Film Studies: You know who really knifed Janet in the shower, don't you? You did...

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The Independent Culture

For the last 40 years, in talking about Janet Leigh, people always wanted to remember the shower scene in Psycho. She was willing enough; she assured everyone that she still took no showers! It's natural: from the moment that outrage broke on our screens we were struggling to keep up with all its messages. There had never been such violence before, no matter that Alfred Hitchcock insisted in his prim, mocking way that no knife ever actually broke the skin.

That didn't matter: we knew what we felt and what we felt was horror of a devastating kind in a safe and private place - in the shower.

Who can forget the blurred image of the tall attacker and a raised arm as seen through the shower curtain? For we saw that figure a few seconds before Marion Crane, or Janet Leigh. We suffered first. And it wasn't the least complicated thing in that very crowded scene - for the best part of 40 minutes, the camera had been looking at Janet in various stages of undress, guilt, temptation and ordeal, and asking, what would you do with that? The unique insinuation of the shower scene was that something in us wanted the knife to fall on her fine flesh.

Of course, Janet Leigh guessed that when she died the picture in every paper would be her face from that scene, her mouth open in one of the medium's greatest screams. Yet she often joked that you don't see her face that much, just as you didn't see her naked private parts. To the end, with the slaughter and the water and the blood running together, Hitchcock and the censors did not let us see the actual erogenous zones. You can call that taste, or the last terrible repression in the voyeur. And, Janet Leigh wasn't the only one in the shower for that scene (filmed in the week before Christmas, 1959). She wore a flesh-coloured moleskin a lot of the time, but there was a dancer brought in for some nude shots. As Hitch foresaw, what we witnessed happened so quickly that feelings were always more important than the actual visible evidence.

So, remember the shower scene, by all means, but may I suggest that you give equal time and attention to an earlier scene, if only because it lets you know how remarkable a movie actress Janet Leigh was. You may remember that, under the pressure of her barely fulfilled love affair with Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and their being so hard up, Marion Crane - on the spur of an irresistible impulse - has stolen $40,000 from the Phoenix, Arizona real estate office where she works. So she drives through one night and into another to be with Loomis, to make the forlorn act of giving him the money. And to that end, Hitchcock uses prolonged, grilling shots of her at the wheel of her car, looking straight ahead at the camera, peering into the night and hearing the voices that discover her theft.

Her flight is an act of ordinary madness, and she realises along the way that she is going to have to turn back and return the money, or what is left of it, after her panicky car-swap deal. Marion is not a natural or true criminal. She was driven out of control by the pressure in her life, and that pressure is represented or enforced by Hitchcock's camera set-up. For the farther she drives, the more clear it is that Marion has no escape. Her car is actually still, in front of a back projection of moving road. And the camera position stays rigidly in front of her, blocking her view and her liberty.

There is a kind of torture in the set-up.

There's something else to be said for the scene: as Marion gets into northern California on the second night, it starts to pour with rain. She stays dry inside her car, of course, but the water that streams over the front window is water of an eventual shower trying to get at her. Not to see and feel that is to miss the profound, psychological ways in which Hitchcock built and composed his movies. And so, in hindsight or on repeated viewings, an irony creeps in, cruel or bleak, which is that as Marion realises her error and the need to correct it - to save herself - she is the more remorselessly headed for the almost random destruction that awaits her at the Bates motel. And we - who cannot shout out a warning, because of the nature of cinema - are subtle accomplices: we cannot help her, not if we are to have our full experience, and see the ultimate rebuke for this naughty, sexy woman, who keeps parading in her underwear, as if she meant to provoke us.

Granted this unkind trap - and such traps are regular in Hitchcock's work - I think the greatest tribute to the decency in Janet Leigh, as well as her skill as an actress, is how far she flowers in the grim prison. She has been seen by her boss in the car as she leaves Phoenix - there is his perplexed, accusatory glance that lingers in her mind. There is the face of the policeman - hostile in shades - staring directly at her as she sleeps overnight in a lay-by. And there is her flayed intelligence, seeing the humour as well as the dread in the stupid situation she has made for herself.

As night creeps in, along with the incessant, harrowing attention of Bernard Herrmann's music (vital to the scene), she hears the voice of the man whose money she has stolen. In fact, she is imagining or inventing his voice, but we do not doubt the accuracy of her dream, for this man tried to pick her up as he dangled the raw cash in front of her:

"Well, I ain't about to kiss off $40,000! I'll get it back, and if any of it's missin' I'll replace it with her fine, soft flesh! I'll track her, never you doubt it!" And as she hears these words, Marion or Janet Leigh gives a smile that is sardonic, sexy and hellish - don't forget that Psycho is a film full of demented smiles straight into the camera - and it's like the face of a hunted beast that has realised why, yes, there is a killer inside her, and a wanton, too.

In life and in most of her roles, Janet Leigh was a sweetheart, amiable, good-natured, pleasant. She is the cheerful, yet horribly threatened wife in Touch of Evil. She is the one sane figure in The Manchurian Candidate who may help Frank Sinatra solve the puzzle. She was always that kind of person in her movies - and for 10 years or so, married to Tony Curtis, she was the perfect Hollywood bride.

But she was an actress, too, a grown woman, with her own darkness, and in that prolonged head-on shot in the car in Psycho, she was at her best. There were a thousand bodies that could have done the shower scene, but very few people who could have conveyed the torment of mixed emotions that led up to it.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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