78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene

“Well, the theater was about a half a mile from our house. And everyone was talking about the movie, so they decided they had to go see it. They didn’t really see horror movies. We weren’t that kind of family, but that movie really was the biggest thing in the world at the time. There hadn’t ever been another movie like it. I couldn’t go of course. Mother would never allow that. She only let Ricky and Steve go because they wouldn’t let it alone. I was too little. I was only five years old.”

Did it scare them?

“Did it scare them!?! They ran all the way home and refused to take a shower for a week!”

My dad was telling me about Psycho, of course, and his memory of he brothers going to see it when he was a kid. Most people of his generation have stories like that about that movie. People younger than them have stories about seeing that movie for the first time too, though now they almost always begin with how the movie was spoiled for them before they saw it. Psycho is so frequently spoiled, because it is such an influential film. It’s one of the primary course-altering moments of cinema history.

78/52 focuses in on that one scene in particular that makes Psycho so iconic – the shower scene. The documentary’s title is a reference to the number of shots in the scene, 78, and the number of seconds, 52, Hitchcock uses to deliver them. Seventy-eight shots in fifty-two seconds that changed cinema forever.

The documentary explores that scene in delirious detail. The doc consists of slowed-down and freeze-framed shots from the sequence, archival footage, and a few reenactments interspersed with interview footage with a variety of film makers and scholars, including, most delightfully, Marli Renfro, the woman who was Janet Leigh’s body-double in the scene. 72/58 answers every questions you ever had about the shower scene and a few more you never knew to ask for good measure.

Films like this that testify to the fun of cinema more than anything else are one of my favorite things about film festivals, in large part because as someone who is all but obsessed with movies, I rarely find myself in a room packed with people as giddy about getting into the minutiae as I am. To see 78/52 at Sundance was to feel connected to a community of people both in the room and on the screen who love movies. As remarkable as Psycho’s shower scene it, as fun as this documentary about it is, the camaraderie in the theater at Sundance was better.

That desire to be part of the greater community was what drew my uncles to the theater back in 1960 when they were teenagers and Psycho was a cultural phenomenon. They didn’t watch horror movies, but they had to see Psycho. My dad wasn’t even old enough to go see it, but he still remembers his brothers going, because that’s how he was included in the cultural moment. When my dad and mom finally sat me down to watch Psycho when I was in high school, they were ushering me into the community of movie-lovers that have shared the terror of the shower scene. Whatever else Alfred Hitchcock created when he spiced together those impressionistic images of a beautiful woman being murdered in a bathroom, he edited together all of us into a community of people who have been through something together and emerged giddy and terrified on the other side. 78/52 is a kind of thank you note to Hitchcock for giving us that gift.

This review was originally published during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2017. – editor