The numbers have it: in a rather alarming fashion, 78/52 and Room 237 (2012, on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining ) define the main tendencies of a new kind of essay-documentary devoted to examining cinema classics: part “behind the scenes” supplement, part YouTube fan tribute, part glorified DVD audio commentary – with a parade of expert talking heads optional, depending on the occasion (and the budget).
78/52, devoted to the shower scene of Psycho (1960) and the build-up given to it by Alfred Hitchcock (both inside and outside the film) is a slick, occasionally intriguing, proudly nerdy affair. Film clips, staged re-enactments and archival documents are mixed with interviewees filmed on a set that recreates Norman Bates’ home.
Where the numbers obsession of Room 237 triggered a delirium of fan interpretations of hidden themes, allusions and symbols (a similar work on Twin Peaks: The Return  surely cannot be far away), 78/52 – referring (hazily) to 78 camera set-ups and 52 cuts – is fixed on the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking craft. Useful insight into production and post-production mechanics is provided by Marli Renfro (Janet Leigh’s body double) and by Stephen Rebello (author of the excellent Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho). A string of editors (Walter Murch, Amy E. Duddleston, Bob Murawski, John Venzon, Chris Innis) annotate the scene’s cuts, rhythms and perspective-shifts. Hitchcock’s granddaughter Tere Carrubba, Janet Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis and Anthony Perkins’ son Osgood add personal testimonies. More than a few talking heads – such as actor Ileana Douglas and composer Kreng (credited as composer on Cooties  and Camino )– will make you wonder why they are there at all.
All these participants are posed and shot in the same way: in black and white, sitting in the mocked-up Psycho set, backed by sub-Bernard Herrmann pastiche music for strings. This mimicry-effect, so beloved of the films-on-film genre, quickly becomes tiresome and cheesy.
Meanwhile, the meaning quotient of Hitchcock’s film is briskly boiled down to, on the one hand, some very old-fashioned nuggets about “the randomness of life” and what Guillermo del Toro calls a “Biblical sense of doom and punishment”; and, on the other hand, a barrage of socio-historical contexts somehow simply reflected on screen – everything from America’s unpreparedness for World War II and nuclear-age anxieties to the changing roles of women and a shift in the depiction of suburban domesticity. This is the type of airy generality that does not get us terribly far inside Psycho.
Film history students are advised to avoid proclaiming firsts: first close-up, first screen kiss, first Western, etc. 78/52 throws all such caution to the wind. I can accept, at a pinch, Rebello’s declaration that Psycho marks “the moment that signalled New American Cinema” at the dawn of the 1960s. But I was quickly annoyed by the protracted litany that it is also “the first modern expression of the female body under assault” (Karyn Kusama), “the first time in movies it wasn’t safe to be in the movie theatre” (Peter Bogdanovich), a film that “changed the way films are exhibited” (Murch), that “elevated filmmaking” (Josh Waller), and even “the first A-movie to deal with this kind of horror/trashy/tabloid stuff” (Bret Easton Ellis, insufferable in his latest role as pop culture commentator).
Such claims are easier to make if the scope of world cinema history is reduced to commercial American filmmaking. A telling moment arrives when writer-director Daniel Noah mocks “an obscure Czechoslovakian film” of his imagining that probably had a shower scene before Hitchcock – but, he strongly implies, who could care less about that? Although passing reference is made to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and German expressionist films of the 1920s, Psycho is served up to us as essentially a game-changing tabula rasa. Even something so evidently influential on Hitchcock as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil from 1958 (the two films share a leading lady!) is ignored.
Although no one could doubt that Hitchcock is the artist most responsible for Psycho, 78/52 reveals how blinkered a standard-operating auteurist premise can become. Psycho’s editor George Tomasini receives praise, as does Herrmann, but the decisive labour of screenwriter Joseph Stefano and shower-scene storyboardist Saul Bass is underplayed, while the cinematographer (John L. Russell), production designers (Robert Clatworthy and Joseph Hurley) and costume designer (Rita Riggs) are scarcely mentioned, if at all. Overloading this simplistic auteur bias still further, Philippe encourages from his guests the typical speculations on Hitchcock’s neuroses and obsessions (mother fixation, sexual repression, anti-US and anti-Hollywood sentiments) and how they received virtually unmediated expression on screen – a dubious assumption, at best.
Philippe’s rather cautious inclusion use of critics and academics is revealing. Bill Krohn and David Thomson appear, but hardly get to utter more than two sentences apiece. Alas, Robin Wood and Raymond Durgnat are no longer around to contribute; but what about Laura Mulvey, Raymond Bellour, Tania Modleski or many other candidates of a similar calibre? Instead, we get rather too much from an irritatingly gregarious scholar, Marco Calavita of Sonoma State University (“somewhat loud and very repetitive”, reads the first, very perceptive verdict on the “Rate My Professors” site), as well as generally unilluminating snippets from Howie Movshovitz, Norman Hollyn and Jim Hosney.
Like Kent Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), 78/52 places its greatest faith in the insights and responses of filmmakers – which is not always a wise move, Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema notwithstanding. Philippe seems inordinately fond of a particular breed of contemporary horror-thriller practitioners: Leigh Whannell, Justin Benson, Eli Roth, Mick Garris, various collaborators of Sam Raimi, and especially a chummy trio comprising the production company SpectreVision (Mandy, 2018): Elijah Wood and the aforementioned Daniel Noah and Josh Waller.
The less than profound exclamations of Psycho-love (like “this is crazy good!”) from most of these guys – men outnumber women almost 4 to 1 in the expert-witness list – are usually prompted by having them comment live as they gawk at the film unspooling on a nearby monitor. It’s an awkward and largely unproductive technique.
© Adrian Martin September 2017