Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture
Modernity and the Maniac:
The Fall of Janet Leigh

by Richard Armstrong

"You've never had an empty moment in your entire life, have you?"--Norman Bates

I will never forget the night in September 1980 when I first saw Touch of Evil. After scuttling home from a pub, I switched the television on just in time for that fabulous tracking shot with the blaring Mancini score.1 Accompanied by peanut butter sandwiches and cheap Nescafé in my dark bedroom, I became privy to a married man's bewilderment over what to do with his vulnerable young bride in a Mexican border town. Meanwhile, a near-naked Janet Leigh endures a flophouse nightmare at the hands of a handsome punk with a syringe. Touch of Evil threw ghastly shadows up the walls of my bedroom for days.

Like Louise Brooks and James Dean, Janet Leigh has come to embody a potent vision of cinematic modernity. Actors who do this are not great in a theatrical sense, which is why Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier could never have been icons in the way Brooks, Dean, and Leigh have become. Theirs is less the "presence by accumulation which characterises classical acting" as French theorist Nicole Brenez puts it. More the vivid brush strokes of affect vivified by the dynamic interaction of presence and absence which only cinema can confer: the Brooks bob, her profile, that sad face glimpsed amongst a crowd of Weimar revellers. In short, they are products of the plasticity of cinema and the rush of modern urban life. It is significant that these actors' reputations rest on few films, for their renown also depends upon a cultural purchase so fleeting and astute that an entire oeuvre can diffuse the light.

Janet Leigh was born just in time to become a Cold War icon--6 July 1927 in Merced, California. Jeanette Helen Morrison was the only child of an insurance and real estate agent. A bright child, she finished high school at 15 and went on to study music and psychology at College of Pacific. Visiting her parents where her father was a desk clerk in a ski lodge near Truckee in northern California, she was noticed by the retired MGM star Norma Shearer who asked to borrow Leigh's father's photo of her. There followed a screen test and a starring role in MGM's The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947). In a spring 1970 interview in Sight and Sound, Rui Nogueira speaks of Leigh's "charmingly rustic maiden." She proceeded to play wholesome ingénues in everything from musicals to westerns, comedies to thrillers. Her early films stand out less because of Leigh, more because they happened to be good. When the spectator has eyes only for that co-ed smile, the ingrained positivity, an ample bust, these movies become "Janet Leigh movies": Words and Music (1948), Act of Violence (1948), Little Women (1949), Angels in the Outfield (1951). In 1951 she married Tony Curtis and the melding of blonde California health and wiry Bronx chutzpah won them tabloid inches and industry blessing as "Hollywood's Perfect Couple." The item then appeared in a variable assortment of projects from Houdini (1953) and The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), to The Vikings (1958), in which, according to David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: "Tony helpfully ripped open her Saxon princess's dress so that she could row more freely." In the swashbuckler Scaramouche (1952), Leigh was again decorative as Stewart Granger's love interest.

In Anthony Mann's psychological western The Naked Spur (1953), she generated another frisson by keeping her body hidden under grubby clothes, her blonde curls short and boyish, and her adolescent canoodling with "family friend" Robert Ryan under wraps while Ryan and James Stewart resolved the masculine contest against Rocky mountain backdrops. If for Leigh in her coy 1984 autobiography, There Really was a Hollywood, "this firecracker was altogether different…almost an anti-heroine." Intimations of something grubby and un-American lay just beneath the surface of Leigh and Ryan's relationship: "Sometimes I think you just like to be rubbed." In his 2001 book Movie Love in the Fifties, James Harvey describes Leigh as a product of postwar America: "'Janet Leigh'…the pretty, self-confident young woman who inevitably reminds you of that very popular girl in high school you could never get a date with."

In My Sister Eileen (1955, recently reissued at the London Film Festival), Leigh probably appeared for the last time as Miss Peaches'n'Cream. Unabashedly a vehicle for Leigh as Eileen, this exuberant musical plays in boho Greenwich Village, predicting in some goofy way Leigh's burgeoning appeal to the college graduate set that would make the auteur movies Touch of Evil (1958) and Psycho (1960) their own. In Jet Pilot (1958), Josef von Sternberg was more interested in the subversive potential of Leigh's sweater girl playing a Soviet spy than he was in the patriotic remit of this "hot war" nonsense. Already in My Sister Eileen, the gingham Ohio girl-next-door thing sits uncomfortably alongside the mammary-inspired Cadillac bumpers of the era. Once Welles and Hitchcock got hold of them, Janet Leigh's breasts would become moments in the subterranean glop of America's postwar id.

In Touch of Evil and Psycho, the icon came into her own. These films painfully chart specifically modern degradation. In Touch of Evil we witness the downfall of the All-American Girl at a key moment in Leigh's evolution from ingénue to star. As Harvey puts it, Susie Vargas "is no campus-queen sweater girl, but a courageous, self-possessed young woman. On her honeymoon." "Susie"; the accessibility is piquant, almost gooey. But if in early scenes her coiffed blonde hair--check that quiff--and brimming confidence, suggest the brash American on a spree--"on the trail of a chocolate soda"--by the end of the film the young bride has been molested, drugged, and stripped bare.

While her husband, star narcotics investigator Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), spends much of the film not quite knowing what to do with Susie--where she should stay, what she should do, how they can be together--the Grandi punks investigate Susie thoroughly. Touch of Evil and Psycho both toy with male anxiety about what this clean and blooming young woman is like underneath. The Night Man's nerves only jangle louder at the proximity of her body. But while, as Harvey realizes, Welles tempers this curiosity with a certain admiration for her American chutzpah, only implying her degradation as a side issue, Hitchcock is painfully aware of what lies beneath, his film hysterically dramatizing the inability to really see. Welles and his cinematographer Russell Metty make much of vertical spaces--pillars, glowering figures--and in her element Susie becomes another vertical shape, her long legs encased in a tight skirt finished with pencil pleats, her feet in high heels.

The only break in the vertical program are those breasts, a rack jutting as emphatically as her rejoinder to Akim Tamiroff's little Mexican blowhard Grandi--"Yeah? YEAH?" she shouts as she wags her finger. "Let me tell you something: You've been seeing too many gangster movies." It could be Doris Day admonishing a spoilt nephew. (The years have only diminished Grandi, but the terrorism of Los Robles, the sense we get of American innocents out on a limb in foreign hot spots, is surely even more poignant now). By the end of Touch of Evil, the thrusting modern girl will be naked, prostrate, and out of her head on heroin… or something… (according to the fondest fantasies of some in the audience).

In so many ways, Touch of Evil and Psycho are companion pieces. Both were cheaply made features sold on their modern exploitation of sex and violence. Both were directed by impresarios with a gift for manipulation. Both feature women who step beyond the codified respectability of their worlds, unconsciously playing to male fantasies about what they are like in the flesh. For female, and male, moviegoers, the first hour of Psycho is the most interesting half of the film because it investigates what makes an apparently normal young woman with everything to play for get mixed up with a married man and steal from her boss. It takes the modern working girl, creature comfort of a million matinees, and turns her into an enigma. And we see her through her own eyes. And we are as interested to see how far she can go as she is. We feel the thoughts, and some will feel the pain, of what Thomson has described as "a frustrated, hard-up secretary, stroked, hounded and finally cut to pieces by Hitchcock's attention in a shower cubicle, cabin 1, at a bypassed motel." In conversation with Nogueira, Leigh described her conception of Marion: "I saw that she was really a shabby, mousy little woman. She wasn't in any way glamorous or anything. So we chose clothes that she could have afforded. We didn't have a dressmaker do them; we just went out and bought clothes that she could have bought on her salary. And I didn't have the hairdresser do my hair, I did it myself as she would: she couldn't afford a beauty parlour…I knew the background of this girl: it was lonely, poor…she was the older sister who took care of the younger one. And her drab life, in that office with that terrible man trying to take her out…"

Indeed, the first half of Psycho feels like a wayward take on the woman's picture. But in the second half, from the moment when Marion is stabbed repeatedly as she takes a shower, Hitchcock concedes the film to the voyeur in the crowd. Writing of Norman Bates' shifting attitude to this beautiful refugee from mainstream America, Harvey finds that "hers is a spirit and a temperament that Hitchcock is debarred from. Quite unlike Welles, Hitchcock feels the removal painfully. Psycho is partly and importantly a meditation on that removal--on the human insufficiency behind it." The "human insufficiency" to which Harvey refers applies to Norman/Hitchcock, stranded by mother love, appearance, on a slip road beyond the beautiful American mainstream--"they moved away the highway"--the world of the movies, of Leigh and Curtis. But it also refers to the inadequacies of Leigh's world with all its clichés, fatuities, and superficial bonhomie--"A man should have a hobby."

Psycho is modern because it brings two modern urban clichés together, the shopgirl and that strange young misfit in the adjacent office, the one she only notices because he stares. Psycho charts a specifically modern adoration and desecration. It brings the broad daylight of the Affluent Society into concision with the shadowy beyond in which its flaws are revealed as long punishing shadows. Appearing in 1960, the film consciously sets up a dialogue between past and present. Out of the past comes that which is spooky, musty, fatal. Like that dark gingerbread house on the hill. The present is all that is bright, sexy, new. As if to satirize gadget-strewn, throwaway America, Hitchcock even has his wayward heroine trade her car on a whim, without even taking the customary day-and-a-half to think about it. In his 2002 book A Long Hard Look at Psycho--that title seems a gift to the fetishist in the crowd--Raymond Durgnat searched for the film's resonance: "In the annals of 'mainstream movies' and of socio-cultural history, it marks a turning point (the 'turn' from conservative-liberal consensus to 1960's 'liberal/alienation/uneasiness', and from humanism to post-humanism."

By putting the shower scene in straight after Norman (Anthony Perkins) has been watching Marion undress, Hitchcock juxtaposes these worlds to shattering effect. Beneath the showerhead, the woman whose feelings we have shared all the way from that Phoenix realty office luxuriates at the end of a tough day. She may have been spied upon by that strange Norman, but the door should be locked now. In her 1998 book Of the Figure in General and the Body in Particular, Brenez wrote that in the early part of the shower scene we get a montage of abstract perspectives on the showerhead, the water, the enamel, interposed with shots of Marion's face. We get impressions: whiteness, wetness, cleanliness.

In his Sight and Sound review of Durgnat, Thomson reads this free-floating quality as inaugurating the '60s auteurist aspiration to "weightless sensation." Indeed, the swirling stained water running down the plughole at the end of the shower scene oddly anticipates the swirl of bubbles in that seemingly gratuitous high-angle shot of the coffee cup in Godard's Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1966). The figural excess of the opening shower montage that Brenez is aware of sees the film briefly flee the relentless narrative of Marion's drive. At one point, Marion squints into the pouring water and we are idly reminded of how she squinted through the rain on the windshield as she drove to the Bates Motel. Only then she was responding to the voices in her head as she imagined what her boss, her colleague, and the predatory Texan millionaire whose money she stole will make of her transgression. Norman Bates is not the only crazy with voices in his head, adding to the sometime delicious surmise that Norman and Marion will become an item.

But the awful truth is that the modern girl has fetched up in a dark, empty place. "Neither Miss America nor the girl-next-door any longer, she's stolen something--she's entered into lawlessness, and momentousness, and escaped banality," Harvey writes. As if to echo this flight from the mainstream, the daily American narrative, the shower scene is ripe for a reading on the level of the figural. Australian academic Warwick Mules defines the figural as "the resistive movement that exceeds resolution of the image to character and narration. The figural is an 'excess' that carries the image elsewhere." Echoing Marion's earlier jouissance, her "face becomes figural when it exceeds in its beauty/agony the resolution of character to plot. In the shower scene, where it ceases to be her terror and becomes instead detached, free-floating terror, borne along by the visual and aural affects…it's not that Janet Leigh's face (body) is the outward appearance of the violent death that the character endures, but the 'tearing away' of the body in its appearance as film image from the strict requirements of the plot, even if it is a necessary element to get the character murdered in a certain way." It is in this "tearing away" that Psycho not only announces the shift towards film as film that characterizes the cinephilia, and the modernity, of the '60s, but the "tearing away" of "Janet Leigh" from Marion Crane the narrated character, as it were, announces Leigh's status as emblem of that modernity. The image of a naked blonde in a shower, drenched and screaming, has become a flashback fetish in the cultural consciousness of our time.

The emblem is a recurring definition of the figural in Brenez. In writings on Abel Ferrara, she has discussed characters drained of three-dimensionality until only the Serial Killer, the Vampire, the Bad Lieutenant remain. We might argue, apropos Brenez, for Marion Crane, drained as she is of character, blood, life, as the Serial Victim, surely one of the most awful emblems of the modern world. Another concept Brenez evokes when discussing the figural is that of the effigy, a sculpture or model drained of personality. In her 1998 essay "The Actor in (the) Place of the Edit" (, she writes "it rests on a logic of the effigy, of an actantial (actancielle) derealization which enlightens the performative (actorale) invention." In this light, perhaps we can see that final image of Marion sliding down the wall as anticipating the ghastly figure of Norman's mother's grinning skull, subjectivity become effigy.

In correspondence with me, Australian critic Adrian Martin has reflected that sometimes for Brenez the figural arises out of the stylistic work of the film. Delineated and shaped by that exacting cutting and the shrieking avant-garde score, the effigy descends from an extraordinary orchestration of visual and aural shock.

What Janet Leigh does with her body in Psycho is not nearly as interesting as what she does with her face. In a very black sense, Hitchcock acknowledges this by destroying her body and leaving us with that lovely face smeared against the bathroom floor. When Marion and Norman talk in her room, Norman walks over to and past Marion and she turns towards him as he passes her. It is as though they are going to dance. As he passes and she turns, she smiles to herself at his ineptitude--he cannot bring himself to say "bathroom" in front of her--and as she looks up the private grin segues into, not a look, more a regard. It is as if for all his ineptitude, his strangeness, she is actually beginning to like this boy. Her look momentarily opens her tired face to new possibilities.

In this brief moment, she renews her habitually positive pact with experience, she bounces back as she has a million times before. Emboldened as much as we are charmed, Norman invites Marion to have something to eat with him. Her look is such that we do not notice the cut to him as he issues the invitation, with its mute intimation of disconnection, alienation, horror. The scene is then swallowed up in Perkins' boyish glee that this dreamboat is actually prepared to break bread with him. It feels as though the modern stray who has dominated the first half of the film now "throws" the initiative, the narrative, his way and he's thrilled. "She is so clearly like the all-American girl you saw on the magazine covers," Harvey writes, "in the cigarette ads, even the movies--like Janet Leigh, to put it plainly--the ideal daughter, the ideal wife." And now she is his.

But if we are tempted by what Leigh herself has called "their strange kind of love scene" to think that this could be a couple, that communion is savagely ended by the knife plunging into Marion as she showers. If we are momentarily, blissfully, alone with Marion's thoughts under the showerhead, the next moment we become voyeurs enraged by her body's fleshy lure, the obviousness of the American girl's sex. This collision of moods is of course reiterated whenever the film is shown, resonating appallingly across the culture. Everyone knows it is coming. But it still comes as a shock. When her assailant rips the shower curtain aside, we imperceptibly, fatally, enter his scopic field, his mind set, and (whether we care to admit it or not) collude by seeking glimpses of the woman's body amid her gasps and groans. As Hitchcock commentator Donald Spoto wrote in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (1992): "Psycho is a film that really takes place in the mind of the viewer." When Marion's hand clutches the shower curtain as she dies, the figural interlude, excessive in more ways than one, ends and we, reeling, surface to confront its awful narrative consequence, recalling how earlier she clutched at her elbow, agitated as she overstepped the mark by suggesting to Norman that his mother be institutionalized.

In her short tenure on screen, Leigh's face runs the gamut from contented to perplexed, sad to sympathetic, worried to agonized. It is the expressive lexicon of a million working girls as they negotiate the troubled terrain of contemporary sex and manners, the life (and death) of the American Girl. If Welles was more interested in Hank Quinlan's moral decline than in what was happening to Susie in that motel cabin, Hitchcock voices the impotence of a million men in the audience. Writing in his Durgnat review, Thomson says: "I think he was an authentic victim of the voyeurist thrust, not just in love with his heroines and his way of looking but alienated from most ways of life known as normal and ordinary." Psycho gave rise to a strand of American horror movie which made the horror as literal as the substantial flesh of its victim, even while this "slasher movie," the generic tag echoing the downward thrust of Norman's knife, also parodies the excessiveness of Marion's slaughter. While generations had watched agog as the heroine melted into the hero's arms in movie after movie, there were always those who wanted the heroine in ways the Production Code could not allow, even as the sweater girl knowingly tantalized the desirous. Cheaply shot in black-and-white beyond the remit of "prestige," sporting the predilection for experiment that has been the prerogative of the grind house, and parading the sweater girl through streets after bedtime, Touch of Evil and Psycho gave the quiet ones in the crowd the soft yielding pleasure for which they searched many a standard studio vehicle.

Few icons have appeared as fleetingly as Janet Leigh did in Psycho. The film itself never really gets over her loss. On the case of the British video there is a still of Marion screaming in the shower, her pearl-white teeth and hint of brunette in the eyebrows the only remaining clues that the girl entreating Van Johnson in The Romance of Rosy Ridge was the same Janet Leigh. It is also somehow appropriate that subsequent Leigh films--The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Telethon (1977), The Fog (1980)--seem anticlimactic, a career in half life.


I would like to thank Dr Warwick Mules of Central Queensland University and writer Adrian Martin for sharing their thoughts on figurality in the cinema with me.

1 Universal released a restored version of Touch of Evil on DVD in 2004, and this version restores Orson Welles's original vision for the opening sequence--which means the backing music by Henry Mancini has been removed. Welles wanted this sequence to feature music spilling into the street from the various stores and taverns that Mike and Susie Vargas pass as they walk down the street of this border town. This was one of Welles's famous complaints in the lengthy letter he wrote to Universal regarding their re-editing of the movie.

Works Cited

Brenez, Nicole. Of the Figure in General and the Body in Particular. De Boeck Universite, 1998.

Durgnat, Raymond. A Long Hard Look at Psycho. British Film Institute, 2002.

Harvey, James. Movie Love in the Fifties. Da Capo Press, 2002.

Leigh, Janet. There Really was a Hollywood. Doubleday, 1984.

Nogueira, Rui. "Psycho, Rosie and a Touch of Orson: An Interview with Janet Leigh" in Sight and Sound. Spring 1970.

Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. Anchor, 1991.

Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Knopf, 2002.

Thomson, David. Review of A Long Hard Look at Psycho in Sight and Sound. December 2002.

Copyright © 2005 by Richard Armstrong
Published January 2005 by Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture
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