Janet Leigh made 63 movies in 53 years — three of them classics. From 1958 to 1962, she had a sort of dark trilogy, playing an icy, unsettling and alienated woman, a cynically tragic ur-feminist.
She always seemed wounded. As an imperiled wife in "Touch of Evil," she sported a coat over her broken arm. As a stranger on a train in "The Manchurian Candidate," whose three-minute pickup of Frank Sinatra's Maj. Marco was so packed with unsettling non sequiturs — "Are you Arabic? Let me put it another way. Are you married?" — she seemed at first to be a figment of his troubled imagination, a woman who sacrifices herself easily, swiftly and completely.
But it's as Marion Crane, the frustrated secretary in "Psycho," that she'll always be remembered. We first glimpse her through a hotel window as she carries on her sad trysts with a cash-strapped divorced man who wouldn't marry her, leading her to steal from her boss and go on the lam in the desert of Arizona, where she meets her famous end.
Janet Leigh died famously on the screen in 1960, 44 years before her death Sunday, setting the cinematic precedent for the grisly deaths of tough, attractive, promiscuous, unattached movie blonds forever more.
The shower scene derailed our expectations of the movie — until then, we thought "Psycho" would be about Marion and her squirrelly lover's reaction to her showing up on his doorstep with 40,000 stolen dollars. But it also defied the convention of the nameless, innocent victim. We knew more about Marion than it was comfortable to know. She was, presumably, a beautiful girl who'd made mistakes, frittered away her advantages, missed her chance. So her life, as depicted by Hitchcock, was as difficult to watch as her death, and her death was relentless.
At once stark and seedy, cold and hysterical, the shower scene spared the viewer no detail. For the times, when movie violence was mostly suggested, it was a protracted exercise in pain. The Janet Leigh character lived as she died in "Psycho" — she was strong, independent and nowhere near vulnerable enough for men to feel generous with their love. In the shower scene, she is stripped and exposed; in certain expressionistic shots, the knife seems to be held up to her skin sideways, as if contrasting the softness of her belly and the sharpness of the knife. She's not just killed, she's obliterated — the water from the shower ushering her blood down the drain and out of sight.
Cinematic horror has tried to recapture the terror and the tension of "Psycho," but most of all, it's tried to capture the camera's unrelenting and cruel dispassion. Leigh's Marion is the iconic first victim, the threatening blond who gets punished for her freedom and her libido. Since then, there has always been a first victim in horror, and she's often been the Marion type. And if, since then, we haven't gotten quite as much back story on the sacrificial sexy blond, it's because Janet Leigh had already filled in the blanks.