by Rob DiCristino
Alexandre O. Phillipe’s 78/52 is the sort of documentary that many hungry cinephiles (myself included) will soon be begging to see more often. In many ways, it feels like an elevated version of our beloved DVD making-of featurettes, one given a sizable budget and ninety minutes to breathe. Through archival footage, animated storyboards, and artfully staged interviews with the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Guillermo del Toro, Bret Easton Ellis, Mick Garris, and Leigh Whannell, Phillipe’s (The People Versus George Lucas, Doc of the Dead) latest offering dissects the inspiration, construction, and legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho shower scene, inarguably one of the most iconic moments in all of cinema. Though the film’s primary focus is on Hitch’s signature scare (“78” being the number of camera set-ups the scene required and “52” being the number of individual edits), its interest in filmmaking as both a technical craft and a societal force gives it a scale and resonance that stretches far beyond those few horrifying moments while simultaneously reminding us why each and every one is so precious.
It feels a bit rote at first (and there are definitely a few sequences where 78/52 seems like it’s stalling for time), but things start to come together around the thirty-minute mark. It’s there that the talking heads (further including Elijah Wood, Walter Murch, Neil Marshall, Karyn Kusama, and Danny Elfman) actually sit down and watch Psycho in a replica (?) of the infamous Bates Motel Cabin 1. This should feel hokey and constructed, but it doesn’t. The genuine glee on Wood’s face, in particular (as well as his play-by-play insight into how Anthony Perkins’ physicality during the parlor scene betrays his changing intentions; “I bet that’s the moment he decides to kill her,” he says after the actor tilts his head just so), actually serves to warm things up a bit. Phillipe knows that his audience considers everything before That Scene to be preamble, so he stretches out the anticipation by letting his interview subjects experience it before we do. It’s a fun variation on that recent trend in documentaries where, as Patrick puts it, there always have to be two story threads. It can be distracting in other films, but 78/52 finds a nice compromise that never loses focus on the subject at hand.