Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (IFC Films)

Almost any film buff knows Psycho’s shower scene extremely well: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) screaming, the screeching of violins that punctuate her brutal murder by a shadowy figure, and blood swirling down the drain. The main reason why this masterpiece by Alfred Hitchcock became one of his most iconic films (if not the most)—and by extension a point of no return in American cinema—was thanks to this particular sequence: three minutes that took seven days to shoot and resulted in 78 shots with 52 cuts.

What director Alexandre O. Philippe accomplishes is an entertaining and respectful love letter to filmmaking. The shower scene is perhaps the most indelible image in cinema history, or at least we are convinced of that after watching this documentary. We learn the achievement depended on multiple factors besides the genius of Hitchcock, making it a strong example of an endeavor that’s greater than the sum of its parts: meticulous preproduction planning, Bernard Herrmann’s experimental score, naturalist sound effects, impressionistic editing (that’s how Hitchcock described it), and the charismatic presence of Leigh. The result changed much of the way movies were made and consumed.

Elegant and graceful, the documentary depicts testimonies, footage, and related support images almost entirely in black-and-white, perhaps in an attempt to complement Psycho’s tone. The film confidently and obsessively covers every piece of juicy trivia. The high quality interviews (Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Danny Elfman, Walter Murch, Jamie Lee Curtis, and body double Marli Renfro) convincingly break down the shower scene and its legacy. They encapsulate everything we could know about Psycho in a very cinephile-fanboy cool package.

Anyone who views screenwriting as some lesser form of literature will be proven wrong here. The best part of this behind-the-scenes film is the reading of the shower scene from two different sources: the original novel by Robert Bloch and Joseph Stefano’s script. The former is brief, with concise paragraphs to move the plot forward. The latter is a blend of poetry and madness that develops the scene as the screenplay’s end goal, as though the movie is just an excuse to create this sequence.

There are other sharp moments and testimonies in 78/52, and sometimes the documentary feels so immersive and seductive that it becomes about the endless possibilities of filmmaking choices, the weight of little details, and the decisive connection between style and content to produce meaning. Philippe uses the shower scene as a device to celebrate the collective efforts and the genius behind the greatest movies.

However, some testimonies lightly reveal deeper topics that make us long for more substance, namely about women in film. Bogdanovich says that by 1960, actresses were mostly becoming secondary to the male stars, whereas decades before Psycho, actresses received top billing. The shower scene is a way to emphasize “not anymore” because the woman is killed off, according to him. Additionally, director Karyn Kusama defines the scene as “the first modern expression of female body under assault.” Certainly the shower scene has its own indisputable legacy, but there is also a white elephant in Hollywood: women provide  beautiful bodies to be exploited until they’re expendable.

Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe
Released by IFC Midnight
USA. 81 min. Not rated