Janet Leigh - her place in cinema history

In a recent poll of the best films of the 20th century, only one actor was in three of them. Who was this icon? Brando? Garbo? Cagney? Japan's Toshiro Mifune? Bruce Willis? (That's a joke, by the way). No. The answer is a bird-like former girl-next-door, and friend of JFK, Orson Welles, Howard Hughes, and Judy Garland. Her name is Janet Leigh.

Once MGM's ingenue in costume dramas like "The Black Shield of Falworth", "Houdini", and "The Vikings" (all co-starring her then husband Tony Curtis), Leigh made a trilogy of black and white films in the post-studio period that guarantee her a place in cinema history. Each is a baroque masterpiece. In each she makes inroads into worlds of fear. There isn't a crinoline in sight. It is because of them in particular that I asked her to do "Scene by Scene".

The films are Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil", Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" and John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate". Some actors are, shall we say, not entirely aware of the context of their work, or they are exhausted by the retelling of its production anecdotes. Not so Leigh. She's a world away from the 'amnesiacal retirement in Palm Springs' movie star cliché. She has a clear, almost scholarly interest in these dark exotic films to which she contributed. She's written a non-anecdotal book about "Psycho" - has any other actor done that about one of their films? She knows in detail how "Touch of Evil" has recently been restored, and is the first actor I've ever heard use the word 'noir' about the tone of a film.

Janet Leigh's career.

You can see Mark Cousins talking with Janet Leigh in "Scene by Scene" on BBC2, Saturday 16 December 2000 at 1.20pm.

"Touch of Evil", starring Janet Leigh, is on at 11.55pm, BBC2, Sunday 17th December 2000. "Reconstructing Evil", a documentary about the making the film, is on BBC2 at 12.55am the same day.