Janet Leigh was the object of desire and murderous rage in a scene that might be equaled but not surpassed in cinema history. She was on the cover of the June 25, 1951 issue of Life. She was a leading lady throughout the 1950s. Her resume from 1958 to 1963 was exemplary. So it is surprising that other than in Ian Haydn Smith’s Movie Star Chronicles (2015), Janet Leigh is rarely included in books about top Hollywood stars. Even David Shipman’s estimable The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, which includes Tab Hunter and Louise Fletcher, fails to include her. Or is Leigh’s omission that odd? Most stars, even superstars, hardly ever make quality and successful movies for more than a decade. Some just have better publicity mills, agents and personal managers.
Janet Leigh’s screen debut came in The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947), a successful MGM production. Apparently MGM’s “first lady of the screen” Norma Shearer, although retired, opened the door for her. Leigh played Meg opposite Elizabeth Taylor, June Allyson and Margaret O’Brien in the MGM remake of Little Women (1949). In 1951 she married soon-to-be film heartthrob Tony Curtis (divorced 1962). Soon they were co-starring in the biopic Houdini (1953) and The Prince Who Was a Thief (1954), a typical sword and sandals mini-epic from Universal. A larger scale and better swashbuckling outing was Scaramouche (1953), in which Leigh co-starred with Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker and Mel Ferrer in a film set at the time of the French Revolution. In 1954 she encountered Norse marauders in Prince Valiant (“Ooh, father’s right about those blasted Vikings!” she exclaimed.) She’d find herself even more vexed by those medieval ruffians later in the decade. The Naked Spur (1953) with James Stewart, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell was a rough western now regarded as a classic. Leigh’s hair was cut and she played dirty, refusing to believe Ryan’s character Vandergroat was a killer.
Although shooting had started in 1953, RKO’s production head Howard Hughes tampered with it so much Jet Pilot wasn’t released until 1957. This is probably Leigh’s second oddest movie. She played a Russian spy cum jet pilot opposite John Wayne.
Leigh’s golden age began with another introduction to sea rovers in The Vikings (1958). Filmed on location on and near European shores and castles for Kirk Douglas’ Bryna Productions, this rousing adventure is one of the few serious feature films about the infamous medieval Scandinavian seafarers. Janet played Morgana, captured by Kirk Douglas’s Einar and saved in the nick of time by Erik (husband Tony).
The same year found her in what is generally regarded as the last entry in film noir’s golden era, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). Leigh was Charlton Heston’s much put upon wife, kidnapped and sequestered in a motel (!) managed by a goofy manager (!) played not by Anthony Perkins but by Dennis Weaver.
The Perfect Furlough was also 1958 and again Leigh co-starred with husband Tony. It was a typical service comedy of the era. (See also Imitation General, Don’t Go Near the Water, It Started with a Kiss, Operation Mad Ball).
In Who Was That Lady? (1960) Janet played Curtis’ wife who thought he was having an affair. Dean Martin made things worse with his loopy advice, and the FBI and Soviet spies muddied the waters. Looking back, the subtext might be Cold War paranoia. It’s a hoot.
Psycho (1960) was unusual in many ways. Director Alfred Hitchcock used his TV crew, filmed in black & white, and killed off Marian (Leigh) half way into the film. The shower sequence became famous, and Leigh’s screaming face to the screeching violins of composer Bernard Herrmann’s became iconic.
In John Frankenheimer’s highly-regarded Cold War suspense film, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) Leigh co-starred with Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey.
Bye Bye Birdie (1963) featured Leigh in a black wig, perhaps to contrast with Ann-Margret’s redhead. She’d graced the cover of Life again on August 10, 1962, atop her head a succession of fezes she wore in one of the film’s dance numbers.
Some of her future ‘60s films were not without some quality or interest, e.g., Wives and Lovers, Harper. Competing with Jet Pilot as her oddest outing, as it must have also been for Stuart Whitman and Rory Calhoun, was Night of the Lepus (1972). Surprisingly, it does generate chills and has the immortal line from a state troope using his bullhorn to warn a drive-in audience, “There is a herd of killer rabbits heading this way.”
Leigh seems to have curtailed film work to tend to her children, Jamie Lee and Kelly Curtis. She appeared with Jamie in The Fog (1980) and 18 years later in Halloween H2O (1998). In between she wrote There Really Was a Hollywood (1984). Later in life she attended film conventions, including FANEX outside Baltimore in 2000.