Kim Novak’s time at the top of Hollywood was brief. Only four years passed between her breakthrough in Pushover (1954) and her career peak in Vertigo (1958) , and while she’d still have excellent performances ahead of her after that, by the mid-1960s her films had become sporadic and their quality erratic.
Still, she squeezed a lot into her short stay at the top. Arriving as one of many starlets in mid-1950s Hollywood primed to be the next Marilyn Monroe-esque blonde bombshell, like Monroe she soon proved there was much more to her than her dazzling beauty by delivering deft, captivating work in a string of comedies and dramas. During the height of her success, in whatever she appeared, Novak possessed an enigmatic quality that brought an intriguing interiority to her often underwritten characters.
Never all that enamoured with movie stardom, she’d leave acting permanently after a bad experience on 1991’s Liebestraum, to concentrate on her true love, painting. However lukewarm she felt about the acting business, though, her filmography proves she was darn good at it.
Director: Richard Quine
Lona McLane (Novak) is the moll to a nefarious bank robber who’s just gotten away with over $200,000. In the hope the robber will return for Lona, Fred MacMurray’s cop is one of several assigned to a stake-out watching over her, but soon he finds himself entirely in her thrall. When she suggests they could take the money for themselves, he’s on board with the idea and willing to kill for it.
Although Novak doesn’t have a lot to do in Pushover, which marked her first leading role, the beguiling strength of her screen presence is immediately clear. She’d star in another underrated noir, 5 Against the House, the following year.
Director: Mark Robson
Phffft (let Novak herself explain that title to you in the trailer) follows a couple, played by Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon, as they decide to get divorced after eight years together. Each struggles to contend with life as a single person; Novak is one of Lemmon’s dates, who wrongfoots him with her assured sexuality.
Mark Robson’s movie is an early showcase of Novak’s underappreciated comic talent. While she just features in a handful of scenes, she leaves a vivid impression with her daffy, confident performance – no mean feat in a film headlined by Lemmon and Holliday, two of classic Hollywood’s finest comedians.
Director: Joshua Logan
Novak’s Madge is a small-town Kansan beauty queen, drifting along in her relationship with the local grain scion (Cliff Robertson) until a handsome drifter (William Holden) leaps off the freight train and into her life, upending everything.
Though Madge is the envy of the townsfolk for her striking beauty, she yearns for something more profound, a connection on a deeper level than her looks; Novak illuminates her wistfulness with quiet intensity. Picnic is best known for the Moonglow dance sequence between Novak and Holden, still entrancing for its slinky, hypnotic steaminess.
The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
Director: Otto Preminger
Otto Preminger’s melodrama stars Frank Sinatra as the ex-con drug addict fighting a losing battle to keep himself sober, Eleanor Parker as the wife manipulating him into staying with her by faking paralysis, and Novak as the kind-hearted woman who really loves him.
Novak has the least showy of the three main roles here, but she gifts her heroine an engaging resilience: loving Sinatra, but refusing to let herself be overwhelmed by him. In a film so heated that it permanently threatens to boil over, it’s her steady, sympathetic turn that keeps everything together.
The Eddy Duchin Story (1956)
Director: George Sidney
Based (somewhat loosely…) on the short, dramatic life of the popular pianist and bandleader of the 1930s and 40s, The Eddy Duchin Story cast Novak as Duchin’s first wife, Marjorie, who helped propel him on the road to stardom.
Despite sharing no chemistry with lead actor Tyrone Power – who, for much of the 20-year-spanning film, is rather distractingly playing a man two decades his junior – Novak again managed to overcome a thinly written character, imbuing her ill-fated love interest with an endearing, stubborn streak. She’s exited the stage by the movie’s midpoint, but her absence leaves a long shadow.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
In easily the most renowned performance in her filmography, Vertigo saw Novak playing the dual role of Madeleine/Judy, who become the obsessions of James Stewart’s troubled ex-detective. Once Madeleine has perished, his crazed determination to remake Judy in her image leads to her downfall.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo – which met with a lukewarm reaction upon its initial release, and is now considered one of the best films ever made – is a grand production, borderline intimidating in its austere chilliness. More than any other single element, it’s Novak’s conflicted, achingly vulnerable portrayal of the doomed heroine(s) that gives the classic its haunted humanity.
Bell Book and Candle (1958)
Director: Richard Quine
The other 1958 collaboration between Novak and Stewart could hardly be more different from its immediate predecessor. In the charming romcom, Novak plays a witch who falls for her regular-guy upstairs neighbour (Stewart) and decides to use magic in order to win him. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensues.
Unlike in Vertigo, this time – and this was a rarity for her career as a whole – it’s Novak’s character who has all the agency. It’s delightful to watch her act from a place of luxuriant, glamorous confidence, orchestrating the major events of the plot, and leaving poor, sweet Jimmy Stewart both befuddled and, well, bewitched…
Middle of the Night (1959)
Director: Delbert Mann
Novak was often paired with leading men at least twice her age, but it was only in Middle of the Night where the cavernous gap was integral to the plot. She stars as Betty, a lonesome secretary in her early twenties who falls into a romantic relationship with her boss Jerry (Fredric March), more than 30 years her senior. The families of both are aghast.
Betty is anguish personified – desperately lonely, unsure if she loves Jerry or the security he represents, wracked with guilt at the thought of hurting him. As she would in the next year’s Strangers When We Meet, another film about a forbidden romance, Novak approaches that inner tumult with wrenching sensitivity.
The Notorious Landlady (1962)
Director: Richard Quine
Considered ‘notorious’ because she’s widely suspected of killing her husband, Novak’s titular pariah is grateful to find an ally in Jack Lemmon’s besotted tenant. The two embark upon a madcap quest to prove her innocent… but is she?
The last of four films she made with director Richard Quine, The Notorious Landlady allows Novak the unusual opportunity to do broad comedy (the slapstick finale is a sight to behold) while also playing a heroine with real nuance. Her skill in both the dramatic and comic arenas, plus her well-established easy rapport with Lemmon, makes the journey a wildly enjoyable one.
The Mirror Crack’d (1980)
Director: Guy Hamilton
The Mirror Crack’d is an Agatha Christie adaptation that sees a host of classic movie stars – besides Novak, the cast is headlined by Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis – transported to England, where they find themselves suspects in a murder investigated by none other than Miss Marple (Angela Lansbury).
Embracing high camp, Novak and Taylor play actress rivals who delight in beaming as they trade venomous barbs (“I’m so glad to see that you’ve not only kept your gorgeous figure, but you’ve added so much to it!”). By 1980, Novak’s film appearances had become a rarity, but her performance in The Mirror Crack’d is arguably the funniest of her entire career.
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