Top Ten Kim Novak Films
Kim Novak is possibly the most enigmatic beauty to ever grace the silver screen. Dubbed the “lavender blonde” by the studio publicity department, (who would tint her hair with lavender highlights) she manages to be glamorous and aloof yet still capable of warmth and vulnerability. Though originally intended as competition for Marilyn Monroe (coincidentally, Kim's real name actually is Marilyn), she instead created a film personae very much her own. Her voice is breathy but, rather than cute and childlike, hers is deep and sensual. And far from a dumb blonde, there is always an air of intelligence beneath Kim’s icy beauty. She has become the very personification of the cool blonde, and her indefinable and somewhat mysterious screen presence is unique in the history of film.
Now retired, Kim’s inherent sense of mystery has extended into her real life as well. Rejecting the “Hollywood lifestyle,” she now lives a relatively quiet life in Oregon, raising horses and llamas with her veterinarian husband of 35 years. However, the films Kim has left for us live on, and anyone who has not yet become acquainted with this bewitching beauty, please keep reading! You’ll find here my recommended list of films both for Novak newbies and those who simply wish to know their favorite actress a little bit better.
FYI: I chose the order of my Kim Novak top ten by considering each film's importance in Kim’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Kim Novak film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
1. “VERTIGO” (1958)
Widely considered Hitchcock’s masterpiece and voted the 9th greatest film of all time in the American Film Institute’s most recent top 100 list, this haunting psychological drama will stay with you long after the credits roll. The film centers around John “Scotty” Ferguson (played by James Stewart), a former police detective who has given up his badge after a near-death experience left him with severe acrophobia (the fear of heights). But, Scotty is given one last chance at detective work when an old friend asks him to find out why his wife, Madeleine (Kim), has been acting so erratic lately. Scotty agrees to follow her, but is reluctant to accept his friend’s unusual theory that Madeleine might be possessed. But, as Scotty witnesses Madeleine acting more and more strangely, his interest in her case begins to inch dangerously close to obsession. Vertigo is the film Kim is best remembered for and as the ghostly Madeleine, she seems almost untouchable in her beauty. The movie takes advantage of every aspect of Kim's film personae, from her cool sophisticated side to her vulnerable, down-to-earth qualities. Jimmy Stewart is, also, at his very best in this film, giving an uncharacteristically unnerving performance as the increasingly unstable Scotty.
2. “PICNIC” (1955)
Taking place over a 24-hour period, Picnic (based on the William Inge play) tells the simple story of how a small Midwestern town is rocked by the unexpected arrival of a down-on-his-luck drifter. The drifter, Hal (played by a charismatic William Holden), has come to town hoping to get a job with his old college buddy, Alan, and settle down. But, when Hal finds himself drawn to Alan’s girlfriend, Madge (Kim), he quickly starts to ruffle some feathers. The real draw of this film is the white-hot chemistry between Kim and Holden and their famous “Moonglow” dance sequence is a major highlight. Generally considered the film that made her a star, Kim has never been more adorable or sultry than she is here as the naïve country girl, Madge. Picnic, also, features an incredibly strong supporting cast including: Rosalind Russell as the feisty but lonely schoolmarm, Rosemary, Susan Strasburg (daughter of the famed acting teacher) as Madge’s bookish little sister, Millie, and frequent Disney voice-over artist, Verna Felton (the voice of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, among others), as the sweet Mrs. Potts. Filmed on location in Kansas, Picnic represents a true piece of Americana. Just a simple and quiet film full of interesting characters, telling an undeniably top-notch love story.
3. "THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM" (1955)
Based on the acclaimed novel by Nelson Algren, this gritty drama tells the story of Frankie Machine (played by Frank Sinatra), a recovering heroin addict and card dealer who has just been released from prison after taking the rap for his boss’ illegal card games. Thanks to the prison doctors, Frankie has managed to get clean and now hopes to carve out a new life for himself as a professional drummer. However, people from Frankie’s old life (including his drug dealer, his old boss, and even his supposedly wheelchair-bound wife) threaten to lead him back down old paths. Kim plays the part of Molly, an old flame of Frankie’s who seems to be the only one genuinely concerned for his well-being. Notable for being one of the first films to be released without the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) seal of approval and one of the first to tackle the issue of hard drug use, the film feels as true today as it did 60 years ago. Sinatra gives one of his very best performances as the put-upon Frankie Machine while Kim gives this downbeat film some heart. This powerful film is a must-see for anyone struggling to understand the nature of addiction. And fans of jazz will, also, be interested in its influential and hard-hitting jazz soundtrack.
4. “KISS ME, STUPID” (1964)
Directed by the great Billy Wilder, this cheeky sex comedy stars Dean Martin as a fictionalized (and none too flattering) version of himself, known simply as “Dino”. While on his way back to L.A. after a successful performance in Vegas, Dino finds himself out of gas in the small town of Climax. Aspiring songwriters, Orville (My Favorite Martian’s Ray Walston) and Barney (Cliff Osmond), do everything they can to keep Dino in town, hoping they can sell him one of their songs. Eventually, they convince him to spend the night at Orville's, but his skirt-chasing ways make Orville very nervous about introducing him to his beautiful wife, Zelda. So, Barney hires down-on-her-luck cocktail waitress and part-time call girl, Polly the Pistol (Kim) to imitate Zelda and entertain Dino. But, things quickly get complicated when Polly begins to show more interest in sweet-natured Orville than the voracious Dino. Kiss Me Stupid features one of Kim’s best performances as she practically disappears into the role of tough Jersey girl, Polly. Showing an utter lack of refinement uncharacteristic of most of her roles, she still retains a likable vulnerability. All of the songs in the film (even the comedic numbers) were written by the famed songwriting duo, the Gershwins, even though Ira's brother, George, had passed away some time before. To create new songs for the film, Ira Gershwin, actually, put lyrics to his late brother's unpublished melodies, making this, technically, the Gershwin's last completed score together. Kiss Me, Stupid was considered extremely controversial during its initial release, earning a condemned rating from the Legion of Decency. But, over the passage of time, the good-natured qualities of the film are now much clearer to see and it’s sure to entertain anyone possessing a healthy sense of humor.
5. “PAL JOEY” (1957)
Pal Joey (based on the Broadway musical and book of the same name) marks Kim’s first and only foray into the world of movie musicals, pairing her once again with her co-star from The Man With A Golden Arm, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra is pitch-perfect as the titular Joey Evans, a second-rate singer, shameless flirt, and all around narcissist. After being kicked out of the last town he called home, Joey makes his way to San Francisco where he quickly pushes his way into an MC job at a small nightclub. But, Joey isn’t satisfied with that for long. He soon makes up his mind that he would like to own a nightclub of his very own. To do that, he sets his sights on seducing former burlesque dancer, Vera Simpson (played by Rita Hayworth), now a very rich widow and more than capable of providing him with financial backing. Kim plays Linda English, a good girl from Albuquerque who works at the club as a chorus girl. Linda is, also, the only girl at the club clever enough to see right through Joey’s schemes. And as Joey gets closer and closer to owning the nightclub of his dreams, Linda’s good influence just might have the potential to make even a selfish heel like Joey think twice about his actions. Broadway fans will notice that quite a few changes were made when bringing this musical from the stage to the screen, including softening Joey's nature (just a bit) and changing him from a dancer to a singer. But, whether or not you agree with the changes that were made, there’s no denying the power of this film’s classic Rodgers and Hart score or Sinatra’s iconic performance.
6. “BELL BOOK AND CANDLE” (1958)
Based on a hit Broadway play, Bell Book and Candle takes advantage of Kim’s bewitching good looks and pairs her once again with her Vertigo co-star, Jimmy Stewart (indeed the films were made right after one another). But, this time the love story between Stewart and Kim is much lighter in tone. Kim plays the part of Gillian (or “Gil”), a modern-day witch living alone with her cat familiar, Pyewacket. Gil has become bored with her predictably witchy lifestyle and longs to experience a touch of normalcy. And when she meets her upstairs neighbor, Shep (Stewart), she figures he might be just what she needed. But, when Gil discovers that Shep's engaged to the same girl who made her college life miserable, her passing fancy transforms into a scheme to steal him from her rival once and for all. But, when Gil casts a love spell on Shep, her entire existence as a witch could be in danger as she finds herself falling for him for real. The chemistry Kim and Stewart established in Vertigo, also, serves them extremely well here, in what would become Stewart’s very last romantic role. Often speculated as one of the inspirations for the TV series Bewitched, Bell Book and Candle is an enchanting (no pun intended) romantic comedy that is simply lovely to look at. Not to mention, that Kim (in my opinion) has never looked more beautiful or otherworldly than in this sweet fantasy.
7. “PUSHOVER” (1954)
Here we come to Kim’s very first starring role. Pushover represents one of the last of the film noirs, starring Kim opposite film noir veteran, Fred MacMurray. MacMurray plays the role of Det. Paul Sheridan, an undercover cop assigned to keep a close watch on Lona McLane (Kim), the girlfriend of a notorious bank robber. But, after spending some time with Lona, he finds himself falling for her and the two start an all too real love affair. When Paul’s cover is, eventually, blown, he finds himself willing to put his very career on the line to run away with Lona. But, not before they attempt to make off with her bank robber ex-boyfriend’s loot. Based on a combination of two novels, The Night Watch by Thomas Walsh and Rafferty by William S. Balinger, Pushover makes for a suspenseful film noir. It’s, also, a wonderful film debut for the inexperienced Kim. She gives a mature performance as the glamorous femme fatale, Lona, who might not, actually, turn out to be as bad as she might seem. If you have a hankering for a film noir or a suspenseful cop drama, definitely, give this little gem a try.
8. “THE AMOROUS ADVENTURES OF MOLL FLANDERS” (1965)
A tongue-in-cheek (and beautifully costumed) romantic comedy set in 18th century Europe, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders is, actually, a loose adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel, Moll Flanders. Kim plays the titular Moll, a woman of low station blessed and cursed with beauty that compels, virtually, every man she meets to pursue her. At a young age, she decides to use her “gift” to marry a rich husband and, therefore, further her place in society. However, Moll’s ambition may prove to be her downfall when con artist, Jemmy (played by Kim’s future husband, Richard Johnson), mistakes her for a lady of fortune. Introducing himself as a wealthy ship captain, Moll decides not to correct his assumption of her wealth, believing he could turn out to be the rich husband she has been waiting for. Kim is likable (and at times, adorable) as Moll. She manages the tricky feat of making Moll seem clever and naïve at the same time as she constantly attempts to keep her virtue intact but, inevitably, fails. Granted, the film's extended storyline has the potential of making the film seem longer than it actually is. But, that same forward momentum means that the story takes you to places you honestly don't expect and its unabashed silliness helps make this film an enjoyable experience for anyone willing to take the ride.
9. “STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET” (1960)
Based on a book by Evan Hunter (who, also, wrote the screenplay), Strangers When We Meet is a quiet melodrama that intelligently explores the complex nature of infidelity. Kim stars opposite Kirk Douglas as Margaret, a love-starved housewife frustrated by her husband’s continual indifference. Douglas plays the part of Larry, a man who has, also, become alienated from his spouse. When Margaret and Larry meet, they soon start a steamy love affair. But, these two star-crossed lovers, eventually, realize that they are not living in a vacuum, and they must face the inevitable question of how this affair is going to end. Behind the scenes, Douglas and Kim’s different working styles made for some tense moments on set, but that same tension translates to incredible chemistry on film. Some of the love scenes between Maggie and Larry are absolutely sizzling. But be forewarned, this film can be a little slow-moving in spots and the tone is quite downbeat. That said, this film's talented cast (which includes Walter Matthau and Ernie Kovacs) elevate the subject matter far beyond its melodramatic roots. If you love dramatic character studies, Strangers When We Meet is an entertaining and fascinating film.
10. “THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY” (1956)
This is one of those situations where if Kim’s part was larger, the film itself would be a lot higher on this list. But, even though Kim, certainly, makes her presence felt in this film, the focus really falls on star, Tyrone Power. Immensely popular when it first came out, The Eddy Duchin Story, appropriately enough, tells the tragic life story of popular pianist and bandleader, Eddy Duchin (Power). Kim plays the relatively small, but crucial, role of socialite Marjorie Oelrichs. Marjorie takes it upon herself to become Eddy’s biggest promoter and soon becomes the unequivocal love of his life. She acts as a stabilizing force in his life, supporting and encouraging him throughout his career. However, it seems Eddy’s happiness is not meant to last forever. Tyrone Power gives a pitch-perfect performance as Duchin, even going so far as to do all his own finger work in the piano scenes with incredibly convincing results. Fans of Duchin are likely to be very pleased with this sensitive and reverent bio-pic, even though the facts do get a bit muddled in places. But, of course, it’s a movie, not a documentary. The film, also, features more than enough extended piano scenes to charm any would-be pianist or fan of early “sweet” jazz. And if that doesn’t get you, the bittersweet story of this lovely film romance probably will. This is a very moving film, bound to leave any sentimentalist sniffling into their Kleenex.
HONORABLE MENTION: “JEANNE EAGELS” (1957)
When I first wrote this top ten, I wasn’t going to include an honorable mention since all of my favorite Kim Novak films had been accounted for. But, then I realized that I would be doing a great disservice to Kim by not mentioning her starring role in Jeanne Eagels. Produced and directed by George Sidney, this fictionalized biography of Broadway star (and former Ziegfeld girl), Jeanne Eagels, seems to be a polarizing film among fans. Some absolutely adore it and others completely dismiss it. At its heart, the film is a backstage melodrama about the rise of a star, but it’s really Kim’s presence that makes it worth seeing. She carries the movie beautifully as the determined Jeanne. Although Jeanne Eagels takes many liberties with the real Jeanne's life (such as making her a former “hootchie-kootchie” dancer), it offers a sexy and challenging role for the talented Kim. Simply a must see for Kim Novak fans.
If you would like to learn more about the life and films of the lovely Kim Novak, I highly recommend the book Kim Novak on Camera by Larry Kleno. However, I warn you, it can be quite difficult to find.
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