Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho pivots on two protagonists who’re conjoined by variations of the same form of suppression. Conditioned by his mother to fear sex and stranded by modern highways that divert customers away from the seriocomically gothic Bates Motel, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is a deranged relic, a joke on the authoritative fealty that was preached by television in the 1950s. On the other hand, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) weathers endless male condescension while engaging in an affair with a married man that leaves her stymied and frustrated. Norman and Marion are both victims of disproportionate sex: One’s desexualized while the other’s sexualized relentlessly. These clashing tensions are brought into conflict when Marion is stabbed to death in a shower at the Bates Motel, which has become one of the most famous and heavily scrutinized scenes in cinema.
In 78/52, director Alexandre O. Philippe interviews film scholars and professionals about Psycho’s cultural import. The first half of this essayistic documentary concerns Psycho’s macro impact, and features observations that will be familiar to Hitchcock acolytes. Hitchcock’s oft-quoted discernment between suspense and shock, using an example of a bomb under a table, is reprised. Peter Bogdanovich discusses Psycho’s influential marketing, which insisted that viewers see the film from beginning to end and promise not to divulge its secrets. Editor Walter Murch reminds us that audiences were once more casual about film-going, walking in and out of a theater and seeing only portions of movies—a culture that Hitchcock helped to obliterate. This material is educational and diverting but somewhat rote in delivery.
78/52 comes to life when riffing on the psychosexual perversity of Hitchcock’s film, which changed cinema’s relationship with sex and violence. Philippe subtly underlines how responses to the film can vary by the gender of the viewer. Guillermo del Toro mentions Psycho’s Catholic guilt, observing that Marion must die for stealing money from her employer despite seeking atonement before her murder. But Illeana Douglas says that Marion is killed for sexually arousing Norman, while Karyn Kusama states that Psycho offers “the first modern expression of the female body under assault.” These artists are all correct, and the variation of their responses indicates a source of Psycho’s troubling power: its simultaneous devotion to social structures (the rules of religion, work, and of puritanical sexual decorum) and awareness of the existential chaos that such structures ultimately fail to contain.
Philippe hits his stride when specifically diving into Psycho’s famous shower scene, outlining how Hitchcock prepares the audience for a sequence that explodes social and cultural fault lines. Philippe’s quotations of Psycho are shrewdly and suggestively fleeting. When Marion packs to go on the trip that will seal her doom, we see a shower stall behind her profile. When a police officer pulls Marion over, he suggests that she sleep in a motel. Notions of “mother”—as an epitome of 1950s entendre, surveillance, and hypocrisy—litter the dialogue. Most amazingly, there’s the heartbreaking duet between Norman and Marion in the parlor of the Bates Motel. Every line of dialogue contains multiple meanings, indicating duel catharses: Marion resolves her madness while Norman surrenders to his fractured id.
Seventy-eight is the number of cuts in the shower scene, 52 the number of seconds that the sequence lasts. Which is to say that Philippe has named his film after the sequence’s DNA code, attempting to break it apart to reveal the inner workings of brilliance, as exhibited by Hitchcock, Saul Bass, who storyboarded the sequence, and Bernard Hermann, who scored it. Philippe slows the scene down, freezes it, rewinds it, and intersperses it with celebrations by his interview subjects. Remarkably, this magic trick only becomes more impressive when pulled apart. Philippe uncovers details that this Hitchcock obsessive has never noticed, such as the unnerving visibility of mother’s eyes as she pulls the shower curtain aside to stab Marion. And the phallic enormity of the knife as it slashes through a curtain of water is possibly even more terrifying in slow motion, achieving a Freudian intensity. Riffing on this visual flourish, Philippe’s subjects speak of how the knife is ripping through the very scrim separating the viewer from Marion.
Philippe and his collaborators perceptively cite Hitchcock’s use of negative space, which is rhymed to give the shower sequence a circular structure. At the beginning of the scene, Marion happily washes, baptizing herself, which is foreshadowed earlier in the film by the biblical rain that pummels the woman’s car. At this moment, the left portion of the frame is empty, containing the large showerhead and the white tile of the stall’s wall, signifying hope restored. At the end of the scene, as Marion’s body slumps against the wall dying, this emptiness connotes pitilessness, the purity of the tile’s white color a perverse mockery of peace and sanctity. Philippe juxtaposes storyboards, script passages, and the final cut of the sequence, illustrating the filmmakers’ fastidious and poetic devotion to creating a moment of brutality that also carefully elides the truth of the killer.
In Hitchcock’s masterpiece, the identity of Marion’s destroyer is yet another acknowledgement of the gulf between the genders: Norman, a man who assumes the persona of a woman who enslaved him so as to enact a bitter yet weirdly earnest form of simultaneous homage and transactional revenge. Norman is patriarchy, as well as one of its many victims. And this double sympathy hints at the complex nature of Hitchcock’s art at large, which is exploitive and resentful of women yet empathetic with them, capturing their pain and imprisonment in modern society with an acuity similar to that of the work of Douglas Sirk, who’s also mentioned in 78/52.
Phillipe dissects a classic without embalming it, then, which is a significant achievement of visual-essay criticism. The filmmaker highlights the primordial savagery of Hitchcock’s sounds and images, parsing their origins and resonances while acknowledging their ultimate bottomlessness. An intimate yet chilly simulation of a killing in a seamy motel came to symbolize the unspoken tensions of America, anticipating their explosion and even their subsequent re-suppression. In his transcendently obsessive doggedness, Philippe understands Psycho as a work of both genius and serendipity.