Psychotic Break: A Conversation with Alexandre O. Philippe

Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock’s set pieces have tantalized generations of movie lovers with their mischievous construction, but the shower scene in Psycho stands out as singularly iconic, instantly transcending its narrative context to become a pop-culture phenomenon. Why did it touch a nerve with audiences? In his new film 78/52—named after the scene’s seventy-eight camera set-ups and fifty-two edits—Alexandre O. Philippe tackles this question by examining Hitchcock’s technical mastery as well as the tense social climate of 1960s America. With commentary by filmmakers and horror aficionados such as Guillermo del Toro and Peter Bogdanovich, the documentary is an eye-opening look at how the Master of Suspense defied convention and forever changed the way Hollywood approached violence on-screen. In advance of 78/52 opening at New York’s IFC Center this weekend, I talked with Philippe about what made the shower scene such an audacious feat and how it connects to the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography.

What is it about Hitchcock that inspires the kind of minutely detailed analysis found in your film?

For me, Hitchcock is the cinematic equivalent of Nabokov, who was a chess player and whose body of work you can look at as if he’s playing chess with you. I see Hitchcock’s movies as one massive chess game. When you start looking at them, not just by themselves but also in relationship to one another, you quickly start realizing that certain ideas, certain images, certain motifs come back over and over again. Part of the great appeal of watching them is that we’re so far from having connected all the dots. I keep having epiphanies; I keep making discoveries. And for me, the real excitement is that someone who is not a cinephile can watch Hitchcock and still have a great time. It’s an amazing thing to be as accessible as he was while also being the most profound, complex filmmaker out there.

How was Psycho groundbreaking?

It’s such a break on so many levels. Culturally and historically, it was the right movie at the right time, a perfect transition from the fifties to the sixties. And it announced the end of a kind of false sense of security in America. It basically said, No, you’re not as safe as you think. And personally, for Hitch, it was such a break. I keep being blown away by the fact that he was sixty-one years old. He had nothing to prove and was coming off the huge success of North by Northwest, so he could have played it safe and still would have been a celebrated filmmaker. But what did he do? He decided to completely reinvent himself and take the biggest risk of his entire career by financing this film, which no one wanted to make and everyone thought was beneath him.

One can imagine that when he read the shower scene in Psycho—which is really only two short lines in Robert Bloch’s book—he saw an opportunity to pull off his greatest cinematic trick ever. The proof is in the fact that he took seven days to shoot that scene, when he could’ve done it in two or three. You’re talking about a filmmaker who probably felt a little creatively threatened when Clouzot made Diabolique (1955). Clouzot was referred to at the time as the French Hitchcock. I don’t think Hitchcock took kindly to that. There was a very conscious attempt to reestablish himself and make sure that he would still be the Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense. I love Diabolique, but that bathtub scene is no match for the shower scene.

Are there moments from Hitchcock’s earlier films that foreshadow the shower scene?

There’s a scene in The Lodger, a bathtub scene with a menacing figure trying to open a locked door. As the writer Stephen Rebello told me when I interviewed him, Hitchcock was a Victorian, and Victorians had these pristine white tiled bathrooms. The idea of defiling the sanctity of that bathroom almost went against who he was. And if you look at his body of work, there are plenty of pristine white bathrooms: in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Spellbound, North by Northwest. Then in 1954, with Rear Window, there’s a character cleaning up the bathroom walls, and someone says there must’ve been a lot of blood. Then wham! Six years later, he gives it to you with Psycho. One can only imagine how freaky and unprecedented it was at the time.

In 78/52, some of your interview subjects talk about how a scene like this can be terrifying with just the slightest suggestion of violence and menace.

The Odessa step sequence in Battleship Potemkin is the classic example of that. You think you see more violence and horror than you actually do. The shower scene in Psycho takes that to a whole new level. In 78/52, [film producer] Daniel Noah mentions Val Lewton and Cat People; he’s obsessed with Lewton’s movies and the idea that you never really see anything. It’s interesting because nowadays there’s a resurgence of horror films that go in a direction of less over more, which is exciting to me. I thought [Robert Eggers’s] The Witch was quite brilliant because it puts you in situations where you expect gore but gives you the exact opposite.

The Psycho scene opened a Pandora’s box, and suddenly filmmakers decided, well, if Hitchcock can do this, we can keep pushing it. It gave filmmakers permission to start getting really gory and ugly and to show more and more. It’s a paradox because in fact that’s not at all what Hitchcock did. He couldn’t have done it because of the censors, and it’s really Hitchcock thumbing his nose at them. He created a perfect illusion. Famously, the censors who watched Psycho for the first time said, “You can’t release it; we saw nudity. We saw the knife puncturing her skin.” And he said, “No, you didn’t see any of that. That’s all in your head.”

I didn’t realize that this was one of the few Hollywood films of its time to show a belly button.

It also has the first toilet flushing. It’s the first time people saw a movie star lying horizontally on a bed in her underwear post-coitus—and that’s in the first scene!

Why do you think Psycho was so much more successful than Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which was released the same year and contains similar material?

You could make the argument that at the time only Hitchcock could’ve gotten away with a movie like this. He was well known and well liked. He wasn’t just a director hiding behind the camera; he was Uncle Alfred, who would show up on your television screen with his deadpan black humor. That larger-than-life quality enabled him to get away with a lot more than Michael Powell. Look at the six-minute trailer for Psycho, where he’s walking around the Bates property and messing with you. He’s telling you exactly what’s going to happen without actually doing it, and he’s tempting you to see it. He had this playful interaction with his audience. There’s humor in Psycho, but there’s none in Peeping Tom. That’s an extraordinary film, but it’s gross, and the character is gross. As [author] Jeff Ford says in 78/52, the miracle of Psycho is that you get to care for Norman Bates, which I don’t think you ever do in Peeping Tom. Norman Bates and Marion Crane are two sad, lonely souls. It’s really a tragic movie.

Do you think Psycho had an impact on where Hitchcock would go from there?

I look at Psycho and The Birds as companion pieces. They are both revealing of Hitchcock’s moral universe. For all the criticism he gets about Marion Crane—a strong female character who steals money to be with the man she loves but then returns it and still gets punished—I think there is something larger operating there. With the shower scene, Hitchcock is telling you that you can be a perfectly nice person and something horrible can happen to you at any time for no good reason. You look at The Birds, which was made three years later, and it’s a continuation of that idea. Suddenly you have the forces of nature coming after you for no reason. It’s never explained. It just is.

That reminds me of Rebecca, where a woman simply falls in love and then her world goes up in flames.

It’s so glorious, that film. I’m struck by this image where Joan Fontaine is in the bedroom snooping around and then suddenly you see the shadowy figure of Mrs. Danvers opening the drapes and entering that sacred space as a menacing figure in almost the exact same position of the mother’s silhouette coming in behind the curtain. And there’s one moment in Shadow of a Doubt where Teresa Wright is inside the house with two photographers and then Joseph Cotten comes in early. You see him through the window and his shadow is at the bottom left of the frame, coming towards you. It’s mother again.

The shower scene has inspired a lot of different, sometimes contradictory theories.

For me they’re not contradictions so much as paradoxes. The scene embodies its own opposites. It’s beautiful and horrifying at the same time, impressionistic and expressionistic at the same time. It’s a scene of violation and rape, but it’s also a scene of self-castration. It contains everything, and that’s why it remains so vibrant and dynamic today.

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