match in “Raging Bull,” and composer Elfman, who worked on Gus van Sant’s execrable “Psycho” remake (1997),  recalls being alarmed when asked to “adapt” Bernard Herrmann’s screaming violins for horns. He said no, fearing the notoriously phlegmatic Herrmann would come back from the grave to haunt him.

But I could certainly have done without many of the others who have either a vague connection to the material or none at all. Elijah Wood and two indie pals could certainly go. Ditto Peter Bogdanovich, who once again does his cocktail-party impression of the British Master.

Also, I could do without Philippe’s cheesy scene reenactments and the tinny variation on Herrmann’s iconic all-strings score, which must have fallen under copyright restrictions and been unavailable to the filmmakers.

For a study that’s this specific, the scholarship seems at once sketchy and arbitrary. Someone mentions RKO producer Val Lewton, but there’s no reference to Lewton’s pre-“Psycho” shower sequence in “The 7th Victim.” Hitch’s indebtedness to his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV series comes up, but there’s no mention of the 1957 “One More Mile to Go” episode, a virtual dry-run for Norman’s cleaning-up sequence. Nor is there any mention of the swinging light bulb in “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” which predates Hitch’s fruit cellar by 15 years.

As for those movies influenced by the shower sequence, Philippe includes the usual suspects (Mel Brooks’s “High Anxiety,” Tobe Hooper’s “The Funhouse”) plus a couple of amusing novelties (“Lego Psycho,” a Looney Tunes’ variation with Bugs supplying the Hershey syrup). But what about De Palma’s hilarious plunger attack in “Phantom of the Paradise” or Robert Zemeckis’s arty, supernatural “What Lies Beneath” with Michelle Pfeiffer subbing for Janet Leigh in the tub? They would have been more logical choices.

“78/52″ ✮✮ Directed, written by Alexander O. Philippe. 91 min. Unrated (would probably be peek-a-boo nudity, slight profanity, adult subject matter)

 

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