Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

Hitchcock, ‘Psycho’, and ’78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene’

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene
Alexandre O. Philippe
13 Oct 2017

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho’s (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe’s exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Crafted with a deliberate intent to shock, Hitchcock heightened the impact of the act of murderous violence by having it claim the life of the film’s morally dubious lead protagonist. With an echo of the strings from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, the violence is impassioned as the movement of the blade synchronises with Bernard Herrmann’s score, the fateful violence a sensory visual and musical assault. In equal measure, the diegetic sound of running water alongside the positioning of the camera to survey the carnage strikes a chord of aesthetic beauty. Hitchcock understands the escalating journey of violence, beginning with suspense that surrenders to horror that then culminates in voyeuristic contemplation. The circular motif of the transition from Janet Leigh’s eye to the whirlpool of bloody water around the plug hole is a moment that evokes a visceral sense of tragedy, yet subversively exposes an aesthetic beauty within the moment. Its resonance is attributable to Hitchcock tapping into the light and shadow of the human soul – our capacity to feel simultaneously conflicting emotions.

In conversation with PopMatters, Philippe reflects on his personal connection to Hitchcock and the evolution of his appreciation. He also considers cinematic language and the importance of authorial intent while discussing the complexity of the shower scene as an individual moment within Hitchcock’s cinema, yet one that serves as a microcosm of his authorial identity.

Why film as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

I think it has been a bit of a slow burn for me. I was definitely a huge film buff when I was a kid and from a young age I was watching movies analytically, trying to deconstruct and to understand them. But I took a different path and became a law professional, then went back to theatre and eventually screenwriting. If there was a turning point for me, I would say it was definitely Hitchcock, and it was probably Vertigo (1958). I remember being completely under the spell of that film as a kid, and I still am today. So he was the greatest catalyst in my becoming a filmmaker.

What was it about Hitchcock and his cinema that grabbed your interest? Has it been an appreciation and understanding that has grown with time?

There’s no question it evolved and the power of a master like Hitchcock is that he’s able to grab you on the first watch. If you even turn off your analytical brain as you watch an Hitchcock movie, you are going to have an amazingly fun time. His movies are very accessible, very entertaining, very gripping, but then the more you watch them, the more complex and interesting they become. So to me part of the journey is that he was able to grab my attention as a kid and to stimulate my imagination. Then just by the sheer virtue of his wonderful storytelling, he made you want to go and watch them again and again.

There’s a point, growing up and becoming an adult, that the more you watch these movies, the more you begin to realise that there’s a lot more there than meets the eye. This is where the journey truly begins, in that as you begin to watch those movies over and over again, and you start to put on your filmmakers hat, you realise it never ends. There’s a reason why Hitchcock made the most written about films and why he’s the most discussed filmmaker of all time — we are not even close to understanding everything that he put into his movies. It’s remarkable!

Cinema is a complex language predicated on both conscious and instinctive choice, and in spite of our pursuit for understanding, will perhaps never fully reveal its secrets to us. Do you think there is a necessity that cinema retains a mystery?

Well I don’t know that cinema needs to be mysterious in order to be great, but the great film artists very much have a language of their own, just like Hitchcock does, and David Lynch, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and people of that calibre. I think you can see them, you can see how they operate, you can see their fingerprint by watching their movies because it’s in everything. It’s in the choice of shots and music, the storytelling, the sound design, the way they direct the actors — it’s in all those little things.

I’m not sure it’s different from a great painter or writer, or a great sculptor. It’s just that what makes cinema so singular is that it includes a number of other art forms. Writing is a part of it as is the fine arts, and photography, music and sound. So on that level, I wouldn’t say it’s a more complex language because I don’t want to compare apples to oranges. But it’s maybe a more inclusive language and you can look at cinema from a lot more unique perspectives than just looking at a painting. I think the great painters were extraordinarily complex in their own right, but the cinematic language does have a tremendous amount of complexity, especially in the hands of the masters.

I don’t think you can always quite wrap your head around the cinematic language. You can come up with theories, but there’s definitely a reason why Hitchcock’s films work. One because he is accessible, and two because he has a tremendous amount of intent. There’s a lot of ‘complex’ filmmaking out there that fails because the intent is murky at best, and there are a lot of filmmakers today that try to aspire to be complex and fail on that level because there is no intent. David Lynch, whom I also adore, draws a lot from Hitchcock, and looking at either of them, by God, there are so many layers of intent that it’s unreal.

Are you able to perceive this inclusivity in Psycho’s shower scene?

Absolutely! One thing is that after working for three years full time and coming from a place where I was very familiar with it, I feel like I’m only now starting to scratch the surface. I could study that shower scene for the rest of my life and never get on top of it. I don’t think it touches upon every possible art form you can think of, but it has so many layers of motifs and thematic complexity that you can lose yourself in it. There are so many different angles and perspectives, and that’s why it is still worthy of debate and discussion today.

You can argue that the shower scene is an attack on women, and it’s misogynistic, but then on the other hand it also has a strong female character, and more than anything it’s reflective of Hitchcock’s moral universe. The scene is absolutely gorgeous and horrible, it is impressionistic and expressionistic. It seems to be all the opposite things at the same time. It’s a paradox of cinema, and that’s why we are still talking about it today, and it is why we are never going to stop. It’s the Mona Lisa of scenes.

Alexandre O. Philippe (courtesy of Dogwoof)

Whilst we can associate films within a certain period of film history, including the portrayal of violence, Psycho’s famous scene has a shocking timeless presence. Regardless of it being shot in black and white, the technical execution and the aesthetic shows Hitchcock’s mastery to transcend time.

Yeah, that’s very true. It’s a singular few minutes in the history of cinema because if you certainly look at it from today’s perspective, you can tell it’s an old movie. But yet I don’t think you can look at it and say that it has aged. I mean of course it has aged physically, but it’s not one of those scenes that you can look back on and say it has aged so much that it is no longer effective. It still packs a punch and it still resonates. It is still tragic and amazing to watch. A reason for that is you are not just looking at Hitchcock and some of his games, but Bernard Herrmann, Saul Bass and Joseph Stefano. All of those geniuses operated under his name, but you are also watching cinema change with the shower scene, and it is still difficult to express that to people today.

I believe very strongly that cinema would not be the same if Psycho and that scene had not happened. It broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going. So even though it’s not necessarily something you get if you are just watching the scene, it’s so profound that you can’t help but sense it. There’s this level of perfection that’s almost like an earthquake [laughs] that even young people watching the scene today can be impressed by, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.

The shower scene within the context of Psycho recalls the cinematic form – a frame, a scene, a camera movement at a time. Film is fundamentally a series of moments combined.

The one thing I would add to this is that what makes the shower scene so singular, is even though, as you said, you can certainly look at movies as a collection of moments, they are still scenes within a whole narrative. If you look at the great scenes in the history of movies, their greatness comes from two things: from their intrinsic greatness and the relationship they have with the rest of the story. The final scene of Vertigo, which along with Psycho’s [shower scene] is one of the great moments, is the most amazing final image in the history of film. But if you look at that scene by itself, without watching the rest of the film, then it can’t resonate. It is dependent entirely on the narrative filmed in a way to lead to that moment, that image of Jimmy Stewart looking down at Madeline, whom he has lost forever.

The Psycho shower scene functions in a different way. Of course it is greater if you consider the first 40 minutes of the film, if you watch the extraordinary parlour scene between Norman Bates and Marion Crane in which they connect as characters. But the shower scene can be removed from the film and looked at not just as a scene, but as an artefact. Just imagine a thousand years from now our civilisation has disappeared along with Psycho, but someone finds that artefact. I think they would be amazed at their find, and there are very few scenes that are that powerful within the context of the film, but just as powerful on their own.

What do you hope the audience takes away from the experience of 78/52? Why should this film exist?

A part of my mission in life is to make film studies, a term I don’t really like, or film deconstruction if you will, accessible to the general public. I think there’s a sense that studying film, of looking at films from a very minute perspective is something that’s only reserved for people that have a degree, and it’s intimidating for many. But the bottom line is that watching film, certainly the great films, looking at the details of them is already a smart endeavour, and as I said earlier this was something I was doing as a kid.

I’m not a film scholar; I’m a filmmaker. I want to communicate the passion I have for looking at film as an endlessly fun medium, and as something that can be studied and deconstructed. The more you look at the details, the more you find things that are fun and interesting. So the making of 78/52 was about, of course, wanting to reach out to the film buffs and the Hitchcock aficionados, and for those people I guarantee they will learn something new. They will find things that nobody has really thought about before. I’ll talk about why Hitchcock may have picked a particular melon, talk about particular creative choices, or talk about Marli Renfro, a story not known until 78/52. So there’s a lot of new insight into the shower scene that I thought was important to provide, but it’s also very much accessible for people who have never watched Psycho.

It’s funny because I have been travelling the world for the past ten months with this film, and I always ask the audience the question: “Has anybody here never watched Psycho before?” A few hands always go up and that makes me happy because it shows there is a curiosity about the shower scene. People understand it has great significance because they’ve heard about it, they’ve heard the music. They know what it’s about, but they’ve never watched the film, and so 78/52 is very much made for them as much as for the Hitchcock fans.

Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) (IMDB)

78/52 is available on DVD in the UK courtesy of Dogwoof.