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78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/14/17 18:30:05

"78 set-ups, 52 cuts, 1 classic scene."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Do we really need an entire 90-minute documentary on the shower scene in "Psycho"? No, but then again, we don't need a lot of things that turn out to be pretty interesting, and "Psycho" was a pivotal moment in film history, with the shower scene one that absolutely everybody who has seen it remembers. You could spend a lot more than this time breaking it down - Hitchcock did take a full week to shoot that minute or so of film, after all, and then there was editing and music and all that, so there was thought put into it, and unpacking what seem like thought processes is usually worth doing.

It's probably not surprising that some of the best unpacking comes from editor Walter Murch, who has detailed an authoritative commentary on every cut and decision that Hitchcock and editor George Tomasini made - the man knows his craft and his voice and delivery are such that he can get out a lot of facts and not make it feel particularly dry. He's not the only one to walk the audience through what Hitchcock and his crew did; there are literally dozens of filmmakers and scholars from Peter Bogdanovich to Karyn Kusama to give their insight (conspicuous by his absence is Gus Van Sant, who famously did a shot-by-shot remake of the film). The only primary source that filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe really has left to talk to is Marli Renfro, the pin-up girl who served as Janet Leigh's body double, and her perspective is obviously very specific, although that's part of what makes the clips with the sweet old lady all the more intriguing.

It's not necessarily something that could work for the whole film, and finding the right balance of what to recount, what's background, and interpretation can sometimes be difficult. That's why it's probably more useful than it sometimes appears for director Alexandre O. Philippe to cut to the next two or three generations of filmmakers and fans who are sometimes just gushing or throwing out an undeveloped idea. Even when they're not necessarily providing new insight, it's useful; as the audience can feel these people learning something with them, making it less like a lecture and more like an interactive process. It's lubricant, even if some (like a young film professor who comes off far more as a fan than expert) are energetic enough to become off-putting.

There are moments when Philippe seems to be giving Psycho and this scene in particular a bit more of a position as a definitive picture of America in the early 1960s than is perhaps warranted, and there are moments when he seems to stretch when finding threads running through Hitchcock's life and career. That's a natural hazard of this sort of highly-focused deep dive; the people doing it can come to see everything through that lens, and even when this is a major influence, the focus of the film can overstate it. Fortunately, Philippe is just playful enough for the film to not become too self-serious, and always steers the conversation back to how it's a great scene in a great movie as much as an important or influential one.

This is perhaps not essential viewing for those who like movies and even this one in particular - there's nothing wrong with being more interested in reacting to something than analyzing it. It's a pretty good primer on how movies work, and a fine response when people dismiss the idea of caring about the quality of a genre film, because it demonstrates just how much deliberate effort goes into crafting a great one.

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