Kim Novak

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Kim Novak Pencil Portrait
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The detective turned private eye turns nonchalantly from the bar, to observe the strikingly attired woman dining with her husband. As he watches her, he is overcome with a vision of erotic mystique, as some powerful hidden force renders him almost incapable of diverting his gaze back to the half empty glass in front of him. Eventually the couple finish their meal and as they depart the restaurant, the woman serenely floats by like a tableau vivant, slow and stately in her black evening gown and green cape. She pauses in front of him, in voluptuous Olympian profile, with a luminosity that matches every contour of her beautiful face. The man is transfixed and this unusual assignment will draw him into a primal, elemental drama in love and sex.

The film is “Vertigo” and the woman who will overwhelm James Stewart’s sensibilities is Kim Novak.

The character that Stewart plays in the film, John “Scottie” Ferguson is a retired San Francisco police detective who suffers from acrophobia and Madeleine is the lady who leads him to high places. Scottie is approached by a wealthy shipbuilder, an acquaintance from college days who asks him to follow his beautiful wife, Madeleine. He fears she is going insane, maybe even contemplating suicide, because she believes she is possessed by a dead ancestor. Scottie is sceptical, but agrees after he sees the beautiful Madeleine.

Over the course of a near twenty minute sequence, beautifully punctuated by Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, Scottie follows her on her visits to the art gallery, public cemetery and high street store before rescuing her from an apparent suicide attempt when she jumps into the San Francisco bay. He becomes acquainted with her over the course of several meetings and is overcome by feelings of love for this woman.

This portion of the film is totally gripping, a superb juxtaposition of visual and musical imagery and even today, renders many CGI generated epics redundant. It is thought provoking, a near perfect encapsulation of the male perception of womanhood in its most naive and youthful form, yet in the film it is happening to a man in his late forties. It is at this point that Herrmann introduces most of the supporting motives for Vertigo. The first, introduced in Madeleine’s First Appearance, is a mournful theme for the object of Scottie’s desire, played exclusively on strings. This variation on the film’s love theme is more restrained suggesting the latent passion within the beleaguered private eye. The second cue “Madeleine’s Car”, features a lazy woodwind melody over a syncopated ostinato, which acts as a precursor to one of the forthcoming motives in Psycho. “The Flower Shop” takes this melody and removes the ostinato, playing it completely in high-range strings. “The Alleyway” continues the romantically mysterious mood with a slightly more ominous string melody, along with yet another statement of the woodwind theme. “The Mission” highlights the creepy electronic organ and introduces a new tension motif, somewhat based on this track’s woodwind theme. “The Graveyard” takes the string presentation of the woodwind theme and adds a bass clarinet accompaniment, as well as new supporting chords. As the liner notes say, one of the most intriguing aspects of this score is Herrmann’s use of the chromatic scale, which finds its place into this cue. “Tombstone” is a short cue consisting of a few giant chords in the clarinet choir.

The ultimate Herrmann resource can be located at

The site is a marvellous tribute to the composer inextricably linked with Alfred Hitchcock’s most successful period although his work throughout was of an inordinantly high quality. Interestingly the new 2012 critics poll from the British Film Institute has declared Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ the best film ever, dislodging Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane after half a century. Film fans may argue about their relative merits but interestingly Herrmann wrote the scores for both and his influence was palpable. George Martin’s score for strings for The Beatles “Eleanor Rigby” was heavily influenced by Herrmann’s work on Francois Trufaut’s “Fahrenheit 401,” a soundtrack only just released to the general public at the time the band reconvened at Abbey Road studios in the spring of 1966 to record their seminal masterwork “Revolver.” I would urge the uninitiated to discover this composer’s oeuvre for his musical stamp on “Virtigo” dogs every tortuous step of Scottie’s descent into recrimination and ultimately, emotional breakdown

As the days pass, Madeleine appears to become more emotionally unstable and and when they visit an old mission church he is unable to stop her from climbing to the top of the steeple, owing to his vertigo, whereupon she falls to her death. A subsequent inquiry finds that she committed suicide but faults Scottie for not stopping her in the first place. Several months later, he meets Judy Barton, a woman who is the spitting image of Madeleine. He can’t explain it, but she is identical to the woman who died. He tries to re-make her into Madeleine’s image by getting her to dye her hair and wear the same type of clothes. He soon begins to realize however that he has been duped and was a pawn in a complex piece of theatre that was meant to end in tragedy

Hitchcock’s ‘Virtigo’ was adapted from “D’entre les morts”, (“from among the dead”), a 1954 crime novel by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud. In a departure from the norm, the book pales in comparison to the motion picture. Unfortunately, for many years the film was not available to the general public as Hitchcock took it out of circulation and exercised his rights in having available print copies destroyed.

It is apparent from this article that the director was shoring up his investments and raising the financial marketability of several key movies for future exploitation; any suggestion of widespread unavailability as being reflective of their lack of quality patently wide of the mark. I went to see “Virtigo” at the cinema in 1984 along with “The man who knew too much” and “Rear Window”. Yes, it was obvious Leslie Halliwell would be able to buy prints for ITV transmission in the foreseeable future but I wanted to experience the films on the big screen. My friends were incredulous; “full price for movies older than you are!” How could I respond? Perhaps if cyberspace had been around I might have started a website in order to explain.

Miss Novak continued acting after “Virtigo” but none of her subsequent roles had comparable impact. There are no currently available books on her life and after a hard drive malfunction erased considerable work to date, she appears to have abandoned any thoughts of an autobiography. In the 50’s she was romantically involved with Sammy Davis Junior, a relationship that contravened the ‘morals clause’ within their studio contracts. They were compelled to choose between their careers and their love for one another and unsurprisingly for Hollywood, professional aspirations prevailed. In Sammy’s case, a mob contract to kill him lest he marry a black girl within forty eight hours was probably sufficient motivation.

In 2012 Novak told an audience at the TCM Classic Film Festival that she had bipolar disorder, and sometimes regreted her decision to leave Hollywood in the late 1960s at the height of her fame.

The star of such films as “Vertigo,” “Pal Joey,” and “Picnic,” Novak was teary-eyed and emotional when she told Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne before an audience of about 300 people at the Avalon in Hollywood that she suffered from mental illness while making those films.

“I’m bipolar … but there’s medicine you can take for this now,” Novak said. “I was not diagnosed until much later. I go through more of the depression than the mania part.”

Bipolar, a sympathetic description of manic depression, causes severe mood swings, that usually last several weeks or months and can encompass three states of mind;

(1)Low mood, intense depression and despair.
(2)High or ‘manic’ feelings of joy, over-activity and loss of inhibitions.
(3)A ‘mixed state’ such as a depressed mood with the restlessness and over-activity of a manic episode.

I can but applaud individuals who live with partners who have this illness; it’s a complaint I have no academic capacity, nor inclination to deal with. In many instances I can but presume that most individuaals do not recognise this trait in their partners until they are embroiled in a full time relationship.

Reflecting on her career and her early position as a top box-office draw, Novak recounted how she was never nominated for an Oscar and struggled against notions of what kind of roles she should play as an attractive blond in Hollywood. Highlighting my interest in her as a movie afficionado, she summed up her battles with studio heads by adding;

“I couldn’t play a beach girl, and I needed something complicated because I was complicated.”

She was branded as difficult, Novak said, in part because she rejected attempts by studio executives to define and control her. At one point, they wanted her to take the name “Kit Marlowe” and wear her makeup like Joan Crawford did; at another, they prohibited her friendship with Sammy Davis Jr., saying it was too provocative.

Columbia Pictures President “Harry Cohn said, “you can’t see him,” Novak said, of Davis. “It really bothered me that people would mind our being friends. I guess I was not a person of the times.”

Novak said her father suffered from depression, and her difficult childhood in Chicago prepared her, in a way, for Hollywood.

“I was used to having conflict in the home, so having conflict on a set … felt normal,” she said. But she ultimately found the emotional pressures of the industry too much to bear, and moved to Big Sur to paint. She has acted sporadically since then, but her career never regained its early momentum. There has, for some time, been talk of an exhibition of her artistic work in aid of mental health philanthropies and naturally, I would be interested in viewing it.

“I don’t think I was ever cut out to have a Hollywood life,” Novak said. “Did I do the right thing, leaving? Did I walk out when I shouldn’t have? That’s when I get sad.” Today, she lives in Oregon with her husband, an equine veterinarian, and their five horses. .

In 2004 she have a lengthy interview on the Larry King Live show, a transcript of which is available via

In life, we have to respect an individual’s need for privacy, yet in the face of an overwhelming number of testimonials and reminiscenses to the contrary, she appears in denial of her romantic involvements with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior. Of her one year marriage in the mid 60’s to the english actor Richard Johnson, there is the briefest of mentions and the pair are said still to be good friends. I would love someone to define this glib statement that appears regularly in the press. What are “good friends”? Divorced couples who never sully each other’s reputation in the press? Individuals who maintain regular contact with inexplicable consent from their new partners? Ex-partners who remain civil for the sake of their siblings? In any event the couple had none. All very interesting.

Unfortunately, in her 70’s she appears to have succumbed to cosmetic surgery on more than one occasion. The 2004 photograph of her in the website link below appears eerily reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s makeup from the 1989 ‘Batman’ movie when he stole the acting honours as the caped crusader’s arch enemy, The Joker. It makes me sad that so many actresses cannot age gracefully, yet the temptation to undergo a surgical procedure seems both an enduring and inordinately strong one. Since I spend copious amounts of time studying facial characteristics it never ceases to amaze me that these celebrities seemingly remain satisfied with the results of their operations.

Simply pulling skin tight generates an unnatural look since the vision of youth is associated with a cherubic face replete with puffy cheeks. In order to determine why so many people with face-lifts look “windswept” instead of youthful, recent medical research has collected three-dimensional CT scans of the skulls of about 60 adults. The idea was to look deep beneath the sagging skin and soft tissue, and focus instead on the underlying bone. When the research specialists grouped the scans according to age — young, middle age, and 65 and older in order to ascertain careful measurements of the various dimensions of the face, a pattern emerged. Apparently, it’s not just skin that droops with age, but the facial bones shift and wither with time, too. Unfortunately nobody told Miss Novak.

In 2014, she would reportedly shock the audience at the Oscars ceremony with an appearance that mirrored excessive plastic surgery. The Tv presenter Kirstie Allsopp, was among those who suggested that Novaks’s frozen face and plumped cheeks made her a poor role model for women.

Recommended listening

Virtigo [original soundtrack] Bernard Herrmann 1958

In 1995, Varèse Sarabande, an American record label distributed by Universal Music Group which specializes in film scores and original cast recordings, released a new recording of the ‘Vertigo’ score with Joel McNeely conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. This recording boasted much better sound quality over the then 37-year-old original soundtrack recording, and it included almost twice as much of the score.

I was financially tempted by the release but procrastinated and my patience was rewarded the following year when research conducted during the two-year-long restoration of ‘Vertigo’ by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz uncovered the original master recordings of the music score at Paramount Pictures. These stereo masters were used in the new 5.1 mix of the film, as well as a much expanded CD of the original soundtrack recording.

This CD is 64 minutes long (with the selection of cues closely matching that of the McNeely recording). Unfortunately, the tapes had not been stored under the best of conditions, and deficiencies can be heard in some spots. The CD liner notes state that the music track for the cue “The Graveyard” was too damaged to be included. For the 5.1 mix, the film restoration team was forced to lift the audio for the sequence from a music and effects reel located in Spain. However, 13 other (mostly minor) cues in the film are missing from the expanded soundtrack CD without explanation. Several can be cleanly extracted from the 5.1 mix of the film, indicating that the music tracks for some of these cues survive and were used for the new mix.Some parts of the CD are in stereo, and other parts are in mono. This is due to the London cues being recorded in stereo and the Vienna cues in mono. Whatever the convoluted background to this soundtrack masterpiece, I had to have the original recordings out of blind loyalty to Bernatrd Herrmann, who remains to this day one of my all time musical heroes.

Recommended viewing

Picnic (1955)

Hal (William Holden), is smitten with Madge (Kim Novak) after their dance together in a film that offers a richly detailed snapshot of life in the American Midwest, before the advent of rock’n‘roll. It won two Academy awards and was nominated for four more.

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Frank Sinatra brings his usual insouciance and bravado to the role of Frankie machine but only Kim Novak’s hostess Molly can see the carefully disguised heart of gold within him. Beauty and compassion are evident within every nuance of Novak’s portrayal and the uplifting end a fitting reward for the protagonist’s travails.

Vertigo (1958)

Hitchcock’s masterwork (see above).

Of human bondage (1964)

Opinions are divided as to whether Novak wrestled the acting honours from Bette Davis and her earlier portrayal in a screen adaptation of W. somerset Maughn’s novel yet divorced from this argument she acquits herself well in one of her best ever roles as the heartless, immoral Mildred Rogers who eventually succumbs to syphilis.

Pal Joey (1957)

Jeanne Eagels (1957)

Bell, Book & candle (1958)

Middle of the night (1959)

Scripter Paddy Chayevsky altered his successful stageplay for this routine cinematic version of ‘Middle of the Night,’ emphasizing the self-centred interests of the relatives and friends who surround Jerry Kingsley (Fredric March). Jerry is a widower, a lonely but successful clothing manufacturer who falls in love with Betty Preisser (Kim Novak), one of his employees. The employee-boss relationship is one hurdle the erstwhile couple have to overcome, another is the thirty-year difference in their ages, and the last is the attitudes of the couples’ relatives — each close relative (mother, daughter, sister) feeling marginalised by the relationship, left out in the cold, forgotten. These attitudes do not bode well for the proposed nuptials yet the film ends on a downbeat air of optimism, however shortlived the couples’ relationship may be.

Director Delbert Mann, best known for his 1955, award-winning “Marty,” coaxed first rate performances from his leading stars yet problems persist when re-evaluating the movie. March was 62, his character 56, and his appearance closer to that of a septuagenarian. Whatever his credentials as an actor and there were many – two Oscar winning performances in “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” (1931) and “The best years of our lives” (1945), plus numerous other first rate performances – the film retains the feel of an emotional leap too far.

It’s nonetheless, a touching performance from both March and Novak, even though watching the movie, I remained uncomfortable by the implausibility of it all. Jerry falls hard for Betty, irrationally so, for the promise of continued vitality and the love he hopes he’s not kidding himself about seeing in her. She, coming out of a bad marriage to a musician her own age, finds his maturity, decency, emotional solidity and – let’s be frank about this – bank balance, reassuring, whilst not untouched by his obvious passion for her. As everyone connected to them wrings their hands and expresses misgivings, the question remains whether the couple can make the May-December match-up work.

Jerry’s fears, his jealousy of every young man who comes into Betty’s vision, potentially displacing him, are countered by Betty’s low self-esteem. At one point, early on in the courtship, she tells her would be suitor: “If you weren’t such a decent man, you’d probably make out better with me.” Despite his rekindled ardour, Jerry knows an enduring relationship is defined by what happens fully clothed and vertical, rather than naked and horizontal, and he’s too mature to be anything but himself around her. As they internalise their feelings on a park bench, the couple are each honest enough to acknowledge that a break-up would also carry with it a certain relief, a mutual exchange of exposure and emotional risk for the safe haven of a loveless harbour.

Along the way, Betty attempts her own version of subconscious sabotage when her ex-husband pays a surprise visit after more than a year apart. It is left to Jerry to decide how to deal with his inner torment and loneliness. At the film’s conclusion, he’s compelled to think for the pair of them……

Novak’s detractors – and she boasted more than a few amongst film critics – repeatedly argued that her looks far outstripped her acting abilities. In role after role, she seemed tentative, in over her head. But in ‘Vertigo’ (1958), Alfred Hitchcock recognised that the vulnerability she radiated would be a tremendous asset in the character of a woman being remade to fit Jimmy Stewart’s male fantasies. One year on, the director Delbert Mann saw it, too. Novak’s Betty is touching because she convinces us she’s vulnerable, an insecure woman who doesn’t know what she wants, much less how to get it.

Recommended reading

Kim Novak on Camera (Larry Kleno) 1981

Some well researched biographical information suitably adorned with pictorial galleries, this volume is sadly long out of print.

Until a reprint becomes available a timely reminder of the actress at her photogenic best can be located at

kim Novak – Glamour girl of the silverscreen


Novak on the US Tv show ‘What’s my line?’ – the 5 February 1956 edition.