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First Lady of Horror

First Lady of Horror

Articles - Directing

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!’"

Janet Leigh, circa 1959

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."

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