For anyone who loves movies, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho defines a moment when films grew up. Not only does it feature the first shot of a flushing toilet on the screen, it dares to address social issues that few movies confronted in 1960. That Hitchcock shot Psycho for little money, using the crew from his television show, simply adds to the mystery behind the mystery.
The new documentary 78/52, from Alexandre O. Philippe, examines why Psycho still captivates some 57 years following its release. While the title refers to the number of setups and cuts in the famous shower sequence, the substance of the movie examines what Psycho says about its time. Years after the film should have disappeared into a sea of forgotten classics, Hitchcock continues to call attention to a claustrophobic world populated by confusing roles.
Looking back, it’s a surprise Psycho got made. Hitchcock, fresh from the success of the big budget North by Northwest, could have made any movie. But he was smitten by Robert Bloch’s mysterious story of a young man controlled by his domineering mother. Rather than make one more technicolor adventure in mainstream studio fashion, Hitchcock envisioned a rougher film, shot in black and white, without the trappings of a major release.
The director also wanted to challenge the expectations of movies of the day. In mainstream movies of the late 1950’s, villains and heroes were carefully drawn in bold colors, with little ambiguity clouding how audiences should react. When telling this story of a secretary who steals $40,000, and the retribution she must face, Hitchcock tried to blur the lines between redemption and guilt, motherhood and abuse, reality and imagination. As he shot the film, he tried to consider every way to make audiences uncomfortable. And he succeeded.
Of the memorable moments, many remember Psycho for the shower sequence. 78/52 examines, in detail, how the scene is constructed from set up (a tense conversation between Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins) to conflict (augmented by the commentary of Marli Renfro, Leigh’s stand in) to resolution (as Hitchcock shoots and edits the sequence within the limitations of the production standards of the day).
But 78/52 does more than dissect a single sequence. The film explains why this sequence is essential to Hitchcock’s view of conventional roles. As effective as the film’s recall of details, what makes 78/52 soar is its interpretation of social confusion at the start of a turbulent decade. Psycho’s relevance has less to do with the shock it creates as with the insight it contributes, specifically how Hitchcock challenges the conventions found in most homes in the late 1950s. That the director dares to challenge the norms of the moment gives the film, and this documentary, lasting energy; that Hitchcock chose to package his challenge as a quickie black-and-white makes the experience all the more compelling.
As with many documentaries about films, the appeal of 78/52 could be limited to movie buffs. But this piece is too special to be overlooked. 78/52 should be seen by anyone who loves movies as well as the times they examine.
Film Nutritional Value: 78/52
Content: High. For anyone who enjoys movies, especially classics, 78/52 invites us to a behind-the-scenes look at one of the greatest directors at work.
Entertainment: High. As it tells us all about one of our favorite movies, 78/52 creates its own world of creative egos, fears and illusions.
Message: Medium. The sensitive examination of Hitchcock’s view of the world reminds us that even the famous face human challenges.
Relevance: Medium. The film is great fun; you may enjoy it more the more you remember Hitchcock and his films.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film, introduce your older children to the films of Hitchcock. Like this movie, they can fascinate.
78/52 runs 1 hour, 31 minutes, is streaming online and is available On Demand, following engagements in area theaters. Read more from the Reel Dad at arts.hersamacorn.com.
Hitchcock: entertaining visit to Hollywood
By Mark Schumann
Father of Three
For anyone who hesitates to step into a shower after watching the classic film Psycho, the narrative movie Hitchcock, from 2012, offers a delicious behind-the-scenes look at how cinema treasures are made. With a fun screenplay, rich visuals and delicious performances, this is the ideal celluloid confection for anyone who loves movies. And it’s an ideal companion to the new documentary 78/52.
Movie buffs have savored Psycho since it premiered in 1960. With an unconventional narrative — telling the story in three acts and killing off a major character early in the film — this deceptively complex film inspires film fans to dissect its many elements. As Stephen Rebello details in his book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the real impact of the film — quite daring for the time — emerges from its creative treatment of violent images. Director Hitchcock delivers more chills through suggestion than most filmmakers achieve with detailed images.
Hitchcock the personality magically comes to life in Hitchcock as both a master moviemaker and a man troubled by his relationships with women. With great respect for the detail of Rebello’s book, the film offers marvelous anecdotes about how Psycho travels to the screen. Hitchcock is so filled with gossip and gab that it’s as delicious a movie diversion as we have been treated in quite some time. With the tease of a tabloid, balanced with the nuance of a novel, director Sacha Gervasi delivers a most entertaining view of Hollywood as well as an insightful look at the creative mind behind so many movies. Hitchcock always delights and never disappoints.
Sir Anthony Hopkins, assisted by great makeup, creates a convincing impersonation of Hitchcock complete with the director’s rotund physical appearance and distinct speaking voice. The actor does not recreate “Hitch” — who became, thanks to television, a well-known character — as much as he uses gesture and expression to suggest how the director could have behaved. Director Gervasi cleverly parodies Hitchock’s introduction to his weekly series to introduce the film with subtle suggestion of the fun yet to come.
As appealing as Hopkins’ performance may be, the women in Hitchcock deliver the award-worthy performances. Helen Mirren, as the director’s wife and creative partner Alma, creates a memorable characterization of a woman talented enough to make a difference to what appears on the screen and insightful enough to know how to care for a creative spirit. Scarlett Johansson offers a pitch-perfect rendition of Janet Leigh in a remarkable portrayal that captures the magic of this actress while recreating her moments in Psycho. They both deserve to be remembered at Oscar time.
What makes Hitchcock such fun is its marvelous attention to detail from the specificity of the shots from the original film to the gestures of the actors and the period detail of the physical production. The movie returns us to a time when the movies were as much about the people who made them as what we experienced in a theater. For a filmmaker as driven as Hitchcock, pushing the creative limits was all in a day’s work.
Hitchcock is rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material. The film, available online and on demand, runs 98 minutes.