Inappropriately gleeful, impassioned, intriguing and analytical, embrace your dark, inner geek with this documentary about the shower scene in Psycho. It re-invests the scene with much of the trauma the years have stripped from it and makes a good case for it being a key moment in cinema history.
The title of this documentary refers to the number of camera set-ups and the number of cuts in the iconic, deeply disturbing scene. A full quarter of Psycho’s production schedule was dedicated to this sequence, suggesting that the film was indeed built around the shock delivered in these 3 minutes.
Alexandre O. Philippe settles on a mixed approach to the subject matter – it’s neither too analytical nor too serious – and given the unpleasantness of the subject matter of the scene, that makes sense. There’s real-life pathos in the story of body double Marli Renfro; opinions about film history and cultural significance; and even some art history on show.
I admit to feeling let down at first – it seemed like there was way too much Hollywood ‘gush’ coming from some of the interviewees – but the shot-by-shot dissection by Walter Murch (editor of Coppola’s The Conversation) and others is absolutely spot on, showing the extent to which the scene really is unique. This analytic thread makes a solid core for the wider examination of on-screen violence, the Eisenhower years’ ambivalent attitude to mothers and other such cultural studies elements.
The film is best when techie talking heads discuss the soundtrack, lighting, sound effects and editing; but it is carefully constructed so that you are led to these aspects via intriguing if thinly stretched explorations of wider issues.
Many of the anecdotes will be old hat to some but they are so good they’re worth hearing again.
Peter Bogdanovich talks about the endless wail that went up from an early cinema audience, lasting the entire 3 minutes.
Janet Leigh’s body double Marli Renfro talks about the ‘naked slump’ shot that was excised from the sequence (but recreated by Anne Heche in the Gus van Sant remake) for making Marion Crane look too human and vulnerable a victim.
Then there’s the story about the search for a realistic flesh stabbing sound effect: Hitchcock oversaw the stabbing of a collection of melon types before quietly opining “casaba” (that’s ‘honeydew’ to us Brits).
Hitch himself relishes telling the story about his wife Alma’s cold response to a preview of an early version of the finished sequence: “You can’t show people that! … You can see Janet Leigh breathing.”
78/52 is out now in selected cinemas.