Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52 tells us everything we wanted to know about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but were afraid to ask. It’s 90 minutes of riveting analysis and forensic insight into a film which truly can boast the distinction of changing genre cinema.
1960 was a seminal year for horror. Along with Hitchcock’s Psycho, audiences and critics sat down to Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, Michael Powell’s critically reviled Peeping Tom and Roger Corman’s House of Usher. Each of these films represented a new wave of screen terror, with varying focuses on eroticism, voyeurism and taboo-breaking themes. There was also censorship-baiting depictions of nudity and explicit violence against women, though Corman’s film is coyly perverse, its filth exists purely at a subtextual level.
78/52 begins with Edgar Allan Poe’s infamous quote, likely to cause a rightful sneer from feminists worldwide, in which the doomed American author extolled, that the most poetic subject in the world is the death of a beautiful woman. While its use here cannot be read as an endorsement, Poe’s rumination in The Philosophy of Composition has had a major impact on horror cinema and the aesthetic of the death sequence. This is clearly demonstrated and exemplified in Hitchcock’s iconic sequence, in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is butchered in the shower by Norman Bates dressed as his dear old mum. Cinema was never the same again.
The title itself refers to the scene’s number of shots and number of cuts. But another key element of the sequence’s effectiveness is Bernard Hermann’s shrieking score, which like the images and use of montage, revolutionised movies. The score is so parodied and well known in culture, people can make reference to it without ever having seen Psycho. It has permeated our culture that much.
Many treat the moment has something of an apotheosis in Hitchcock’s art and one that keenly captured his own psycho-sexual hangups and Catholicism. This isn’t empty pop psychology at play, there is ample evidence gathered from his prior movies and archival quotes from the grand master. What’s also fascinating is the talking head interview segments with Leigh’s body double, Marli Renfro, and her involvement in this tremendous piece of movie history.
78/52 screens at BFI Southbank ahead of its 3 November release. dogwoof.com
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn