Modernity and the Maniac: The Fall of Janet Leigh
A R T I C L E   B Y   R I C H A R D   A R M S T R O N G

"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.
Janet Leigh and Jimmy Stewart in The Naked Spur.
[click photo for larger version]

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."
Janet Leigh and Bob Fosse in My Sister Eileen.
[click photo for larger version]

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.

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