Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is an indisputable classic for horror fans and film geeks alike. Even people who’ve never seen the film know the twist ending or Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violins or the shower scene in which protagonist Janet Leigh is killed.
78/52 refers to the 78 camera set-ups and the 52 edits within the shower scene. The title alone suggests an in-depth, technical analysis of the shower scene that will take us through all 78 camera set-ups and all 52 edits. That may seem boring to casual fans, but deconstructing a piece of art is a surefire way of garnering appreciation. Just ask any museum docent or the host of the Song Exploder podcast.
Director Alexandre O. Philippe creates false advertising with 78/52 because the documentary deals more with Psycho as a whole and, thus, delivers a more general analysis. A better film to watch for that would be Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), the documentary about filmmaker Francois Truffaut’s discussion with Hitchcock about his whole career. That film also features a better cast of talking heads, such as Martin Scorcese, David Fincher and Wes Anderson. By comparison, 78/52 features the bemusing thoughts of actors Elijah Wood and Ileana Douglas, whose connections to Hitchcock are uncertain.
You do learn about a few camera set-ups and edits in Psycho’s shower scene. For example, you learn about how the camera could face the shower head directly without getting wet. (They plugged some holes in the shower head and backed up the camera so the water sprayed around it.) And you also learn that Martin Scorcese recreated those camera set-ups, shot by shot, for the fight scene in Raging Bull (1980). But Philippe only dedicates about 20 minutes to that. The rest of the film covers general trivia such as using a Casaba melon for the stabbing sound effects. It’s all interesting, but it’s not on-topic.
Luckily, as one of cinema’s most expertly crafted films, Psycho warrants several documentaries. 78/52 isn’t the definitive one by any stretch, but it may be a good starting point for some fans. Filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro and Peter Bogdanovich speak of how Psycho exemplifies the inferior position of women in 1950s America and how it was an artistic deviance from the technicolor dramas Hitchcock did previously. Either one of those directors would have likely made a better documentary, but Philippe deserves credit for taking a stab at it.