Archive for Kim Novak

Forbidden Divas: A Lousy Kind of Love

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2019 by dcairns

I’ve been blessed with a trio of great guest-Shadowplayers this week — third up is regular contributor David Wingrove, celebrating the divine Kim N. ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

A Lousy Kind of Love

“Everybody was always sleeping at my house. That’s the one thing I’ll always remember. Everybody was always sleeping.”

–         Kim Novak, Middle of the Night

At a booze-fuelled New Year’s Eve shindig somewhere in upstate New York, one overdressed matron turns to Kim Novak and says: “You’re a very attractive young woman.” The understatement is so glaring that it provides a rare moment of hilarity in Middle of the Night (1959) a film that is otherwise quite relentlessly glum. Here as in most of her films, Kim Novak has a quality that is almost translucent – like a Classical Grecian head carved exquisitely on a priceless antique cameo. If she has a limitation as an actress, it is that she is just too luminously beautiful to play a woman who is in any way plain or ordinary or dull. It is no accident that her most successful roles – and the ones audiences remember – show her as haunted by some queer and otherworldly presence. The witch who longs to be a mortal in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) or the girl who may be a ghost in Vertigo (1958) or the starlet possessed by a dead movie queen in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968).

The whole point of Kim Novak is that she is not quite real. Yet there she is on a screen just in front of us. It is enough to make you believe dreams do come true, after all. So whose idea was it to cast her as a dowdy secretary – lonely, divorced and embittered – suffering through a May-December romance with her much-older boss (Fredric March)? The script delineates him repeatedly as 56 (!) but he and the other characters carry on as if he were well into his eighties and reliant on life support. Kim gives the role her considerable all and turns in a jittery, nervy and overemphatic performance. She suggests a Vogue cover girl who has been required, in the middle of a shoot, to play Nora in A Doll’s House. Her work is never embarrassing but, on a scale of conviction, it ranks somewhere between Michelle Pfeiffer as a frumpy greasy spoon waitress in Frankie and Johnny (1991) and Catherine Deneuve as a grimy Mid-Western factory worker in Dancer in the Dark (2000). An audience can only resent these women in their futile attempts to look ordinary. Most of us can do that more than adequately for ourselves.

Middle of the Night is based on a Broadway play by Paddy Chayefsky – who was, in the 50s, a sort of Tennessee Williams for socially conscious New York Jewish heterosexuals. March plays a wealthy businessman in the Garment District who has recently lost his wife. He is bored by his domineering and over-protective sister and his materialistic, rather vulgar offspring. He is irritated beyond endurance by his business partner (Albert Dekker) who boasts relentlessly about his sexual exploits with “tootsies.” Of course, Dekker has a secret. (Is there anyone in a Chayefsky play who does not have a secret?) That secret is revealed portentously towards the end of the film. This self-styled ladies’ man is, in fact, impotent. This being the 50s, the dialogue puts it rather more coyly: “I haven’t been good for a woman for two years.” All this palpable middle-aged angst is used as ‘motivation’ for the fact that March feels irresistible attracted to his young secretary. Does a man actually require motivation to feel attracted to Kim Novak? Some might say that all he requires is a pulse. Failing that, an artificial pacemaker will do just as well.

As the secretary, Kim tries her damnedest to look like someone’s idea of an everyday working girl. The credits reveal that her plain and sensible wardrobe was specially designed for her by Jean Louis. That is an indication of just how well she succeeds. Being a Chayefsky character, she has had no end of pain in her own life. She is recovering from a disastrous three-year marriage to a jazz musician. Although the script is too decorous to say so, it is clear their mutual attraction was based entirely on Sex. (Tennessee Williams would have made him a truck-driver or a dock-worker and posed him provocatively in a tight-fitting string vest, but Chayefsky has no flair for eroticism of any sort. A dash of Raw Sex might actually stop his characters yacking for five minutes.) Having been so badly bruised emotionally, Kim is all too vulnerable to the attentions of this adoring older man. She enters into an affair with March – but more as a relief, it seems, than as any sort of erotic awakening. To his considerable amazement, she accepts his proposal of marriage.

Incredibly enough, Kim’s mother (Glenda Farrell) turns out to be the only working-class mother in captivity who objects to her daughter marrying a kindly and courteous older man with lots of money. She urges her to dump March and go back to her penniless, two-timing musician. Why? Chayefsky’s pretensions to gritty realism are hollow at the best of times – but this particular piece of dramaturgy reveals what a fundamentally absurd writer he is. Kim gets the same argument from her best friend, who is played by Lee Grant in one of her first movie roles. Lee Grant is by no means a more gifted screen actress than Kim Novak. She is simply more adept at playing Paddy Chayefsky’s brand of highly polished, impeccably crafted junk. Nobody could ever make a silent film out of a Chayefsky play. Like that of Neil Simon (his comedic alter ego) his work consists of dialogue and nothing but. Yet Novak, like Garbo, has the ability to convey more with a mute flicker of an eyebrow than most actors with a full-blown Shakespeare solo. She slogs her way dutifully through this thick verbal porridge, like Garbo in the film of Anna Christie (1930).

It is not entirely a surprise when Kim – assailed by self-doubts and brow-beating from her family circle – gives in to temptation and has a one-night stand with her no-good ex-husband. She makes the mistake of telling March (again, why?) and he takes the news rather badly.  He tells the poor girl that hers is “a lousy kind of love.” Having been adapted with painful fidelity by Chayefsky himself, the script splits their relationship into easily digestible dramatic chunks. The lovers go from fancying one another (Act One) to adoring one another madly (Act Two) to being unable to stand the sight one another (Act Three) with barely a hint of transition in between. That is the way plays work. Alas, it is the way films do not. The director Delbert Mann (who won an Oscar for his 1955 film of Chayefsky’s Marty) dishes it all up with stifling reverence – as if it were Strindberg, at the very least.  It takes an acute visual sense to make a successful film of a stage play, as David Lean did with Blithe Spirit (1945) or Alain Resnais did with Mélo (1986). Judging from his work here, Mann seems to lack any visual sense of any sort.

Alfred Hitchcock, who immortalised Kim Novak a year before in Vertigo, complained famously that most movies are just “photographs of people talking.” It’s too bad that Middle of the Night is barely even that.

David Melville

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I can’t die! I haven’t seen The Eddie Duchin Story yet!

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on August 22, 2018 by dcairns

Apparently the above is a line in a Three Stooges short. Well, I was surprised to find this relatively obscure Columbia Pictures biopic in a charity shop, so I bought it. It’s George Sidney! I figured it had to have some interest.

Well — it stars Tyrone Power, who taught himself to play piano in the distinctive Duchin style. And Kim Novak, who has entirely different makeup from her later roles, and looks VERY different — different mouth, different eyebrows — not those big painted Groucho jobs she sports in VERTIGO. The movie makes a surprising effort to create period style — I guess nostalgia is what it was selling, otherwise why the hell make a film about this guy at the height of rock ‘n’ roll? — but, as Fiona said, “Kim’s hair is just Kim’s hair.”

Good support from the dependable James Whitmore  “It’s him from THEM!” I declared.And it’s written by VERTIGO scribe Samuel Taylor, who has to struggle with Eddie’s apparent failure to live an eventful, dramatically structured life. The key moments — his wife’s death, the war and his own illness and death — are problematically random. Taylor comes up with some partial solutions, tying things together with little foreshadowings and callbacks, but he can’t really make a story out of decades of playing the piano. The best stuff is when Duchin struggles with fatherhood after losing his wife.

And the best best stuff is with Rex Thompson as that son. He plays piano real good for a little guy (he was about thirteen) and all his line readings and responses seem marvelously spontaneous and raw. Tyrone Power, rather too old for the role, works hard and attacks the emotional moments head-on, rather too bluntly sometimes, but Thompson just seems to exist, in character and in the scene. The only problem with this is he rather shows up the artifice in the performances by the eager and earnest adult leads,He’s still alive, Rex. Let’s toast him! Good job, kid.

George Sidney, an old hand at musicals, creates a couple of set-pieces here, but after all, there’s only so much he can do with a man playing the piano. But, fair play to him, he does it: swish pans, dutch tilts, overhead views of the keyboard, and several shots taken from inside the instrument itself, looking out through the lid by some kind of X-ray vision. He refuses to let things get any duller than they absolutely have to.

And Taylor’s writing and Sidney’s filming really get it together for the ending, which stage’s the protagonist’s demise in non-literal, poetic terms, with a subjective camera shot that pulls back out of the character’s position and up into space, like an out-of-body experience only the body has gone. Eddie has, in a sense, BECOME the camera shooting this movie — that invisible, intangible omniscient observer, the ghost or soul that sees all and remembers all.

STOP PRESS: DVD of PAL JOEY found in charity shop. Purchased. More George Sidney, yay!

Scottie Ferguson Investigates

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2018 by dcairns

To Edinburgh Filmhouse, to investigate Park Circus’s release of Universal’s new 4K restoration of Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, a dazzling sight. Not only does the painstaking work turn back the clock on the wear and tear the film suffered before its previous restoration, but it undoes some of the less thoughtful decisions of that controversial face-lift — gone are the shockingly modern-sounding, ricochet-heavy gunshots from the opening chase scene, replaced with more period-appropriate BLAM-BLAM FX I don’t know if they’re the ones Hitchcock originally used (whereas the Robert A. Harris/James C. Katz job junked all the original FX and added all-new foley, this one was reportedly able to salvage about half the original footsteps, doors, guns, etc).

When Hitch walks by with his horn, and Scottie (James Stewart) turns in at the entrance to visit his shady friend, you can actually read the headlines on the news-stand here. I don’t have the film on Blu-Ray, nor do I own a massive TV or projector, but I’m uncertain anyone ever saw these before. There’s a story along the lines of COMPANY DIRECTOR AND SECRETARY FOUND MURDERED. The secretary might be Marion Crane, from Hitchcock’s next again feature, I guess. The company boss might be Brenda Blaney, director of the marital agency in FRENZY. Fanciful, I know. But the headline sounds a note of warning right before Scottie meets Elster, and the warning includes a company director, a woman, and murder.

That’s the kind of thing that’s so on-the-nose it SHOULD be small, otherwise you get the hilarious LUCKY TO BE ALIVE headline in EYES WIDE SHUT, the dumbest thing I’ve ever read off the screen.

A little over halfway through the film, when Scottie is reduced to wandering the streets (like sad, mad Carlotta in the story), he keeps thinking he sees the departed Madeleine. And he does: even in this giant longshot, in 4K you can see that it’s genuinely Kim Novak coming out of the building and chatting to the doorman. But, after a brief reaction shot of Scottie, the figure appears subtly different — Novak has been replaced by Lee Patrick (associated with another San Francisco detective — she was Sam Spade’s secretary, the estimable Effie, in THE MALTESE FALCON). On my DVD I can kind of see this, but I could never be sure.

(I’m told that the tiny Novak in this shot, hovering above the hedgerow on the right, is also quite identifiable if you have the 2014 Blu-Ray and a biggish screen.)

This substitution trick was first played by Hitch in SABOTAGE, when Sylvia Sidney thinks she sees her slain little brother in the street — cutting quickly, Hitch first shows the boy we know, then replaces him with a stranger. A heartbreaking and uncanny moment in a film Hitch was never really satisfied with. So he replays the effect, multiple times, here.

VERTIGO is constantly mirroring itself — replaying scenes from earlier. Scottie revisits the places he associates with Madeleine, and each time he thinks he sees her, and Hitch pulls the same gag. Returning to Ernie’s, where he first saw Madeleine, he sees her again, and it’s definitely Novak. One reaction-shot later, and she’s been switched for a pod person.

Only in the gallery scene does Hitchcock resist the temptation to slip a Novak in: the young woman studying the Portrait of Carlotta remains stubbornly herself.

But, obedient to the Rule of Three, Hitch has another spectral walk-on by Novak later, AFTER Scottie has met up with Judy, who really is (sort-of) Madeleine ~

Fiona: “Her arms are MASSIVE.” (Not criticising, just impressed.)

Back at Ernie’s, Scottie looks past Judy and sees Madeleine — two Kim Novaks in the same shot. The fact that Hitchcock routinely uses rear projection stops this effects shot seeming that out of the ordinary. But though Scottie clearly registers surprise, I’m not sure I’d ever seen what was surprising him before. If I had, I’d forgotten it, and seeing the film so much sharper made me feel I was seeing it anew. Madeleine, in that familiar grey suit, enters Ernie’s (in the distance, to the left of Judy)

There’s a reaction shot of Scottie — he notices Judy has noticed him looking — and he furtively looks at his plate. Judy looks over her shoulder, and in Scottie’s POV we see that her doppelganger has been replaced by the shiny-faced intruder from the previous Ernie’s manifestation.

So, Scottie, having found Judy, is still satisfied. His subconscious is still seeking Madeleine as she was. And he knows these visions are hallucinatory, he knows he’s still crazy, but he knows he has to act sane and not admit to them…

Maybe I never caught this moment because I was too fascinated by the sight of Novak eating.

And then he starts the creepy makeover thing with Judy. And this time, I formulated a new theory (or so I thought) about what he’s up to. I call it the second murder plot.

You see, according to this theory, Scottie is not just trying to make Judy look just like Madeleine so he can have sex with her and pretend Madeleine’s alive. That’s part of it, the part he can admit to himself but not to her. But I think there’s another scheme, that he can’t even consciously recognize.

In the first half of the film, Scottie, a natural sceptic (a Scot, like the hero of MARY ROSE, Hitch’s unmade ghost story), has become convinced that the dead can possess the living. And the way this happens is when the living first become obsessed by the dead. When Madeleine wears Carlotta’s jewellery, gazes at her portrait, styles her hair with that vertiginous whorl, visits Carlotta’s home and her grave, she gradually gives herself up to Carlotta’s spirit.

So it would make sense that, styling Judy after Madeleine, Scottie is preparing a new body for Madeleine’s spirit to inhabit. Judy, who doesn’t matter to him, can be replaced by the departed loved one, an inversion of Elster’s replacing wife Madeleine with lover Judy (everything in VERTIGO seems to get replaced, repeated, mirror-flipped at some point).

It’s a frightful scheme, perhaps worse than Elster’s. But maybe we’d all do it, if we thought it could work.

NB: Novak is brilliant as Judy. If we study her performance as she walks through the green fog effect, we can see that she’s definitely still Judy as she emerges.

Counter-arguments: if this interpretation is wrong, it’s because of two things. One (1), there isn’t an obvious moment where we can see Scottie hatching this plan. It’s more like a series of increments, with Scottie fixating on Judy’s clothes, then her hair, etc. I would normally expect Hitchcock to crystallise the moment the scheme comes into focus, but here it kind of doesn’t, because Scottie never admits it to himself. Two (2), after the big motel room special effects love scene, Scottie seems content to be with Judy, even though she’s still talking like Judy, evidently hasn’t been taken over by Madeleine’s spirit. He seems content with his makeover. But something hallucinatory/supernatural happened to him in that green fog. Like he thinks Madeleine took over just for the sex (Judy was smart enough to keep her mouth shut) and he can get her back anytime.

And now that I reread my piece from Hitchcock Year, I find that I was onto Scottie’s scheme back then, and that it’s spelled out in the novel. I forget many things. But this one was worth rediscovering and spending some more time on, I think.