BannisterBannister   September 30, 2017  
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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.

78/52 is a deep, engaging analysis by director Alexandre O. Philippe (Doc of the Dead, The People vs. George Lucas) of the immortal shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The title refers to the number of shots and cuts in the famous sequence, wherein thief Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) is repeatedly stabbed in her motel room by a knife-wielding intruder.

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.

Per the official synopsis: “‘Psycho’ redefined screen violence, set the stage for decades of slasher films to come, and introduced a new element of danger to the moviegoing experience… Philippe pulls back the curtain on the making and influence of this cinematic game changer, breaking it down frame by frame and unpacking Hitchcock’s dense web of allusions and double meanings. The result is an enthralling piece of cinematic detective work that’s nirvana for film buffs.”

The women that do surface in “78/52” don’t help much. Jamie Lee Curtis acknowledges her complicated relationship to the scene, but mainly focuses on her decision to recreate it for a goofy cameo on “Scream Queens.” Filmmaker Karyn Kusama offers a brief respite from the movie’s masculine perspective when she deems the shower scene the “first modern expression of the female body under assault.” However, that’s not enough to do justice to a crucial aspect of the movie’s identity, and its minimal presence stands out as a gaping hole in an otherwise compelling assemblage of ideas.

78/52 is the kind of movie which likely won't get a wide release, but a digital download and stream.

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