Almost inarguably the most famous directors who have ever lived, the duo changed Hollywood in immeasurable ways. Four decades into his career, when it was commonplace to wander into a theater mid-feature, Hitchcock insisted on no late arrivals for “Psycho,” a movie that kick-started the slasher genre. Today, most of us would never miss a film’s opening credits. A mere seven years into Spielberg’s tenure, he unwittingly birthed what would become known as the summer blockbuster. Today, the picnic days are overloaded with titles hoping to become the next “Jaws.”
Two new documentaries examine the legacies of Hitchcock and Spielberg: “78/52,” which studies the famous shower scene from 1960’s “Psycho,” and HBO’s “Spielberg,” a career-spanning tribute to a pioneer whose fame sometimes proceeds his reputation as an artist. Both are shrewd morsels that deem Hitchcock and Spielberg preternaturally gifted cinematic architects.
The movies just so happen to premiere a week apart ― “Spielberg” director Susan Lacy wasn’t even aware that “78/52” existed when I spoke to her last week ― but they nonetheless operate in conversation with each other, specifically regarding the two trailblazers’ diverging legacies.
“78/52,” directed by Alexandre O. Philippe (“The People v. George Lucas”), need not fight to make a case for Hitchcock’s stature. After all, analysis of a single three-minute scene merited a 91-minute documentary that delves into every angle of its virtuosity: the way “Psycho” subverted popular culture’s fixation on the mother as a utopian homemaker; Hitchcock’s brazen choice to kill off the heroine; how the shower functioned as metaphor, washing away Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) transgressions; Hitchcock stabbing some two dozen melons to find the perfect sound effect to accompany the knife piercing Marion’s body; the subtle specificity of the carnage’s foreshadowing; Bernard Herrmann’s shrill score.
“Spielberg,” on the other hand, works to convince us of its subject’s excellence. Understandably so: Spielberg’s early box-office triumphs ― “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “The Color Purple” ― catapulted his status in the realm of populist, commercial filmmaking, which often doesn’t attract highbrow recognition. Whereas Hitchcock was a stylist credited for authoring suspense tactics that are still pervasive today, Spielberg is known, first and foremost, as a wholesale crowd-pleaser. He channeled his parents’ divorce and Jewish heritage into stories about domestic upheaval and social exile, almost always punctuated by a sentimental and/or rousing finale. Lacy, who created the PBS biography series “American Masters,” proffers a clear thesis by devoting much of the 2.5-hour runtime to the Spielbergian techniques that are too easily dismissed because the man’s heartstrings outpace his stylistic flair.
Take, for example, the awe-induing “Close Encounters” scene in which the timbre of John Williams’ score aligns with the lights and sounds that specialists use to communicate with the UFO. Or the CGI innovations that Spielberg introduced in “Jurassic Park” ― the very technology that became, for better and worse, essential in blockbuster filmmaking. Or the ― wait for it ― Hitchcockian tension that “Jaws” foments by rarely showing the shark. (That was mostly a byproduct of malfunctioning props, but even Spielberg saw the blessing in such mishaps: “The film went from a Japanese Saturday matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock, the less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller,” Spielberg once said.)
Because “78/52” has a laser focus, and because of the contrasting legacies of Hitchcock and Spielberg, the movie has room to breathe where “Spielberg” does not. Philippe’s documentary is a work of exegesis. It’s a scholarly (though always lively) dissertation about a filmmaker’s minute preoccupations, which led to a scene that’s more layered than any one interpretation implies. “Spielberg” is a long case in favor of a virtuoso whose prolific output gets taken for granted ― a workhorse who modeled himself off the genre-hopping, journeyman filmmakers of the ’40s and ’50s, à la Howard Hawks and David Lean. With “Psycho,” Hitchcock intended to push the boundaries of censorship and usher moviegoing into a new age; Spielberg never meant to create the summer blockbuster ― that’s the purview of studio honchos ― but he and BFF George Lucas are forever branded mainstream spectacle chasers because they unknowingly did just that.
That’s where Spielberg trumps Hitchcock in the annals of contemporary Hollywood: the former had a wheelhouse (a “brand,” as we’d call it today); the latter is a shape-shifter whose ability to connect with audiences gives his work a misleadingly safe sheen. There’s no cause to adjudicate the directors’ respective impact as if they are in competition, but the neighboring releases of “78/52″ and “Spielberg” are as good a marker as any when reflecting on the dignitaries responsible for the pop culture we worship. Hitchcock was the studied innovator, fascinated by the grammar of cinema, but Spielberg is every bit as tactical, even if his emotions bleed across the screen.
This isn’t an idea proposed in either movie, but I think Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” has a shot that links the two directors once and for all. As “78/52″ details, the “Psycho” shower scene uses impressionistic camera angles and quick cuts to shift the viewer’s perspective and amplify terror. That ability to control audiences speaks to Hitchcock’s obsession with voyeurism, a theme he’d explored more overtly in 1954′s “Rear Window.” In 2005′s “War of the Worlds,” as the chaos of the Martian attack mounts, a guy filming the action drops his Camcorder in the street. People are running around, panicked, but they are only in focus through a closeup baring the Camcorder’s screen. Suddenly, we’re reminded that we are spectators ― that a camera is filming a camera that is displaying the action that is affecting our emotions. The images have been curated, and we are their manipulatable customers, unable to look away. Hitchcock would have loved it.
“Spielberg” premiered Oct. 7 on HBO and is currently available on HBO Go. “78/52″ opens in select theaters and premieres on VOD services Oct. 13.