For a long time now, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” has been two movies, and the hypnotic film-geek documentary “78/52” is an ingenious and irreverent master class in both of them. There is, of course, the “Psycho” that shocked audiences to their souls when it was released in 1960: the one that made people scream with primal terror, that slashed a knife through the rules of popular storytelling — and, arguably, through the entire culture — by killing off its main character in the most savage way possible after just 40 minutes. That “Psycho” is the “Psycho” of legend. For those of us who were born too late to experience it, we can only guess what it felt like to have a horror thriller yank the rug out from under every sacred moviegoing expectation you’d ever had.
The other “Psycho” is the one that a lot of us have come to know and love and fetishize and live inside. It is still, make no mistake, a terrifying movie (especially when you’re watching it by yourself late at night), but “Psycho” has also evolved, in a funny way, into something that’s the opposite of shocking: It’s the ultimate movie to watch again and again, to study and revel in and obsess over like a cinematic codex. The whole addictive pull of “Psycho” is that everything in it — birds, eyes, windshield wipers, the shower, the slaughter, the $40,000, the pert decorum of Janet Leigh, the simmering rage of Anthony Perkins, the madness of Mother — interlocks with a mythological significance that renders the film’s every moment iconic and delicious. (I would argue that the only other movie since World War II that has attained that quality is “The Godfather.”) The special, ghoulish trap-door chic of “Psycho,” and the reason the film never gets old, is that it’s a movie we now compulsively watch ourselves watching.
Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, who made the elegant and searching “Doc of the Dead,” “78/52” centers on an up-close analysis of the shower scene that’s at once delirious and definitive; the movie is also a cinematic meditation that features a wealth of terrific anecdotes about the creation of Hitchcock’s masterpiece. More than anything, though, “78/52” is a movie about watching “Psycho.” It features a galvanizing litany of insights and fan theories from the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Bret Easton Ellis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eli Roth, Peter Bogdanovich, Karyn Kusama, Walter Murch, Danny Elfman, and Elijah Wood, plus a smattering of academics and film historians, and their avid analyses and responses become a testament to how no movie in the history of Hollywood is as fun, or resonant, to think about as “Psycho.” “78/52” could be seen as a companion piece to Kent Jones’ scrupulous “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” only this one, by digging deep into what is arguably the most revolutionary commercial movie ever made, should find a much wider audience. The niche of people fixated on “Psycho” is considerable, and with proper handling that could give “78/52” a healthy specialty-market run.
The title refers, with clinical precision, to the shooting of the shower scene, which required 78 camera setups and 52 cuts (or, as Hitchcock liked to explain it, with his macabre-butler dryness, “52 pieces of film stuck together…”). But “78/52” is much more than a deconstruction of that game-changing three-minute sequence. It’s a cinematic essay that explores the mystique of “Psycho” by looking at how the creation of the movie embodied its meanings. Shot in gauzy-melty black-and-white, to echo the look of “Psycho,” it opens with Marli Renfro, the Playboy Bunny who served as Janet Leigh’s body double, talking about what that was like, but you really see where the film is headed when director Karyn Kusama describes the shower scene as “the first expression of the female body under assault.” She’s right, of course, and the rest of “78/52” offers piercing insight into “Psycho’s” extraordinary firstness.
Before “Psycho,” horror was something out there (a monster, a haunted house, a force of otherworldly power coming at you). The film’s spectacular joke is that it played with all that 19th-century horror imagery (the Victorian house on the hill, the demon at large), only the monster was now us. It was in our heads. Death could arrive instantly, anywhere, even in the bathroom, with blood spilling into the water like inky raindrops and your soul spiraling down the drain.
Hitchcock, in a clip from a 1964 interview with the BBC, treats “Psycho” as a prank, refusing to see it as more than a manipulative funhouse ride. But “78/52” makes the point that he was far more ambitious (and serious) than he let on. Coming off “North by Northwest,” he had done all that he could do in the breathless arena of man-on-the-run Technicolor confections, and in “Psycho” he wasn’t just goosing the audience. He took a leap into the pitch-black void, doing his own variation on Clouzot’s “Diabolique” (1955), another slimy nightmare about a corpse that won’t stay dead.
“78/52” is powered by captivating stories, like the one about how Hitchcock tested out the death-cut sound of knives slashing through a hundred different varieties of melon (having decided, he finally said “casaba” with matter-of-fact authority, and left the room). Or how, amazingly, when he saw the first rough cut of “Psycho,” he thought that the movie played so badly that he decided to scrap the entire project and boil it down to a one-hour episode of his weekly TV series.
It was Bernard Herrmann’s music that changed his mind. The slashing strings gave the movie a pulse, and Danny Elfman points out that in the second half of the shower scene, it’s Herrmann’s bassy, discordant bump-bummm, bump-bummm that takes over the telling of the story: that Marion Crane is dying. Her final moments — the slide down the white-tiled wall, the grabbing of the shower curtain, the slow optic twirl out from her eye — are treated, in “78/52,” as the indelible visual poetry they are. No analysis of Hitchcock, not even Robin Wood’s, has probed this deeply into the spiritual effect of the shower scene’s every shot. The sequence famously never showed the knife penetrating flesh (it was all suggestion), but the one moment when it does touch Marion’s (that is, Marli Renfro’s) torso was filmed in reverse, with Hitchcock himself holding the blade.
The ultimate secret of “Psycho” is the humanity beneath its deadly droll manipulations. The commentators in “78/52” are alive to that, as when Elijah Wood, Josh Waller, and Daniel Noah parse the scene in which Marion talks to Norman Bates in the parlor, and Norman leans forward, suddenly calm and invincible in his anger, his black eyes just about burning a hole in the screen. Then, of course, there’s the hole he peers through in the wall: The analysis presented of the painting he removes is a testament to how Hitchcock draped each scene with hidden symbolic layers — more than anyone could take in. (No one even mentions that almost every line in the first 40 minutes of “Psycho” can be read as a double entendre; that’s what gives the film its subliminal “dirty” dread.)
“78/52” is, among other things, an enthralling act of film criticism. It celebrates one of the greatest movies ever made by recognizing that “Psycho” became a pop object (it’s amazing that Warhol never silk-screened it). Yet even after that happened, the movie throbbed with life and death. It still does. In the view of this “Psycho” fanatic, “Psycho” isn’t just about the death of Marion Crane but about the death of God, and “78/52” does full justice to how it changed the heartbeat of the world.