Like many of us (there’s psychological safety in numbers), I have a disturbingly long history with the shower scene from “Psycho” — first, in junior high, by way of the Alfred Hitchcock episode of the ’70s PBS series “The Men Who Made the Movies,” then by repeat 16 mm viewings of the 1960 film out at the local university extension campus. And who knows how many times since? The Bates Motel is eternally open for business. Twelve cabins, 12 vacancies.
Storyboarded by the great Saul Bass, edited by Hitchcock’s collaborator George Tomasini, the shower scene in “Psycho” remains the screen’s most brazen and imitated conflation of sex (or skin, at least) and violence. The scene was and is the most unnerving demise, paradoxically sudden (who kills off a star one-third of the way into a picture?) yet sadistically prolonged, of a fictional screen character. Hitchcock claimed to have been “horrified” that anyone took his little black joke seriously. But when the bloody water gurgles down the shower drain, dissolving into a shot (a superb optical effect) of Janet Leigh’s lifeless eye in close-up, nobody in a 1960 movie theater could quite believe what she was seeing. This was James Stewart’s voyeuristic fetish in “Rear Window” taken into the realm of nightmare.
The enjoyably obsessive new documentary “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene,” available on demand and opening this week at the Music Box, takes a close read on a sequence of profound technical artistry and eternal moral complication. Swiss-born writer-director Alexandre O. Philippe interviews filmmakers, scholars, critics, relatives of Hitchcock, Leigh and Anthony Perkins, and others. Marli Renfro, then a 21-year-old pinup model, got seven days’ work as Leigh’s body double for the shower scene. (That year “Psycho” came out and made millions, and Renfro made the cover of Playboy and went to work as a Playboy bunny in Chicago for a while.)
She’s a valuable voice in “78/52,” the title referring to the 78 shots and 52 edits making up the astonishing frenzy of the shower murder. Guillermo del Toro speaks to Hitchcock’s Catholic guilt. Karyn Kusama, director of “The Invitation” and “Jennifer’s Body,” views the scene as the “first modern expression of the female body under assault.”
Philippe’s strongest work in “78/52” is the historical context, ranging from the images and roles of mothers in 1950s popular culture to a key handful of movies photographed in black and white (as was “Psycho,” partly to get the blood past the censors) released the previous year, 1959. “Some Like It Hot,” “Anatomy of a Murder” and “Suddenly, Last Summer” all pushed the boundaries of sexual material on screen. Then, coming off his big, expansive, mildly racy color hit, “North by Northwest,” Hitchcock shot "Psycho” quick and dirty and on a risk-averse budget, keeping it visually close to his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV anthology series.
I’m not sure what Eli Roth (“Hostel”) is doing in “78/52” besides offering generalities and a film brat’s awe. Even with the welcome inclusion of Kusama and Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Philippe’s film returns again and again to variations on the same male perspective, and to shots of various admirers (including Elijah Wood) (?) (why?), staring into a TV screen, watching Janet Leigh and her body double get it, over and over. I wish more of critic and historian David Thomson’s intriguing argument — that the sick-jokiness of “Psycho” diminished rather than expanded film culture and thriller possibilities — entered Philippe’s conversation. But there will be others; Hitchcock’s shower scene may never leave the pop culture of fear it helped create.
“78/52” producer Kerry Deignan Roy conducts a Q&A after the 7 p.m. screening Friday and introduces the 9:30 p.m. Friday screening at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; www.musicboxtheatre.com.
Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune film critic.
"78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene" -- 3 stars
No MPAA rating (violence, partial nudity and some language)
Running time: 1:31
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Also available on demand.