It may have been Norma Shearer
who was credited with "discovering" her when she signed
with MGM in 1946, but it was Janet Leigh’s shocking performance
in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho which won her an Oscar nomination
for Best Supporting Actress in 1960 and became the most immediately
identifiable role of her career.
The "grandmother" of splatter films, Psycho was one of the first mainstream movies to depart from the
traditional use of mere suggestion of graphic horror and to use,
instead, specific graphic presentation. No longer was the horror
imagined off-screen; Psycho meant no more restrained style.
With an emphasis on character, Hitchcock placed the monster squarely
within the normalcy of everyday life. Our primal fears were realized
as the manifestations of good were inextricably linked with the
manifestations of evil.
In the almost 35 years since Psycho first
slashed its way into movie history, its leading lady has continued
on with a remarkable film career. Yet none of Leigh’s roles have
had the lasting impact of Psycho- a fact made all the more
unusual because her character is dead only one third of the way
into the film. "Hitchcock had the whole audience going in
one direction, and then he’d say ‘Hah, hah, fooled you,’ and your
leading lady is knocked off. No one can ever believe it,"
marveled Leigh as she likened the director’s work to a magician’s
slight of hand. "That’s why it was essential that he use
someone who had already been established, not a newcomer because
that wouldn’t have been a shock. But when you have someone whose
name appears above the title sometimes and they’re knocked off,
then that’s really a shock."
Leigh is in the process of writing a book about
the phenomenon Psycho created on the collective American
psyche as well as its impact on those around her during filming.
She is a generous woman who shares the same fascination with the
film as her audience. She is absolutely adamant when insisting
she has never taken a shower since her first viewing of the film
– not because making it was scary, but because "watching
it frightened me so." She remembers the shooting of Psycho with great interest and clarity, and is enthralled with the
idea that with each generation a new audience rediscovers the
film. Leigh squirms with delight at the discovery of seeing something
new during what must be her millionth viewing of the film, and
she uses the experience to define the levels Hitchcock created
in his films – "that’s how deep he went in planting his seed,"
she confides in amazement.
"For Hitch, before the picture began, his
challenge had already been met. It was then just a question of transferring
his planned shots to the screen – in other words it was a technical
matter really, because his camera was already set," explained
Leigh. "He had mockups of every scene; to-scale miniatures of
wild walls so he would know where he could strike a wall… he knew
how he was going to use his camera to build the scene… he practically
cut the film in his camera. And there’s a reason for this: because
when he first started, before he had the autonomy he gained later,
he had been hurt by some producer coming in and re-cutting a film
he had made. So he said ‘I’ll fix them. I won’t give them any film
to play with.’ Instead of shooting the normal way – which is first
doing the master shot, then the two-shot, then over-the-shoulders,
and then the close-up, all of which give a lot of leeway in how a
picture could be cut – you can even change the intent of the picture
– he didn’t do any of that. He moved his camera and the camera was
where he wanted it to be at the time he wanted it. So there was very
little editing to do, and that’s how he got around producers who wanted
to have some say (in cutting the film). It had already been worked
out in his mind exactly what the shot was going to be. It was very
easy for him to do, so the set was very relaxed. Even though the content
was very dark, that didn’t reflect the set. When it was time to work,
you worked. In between scenes it was very congenial; he might tell
me a dirty joke or something and then his assistant would come up
and say ‘It’s time, Mr. Hitchcock,’ and he’d say ‘Fine, let’s roll
’em’, and I’d be ‘Hey! Wait a minute – you just told me a very funny
joke and I don’t think that’s the mood you want me to be in when I’m
supposed to be stealing forty thousand dollars!’"
Seven days and seventy-one set ups for the most famous
shower scene in moviedom; some of the shots survived the cutting
room for only two seconds of glory on screen. Hitchcock may have
choreographed every camera angle, but even he couldn’t predict what
Leigh’s hair would do as she executed her death slide down the tiled
shower wall. Nor could he foresee the awkward angle she would land
at when she clutched the shower curtain on the way down. "You
don’t choose your position in death," chuckled Leigh. "It
just happened to work." Even the moleskin used to cover Leigh
during the (very) hot water shower scene had a mind of it’s own.
"Everything was going well, really super when all of a sudden
the moleskin steamed away from my body," remembers Leigh with
a chuckle. "What do you do? You have to get the take!"
Technically difficult, the individual scenes which
made up the shower montage were hard on both Leigh and the crew.
With no automatic focus available for the camera, all focusing
work had to be by hand as the camera was moving. Since the crew
was intent on moving the dolly at the correct speed, it was left
to Hitchcock to snap his fingers when Leigh was out of camera
range so she could blink safely. "It was a lot of takes,"
sighed Leigh. "Either the focus screwed up, or I blinked
too soon, or the grip didn’t move at the right pace, or something
went wrong. Even though the screen time was short for those scenes,
it took a lot of time getting ready; a lot of scaffolding and
a lot of setting up time. I was once asked which take was used
for the close-up of my face on the floor. There were so many,
I’m gong to have to find out – because I’m sure it wasn’t the
first or even the second!"
"I was lucky in that I got to shoot the shower
scene in sequence; it was unusual to do it like that, but I appreciated
it a great deal," she continued. "I know there was a
time when the New York and method actors would pooh-pooh Hollywood
and say ‘Oh, they’re not really acting.’ I always wanted to say
‘up yours, baby’ because I bet they couldn’t do what we have to
do! We never had the luxury of starting a play at eight o’clock
and going straight through; finishing all your high points in
straight order. You try finding your motivation when you start
filming the end of the picture on the first day!
"For some actors it was difficult (working
with Hitchcock) because as performers they felt they needed freedom
for their choices. Really, because Hitchcock’s camera was so important
to him, he had to be meticulous in what he asked for. Using the
mirror during the car buying scene to indicate a split personality;
having Tony’s (Perkins) reflection in the window show the duality,
and the clues to the mystery … even the bird image throughout the film (the name Crane and the city of Phoenix); this is
how Hitch led his audience on a path at the end of which was whatever
they wanted to see."
The impact of Hitchcock’s filmmaking is so strong
for fans of Psycho that they will insist they can see red
blood in the shower scene, or the knife penetrating Leigh’s naked
body. Most can even tell you the exact set of circumstances surrounding
the first time they saw the film. Yet Leigh insists they couldn’t
have seen what they think they saw; it’s simply much scarier and
much sexier because of the power Hitchcock instilled in their (the
audience’s) imagination. "That’s what the power of imagination
can do for you. Because there were the censors, and you couldn’t
show blood, and you couldn’t show nudity, and you couldn’t show
penetration of a weapon. It was against, well, against the movie
law. It was the power that he instilled in the imagination. Even
in the music, the power was so carefully planted. That power which
has now been lost, because now that you can show everything the
audience doesn’t have to imagine anything. I think the audience
is cheated. They’re not given the wonderful luxury of imagining."