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Famed ‘Psycho’ death scene forever changed actress’s life

SHARE Famed ‘Psycho’ death scene forever changed actress’s life

Some actors spend a lifetime trying to grab Hollywood immortality. Janet Leigh got it in roughly three minutes.

She stepped pretty much naked into a tub, the shower head cascading water. Even if you haven't seen Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror classic, "Psycho," you know the rest. The dark figure behind the plastic shower curtain. The screeching music. The knife. The scream. The blood flowing as water swirls around the gulping drain. "Blood. Mother."

"I felt we were doing something innovative, creative and different," says Leigh, who talked about "Psycho" as an extension of American Movie Classics' televised Hitchcock Film Preservation Festival. "It was exciting."

And physically tedious.

That short, pivotal shower scene was filmed over seven days, exactly a third of the total time Leigh spent on the set. She was fitted with bits of skin-colored cloth below her shoulders (a nude actress was used in some parts of the scene) and Hitchcock used warm water in the shower to keep Leigh's discomfort to a minimum. The director had meticulously planned each shot, each cut (there are about 70) to create a montage that would have moviegoers believe Leigh was being stabbed to death when, in reality, the knife never once cuts skin.

"Each angle was so important," Leigh says. "The editing provided the tempo. You see the knife going up and down and up and down. There's the music. I'm screaming. It just seems real."

There had never been anything quite like it on film. "Psycho" was the fourth in a quartet of movies that many critics view as evidence of a master film technician at the top of his craft (the others: 1954's "Rear Window," 1958's "Vertigo" and 1959's "North by Northwest").

As he always did, Hitchcock challenged Hollywood's conventions and antiquated morality code. "Psycho" was the first to show a toilet (screenwriter Joseph Stefano urged making it part of the plot), toyed with clothing as Leigh appeared in then-risque scenes wearing a white or black bra and half-slips, and boldly killed off a main star midway through the film. While the director always insisted that breasts were never shown in the stunning shower scene, a long, mostly out-of-focus body shot as the girl grips the shower curtain appears to suggest otherwise.

Younger moviegoers today are often bored with "Psycho." They're used to seeing violence in much more graphic detail (who can miss seeing in slo-mo the knife plunged into Drew Barrymore's chest in "Scream"?). But "Psycho" is a technically astute film and remarkable for its 1960 cutting-edge craftsmanship.

For instance, the turning shot as the camera slowly backs away from Leigh's eye near the end of the shower sequence required the cinematographer to constantly hand-focus his lens (today, that focusing would be on automatic). A special shower head was constructed for the shot focused directly into the cascading water to prevent drops from hitting the large lens.

"I thought (making 'Psycho') was as good as it can get because Mr. Hitchcock was so brilliant, because of how he was going to shoot it," Leigh says.

She did not hesitate to accept the role. She and the Hitchcocks had mutual friends and were often seated together at dinner parties.

Then out of the blue came "Psycho."

"I got a package in the mail and in it was the novel by Robert Bloch," Leigh says, "and with it was a note from Mr. Hitchcock that said, 'Janet, please consider the role of Mary Crane.' " (The name from the book was later changed to Marion after researchers discovered a woman named Mary Crane living in Phoenix, where the film opens.) The note also said, " 'Of course it will be changed and not concentrate on the whole heinous life of Norman Bates. And we're thinking of Anthony Perkins.' It was signed 'love,' and Mr. Hitchcock, you know, drew his profile as his signature. "All I knew," Leigh says, "is if he wanted me in a picture, I was there."

It's unclear exactly why Hitchcock plucked Leigh from all the blondes in Hollywood (he was, of course, stuck on blond actresses). But it could be because of Leigh's striking performance in Orson Welles' 1958 noir thriller "Touch of Evil."

That film, recently restored to much critical acclaim, features Leigh in a blistering rape scene.

"I would have to assume that Mr. Hitchcock would have seen an Orson Welles picture," Leigh says, adding that the woman she played in "Evil" was a "pretty feisty lady, and Marion is also."

For "Psycho," Leigh received her only Oscar nomination (she lost in the supporting actress category to Shirley Jones for her turn as a prostitute in "Elmer Gantry"). Leigh did, however, win the Golden Globe.

"The movie changed my life," the she said. "I, fortunately, did not fall into that position that Tony Perkins did. He was so brilliant. But after the film, people couldn't see him as anyone but Norman Bates. I must have gotten 100 scripts in a month dealing with this same kind of situation. I immediately went into three very different movies." (They were the psychological drama "The Manchurian Candidate," the musical "Bye Bye Birdie" and the relationship comedy "Wives and Lovers.")

There's one fact from "Psycho" that Leigh says has haunted her for the past 40 years. Since the movie, she insists, she's never taken another shower.

"I take only baths. I really had never thought about it, but seeing it and seeing it that way made me think about it a lot. You're so vulnerable. You can't hear with the water, you can't see with the curtain.

"And I just don't want to go there again."

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