J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sundance ’17: 78/52

Marli Renfro is a former Playboy Bunny and cover model who participated in truly groundbreaking cinematic history. She was Janet Leigh’s body in Psycho and there was quite a bit of doubling for her to do—78 set-ups and 52 cuts in total—and what cuts they were. The construction and legacy of the iconic/notorious shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho are lovingly analyzed in Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sure, there are knowing homages (like the prologue to Scream), but no film has really come close to the shock of presumptive star Janet Leigh’s first act death in Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece. Of course, she was dispatched while taking a shower. If you haven’t seen Psycho several times already than shame on you, but keep in mind Philippe will “spoil” Norman Bates’ big secret almost immediately. This is a film for film lovers that presupposes intimate familiarity with Psycho, the Hitchcock canon in general, and the slasher and Giallo films it inspired.

Technically, Philippe shoehorns in some wider discussions of Psycho, such as the rainy driving sequence that in many ways foreshadows the shower scene in question. He also gives some solid “making of” background. Sadly, neither Hitch nor Leigh is still with us, but Renfro stills looks great and is happy to discuss her role in the film. Without question, her recollections will be the most newsworthy for fans. In addition, Philippe also incorporates commentary from a host of genre superstars, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Karyn Kusama, Richard Stanley, Leigh Wannell, Mick Garris, and Elijah Wood.

Frankly, there are not a lot of groundbreaking revelations in 78/52, but Philippe’s deep dive provides a useful methodology for taking stock of the film’s artistry and cultural influence. Some diehards might complain that composer Bernard Herrmann’s instantly recognizable themes get somewhat short shrift. He also mercifully spares Gus Van Sant an awkward discussion of his ill-conceived 1998 shot-by-shot remake.

Without question, Psycho is one of the most important genre films ever made and the shower murder is clearly its defining scene (although some of us will argue the epilogue in which Simon Oakland explains it all is a close second). Philippe’s feature-length analysis easily sustains itself and the decision to render the film in black-and-white was rather inspired. Recommended with affection for fans of Hitchcock and nearly every subsequent psycho-stalker film, 78/52 screens again tomorrow (1/26) in Park City and Saturday (1/28) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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