Sex and Death. Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock to inextricably link the two in the mind’s eye of an impressionable youth through the delightful visage of Janet Leigh in a black bra. And what a black bra it was. In his macabre masterpiece, “Psycho” (1960), Hitchcock found his perfect, doomed muse in the beautiful Ms. Leigh. The actress was at the pinnacle of beauty, her strong, sexually confident gaze spellbound audiences from the very first frame when we see her entwined with her lover in a cheap hotel in the middle of a hot afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona.
The narrative progression in Psycho is very important. Hitchcock leaves nothing to chance. He is carefully building sympathy and at the same time antipathy for Marion Crane, Janet’s character in the movie. Remember, this is 1960. Marion is having an afternoon tryst with her lover during her lunch break! That’s hot stuff, baby. Both want to go legit and get married but money (what else) hangs like a dead albatross between them. So, Marion goes back to work where she is tempted with a big pay-off…$40,000. Now, lest you be thinking $$$ is the root of all evil – the Benjamins in her purse have nothing on Norman Bates.
And here we come to the infamous black bra. There is some debate as to whether Psycho is the first time a black bra was worn by a leading lady (feel free to refute this with cinematic evidence) but there is no question that Psycho was the first time in cinematic history that a toilet was shown. By today’s standards the shock value of seeing a commode on film is laughable but in 1960 it was prurient, invasive and in some parts of the country bordering on obscene. Mix that with a sexy leading lady of Janet Leigh’s A-List stature being watched in her black bra through a peep-hole by a introverted-slash-creepy motel office clerk – sex and death start to bubble up in your subconscious. Remember, Janet appears in a white bra and panties in the first frame of Psycho – whereas now she is in the same bra and panties only black. The viewer’s subconscious is running amok on this small detail even while the conscious takes little note of it. And that’s where Hitchcock’s true visual mastery comes in. He’s messing with you on a primal level. Primal fear, that is, even before you’re fully aware of it. Too late, in fact.
Before the infamous shower scene, the audience has been led to believe that Marion Crane is going to get a good night’s sleep and return to Phoenix the next morning to return the money and redeem herself. She and the audience doesn’t realize that she will never get the chance. Her actions have led her, albeit inadvertently, into the path of true evil. And that evil is not Norman Bates, but Mrs. Bates, Norman’s uncompromising Mother. Mother has the last word on Marion Crane. And not because she knows about Marion’s crime of stealing money. No, Marion’s crime is much deeper and much more primal: It is a Mother protecting her son from a seductress; a worldly woman who threatens to take him away from her. The fact Mother is dead and living on through the twisted imagination of her Oedipally-challenged son is irrelevant. The women of Psycho are the ones who hold the power and call the shots. Watch the film and see for yourself. Only the persistence of yet another woman – Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) will unveil Mother and put her where she belongs. There’s femme-fatales walking all over the men in Psycho – a delicious and irresistible mixture of sex and death. And none of them are as beautiful as Janet Leigh.
A younger Janet in a pre-Psycho glamor shot. You’ve got to love that shimmery blouse!