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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Marion Crane (1927-2004)

Life is full of bizarre coincidences. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just full of coincidences.

For example, what are the odds that the two actors whose images have become the most immortalized for playing screaming female victims in the movies would die within a couple of months of each other? Probably not that long, considering that the first (Fay Wray of King Kong fame) was 96 and the second (Janet Leigh of Psycho fame) was 77. Still, it’s the sort of thing that makes one stop, think and ponder.

While Leigh appeared in scores of movies, starting in the mid-1940s and continuing until just four years ago, it is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho that we immediately remember her for. (Since her death on Sunday, every clip I have seen of her on the TV news has been of the famous shower scene.) And this is a woman who also starred in films like Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. (And that’s another coincidence, since the latter film has recently been remade.) Also memorable, if not as enduring as those roles, were her portrayals of Meg in Little Women, June in That Forsyte Woman, the screen wife of her then-real-life husband Tony Curtis in the George Pal production of Houdini, Princess Aleta in Prince Valiant, Ivy in Pete Kelly’s Blues, the title role in My Sister Eileen, Dick Van Dyke’s girlfriend Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie and Paul Newman’s wife in Harper. But despite all this visible work over so many years, it is her Psycho scream that resonates in our ears.

Maybe because of her association with the role of the hapless Marion Crane, who was unlucky enough to pick the Bates Motel for a night’s rest, it may have been less coincidence than inevitability that her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis would follow in her footsteps as the “scream queen” of the late 1970s/early 1980s in a handful (although at the time it seemed like a barrage) of teen slasher flicks, notably John Carpenter’s original Halloween and its first sequel. (Other titles: Prom Night, Terror Train). Demonstrating that neither mother nor daughter had let their successful acting careers make them snobs, in 1998 the two of them appeared together in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, somehow bringing the movie slasher female victim thing in their family full circle. (Leigh had also appeared with Jamie Lee in John Carpenter’s 1980 horror flick The Fog.)

Leigh actually stated in later years that she never took showers, as a direct result of her role in Psycho. That movie was a landmark for the horror/suspense genre. While there wasn’t a lot of violence in the film (especially by today’s standards), what violence there was made up for brevity with intensity. It was shocking for the time, and all the more frightening because the characters and situations were real enough. (Adding to the shock was the total unexpected-ness of Leigh’s sudden demise 45 minutes into the movie, since she was a major star and had the top female billing. The motion picture academy didn’t buy it, however, and nominated her in the Supporting Actress category. It was her only Oscar nomination, and she lost to Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry.) Those of us in the audience couldn’t comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that what we were seeing was preposterous and couldn’t possibly happen in real life, maybe even to us. It was a creepy reminder that we never know for sure where mortal danger might lurk, even in the most ordinary of situations. It is mainly a testament to Hitchcock’s direction but also to Leigh’s acting that people who have seen the film swear that they saw the knife stabbing her body. In fact, the knife was never shown piercing her body.

I’ve written before about the effect that Psycho had on me as a child. The movie was creepy and frightening enough on its own, but the fact that I recognized it to be taking place in the general area where I was born and had lived all my life added an extra layer of terror. I wonder if the same was true for Leigh, since she was , like myself, a native of the San Joaquin Valley. She was born Jeanette Helen Morrison in Merced, California, although her family moved around quite a bit, so I don’t know how much she identified with the place. (I don’t know all the places they lived, but she was “discovered” when her parents worked at a ski resort in northern California and Norma Shearer noticed her photo on the front desk.) If we really want to push the bizarre coincidence thing to its limits (and beyond), we can point out that Merced is only 75 miles from Yosemite National Park, where a real-life Norman Bates (minus the frock) murdered four women in 1999, and 38 miles south of Modesto, which in recent years has strangely become associated with highly publicized female murder victims in its own right (Congressman Gary Condit’s intern, Lacie Peterson).

The fact that Leigh wrote a book about the filming of Psycho (about ten years ago) suggests that, like Fay Wray, she must have been reconciled with the fact that she was famous and that in most people’s minds she would always be the woman in the shower hacked up by the figure in the old lady’s dress. I suspect that, even though it meant a lifetime of bathing in tubs instead of taking showers, she (like Wray) wasn’t displeased with the fact that she had achieved a form of immortality.

-S.L., 7 October 2004

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