Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Kim Novak in VERTIGO: A Hypnotic Presence

by guest contributor Brandie Ashe

Scratch the surface of the prototypical “Hitchcock blonde”—a cool, reserved exterior masking a fiery and determinedly passionate woman—and the subtle differences in their characterizations become more evident.  In her three films for the director, Grace Kelly’s characters are paragons of dignity, displaying a patrician façade that eventually gives way to a sizzling sexuality. Tippi Hedren’s two characters for Hitchcock have an overt veneer of sophistication that nonetheless belies an innate playfulness at the heart of each woman.  And in her three films for Hitch, Ingrid Bergman is the foreign exotic who smolders with a hint of endearing uncertainty.

But when it comes to the star of Hitchcock’s 1958 ode to obsession, Vertigo, the director carefully crafts yet another embodiment of flawed femininity: the duplicitous double—caught in a web of her own making—whose love for an equally flawed man will ultimately be her undoing. And to embody this complex creature, he turns (for the first and only time in his career) to a twenty-five year old relative newcomer, Kim Novak.

By the time she starred in Vertigo, Novak had appeared in only a handful of films over the previous five years. Her breakthrough came in 1955’s Picnic, in which she played a small-town Kansas beauty who falls for William Holden. That same year, Novak played Frank Sinatra’s love interest in the controversial Otto Preminger film about heroin addiction, The Man with the Golden Arm. She played early Broadway and screen star Jeanne Eagels in the same-titled biopic in 1957, and reteamed with Sinatra in the film version of the successful musical Pal Joey.

In just a matter of three years, her small body of work, along with her stunning all-American blonde looks, garnered Novak a great deal of attention. But some film critics at the time were dismissive of Novak’s acting ability. A.H. Weiler’s New York Times review of Pal Joey called her performance merely “decorative,” and the same paper’s review of her performance in Jeanne Eagels wondered what “possessed Columbia to cast this comparative fledgling … as one of Broadway’s immortals” (though the reviewer did, in all fairness, go on to ultimately blame the film’s many problems on the lackluster script and direction).

Still, despite critics’ opinions of her talent, it is undeniable that in some of her roles, there is an almost hypnotic quality to Novak’s presence on the screen. Watch, for example, her sensual dance with William Holden in Picnic. As the strains of “Moonglow” play in the background, Novak begins to dance, her movements slow and deliberate, her eyes focused solely on her partner as they circle one another. She draws him—and us—in with a mere smoldering glance, a twitch of her hips, a slight swaying movement. The sexual tension is palpable, and it’s hard to take your eyes off Novak in the moment.

Of all of the directors with whom the actress worked during her career, only Hitchcock was fully able to exploit this stirring hypnotic quality and use it to full advantage on the screen. In the process, the prolific director ultimately drew out of Novak what is arguably the greatest performance of her career.

Vera Miles
Novak was not the original choice to play Madeleine/Judy. Hitchcock had initially cast Vera Miles, with whom he had a heavy-handed personal contract. Hitchcock had adopted a Svengali-like attitude with Miles, trying to craft her into “his” type of actress by dictating her appearance and building her into a kind of Grace Kelly clone (as Hitch had recently lost his favorite star to Monaco’s Prince Rainier). But Miles was forced to drop out of the project due to pregnancy, and as a result, Hitchcock lost interest in the actress (though he would still go on to cast her as Janet Leigh’s sister in 1960’s Psycho). Years later, he would tell Francois Truffaut, “She became pregnant just before the part that was going to turn her into a star.”

It’s interesting to consider how closely Scottie’s attempts to “make over” Judy into “lost” love Madeleine mirror Hitchcock’s own attempts to craft Miles into the “perfect” cinematic star. More than any other film in his oeuvre, Vertigo represents Hitchcock’s cinematic quest to “build” the perfect woman, one made over in precisely the image he desires. To put it bluntly, Novak’s Madeleine/Judy most clearly embodies the old idiom (fully embraced by Hitchcock) that men want a lady in the drawing room and a whore in the bedroom. To that end, the character is a subtly sexy blonde whose deceptively icy, composed, and chic appearance hides a shrewd mind and a leashed, but potentially voracious sexuality.

And yet, despite her flaws and her deceptive behavior, Madeleine/Judy is one of the more sympathetic Hitchcock blondes in that her struggle to reconcile her love for Scottie with her guilt over deceiving him about her role in the real Madeleine’s death forces the audience to feel some sense of compassion for her. We witness her dilemma; we understand intrinsically that her acquiescence to Scottie’s mad desire to recreate the “real” Madeleine comes from a place of desperate love. She agrees to let him clothe her in Madeleine’s sophisticated style, to have her makeup done and her nails shaped as Madeleine’s, and even gives in when Scottie insists she color her now-brown hair blonde. Her plaintive response to his pleas to dye her hair is heartbreaking in its eagerness to earn his love: “If I let you change it, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?”

There are those who claim that Novak is too stiff in her performance in Vertigo, that there is something unnaturally wooden about her interpretation of Madeleine/Judy. But I tend to agree with film critic Roger Ebert, whose reflection on Vertigo praises Novak’s presentation of the character: “Ask yourself how you would move and speak if you were in unbearable pain, and then look again at Judy.” Every element of Novak’s performance, particularly in the wake of the real Madeleine’s death, is carefully constructed to convey the character’s inner turmoil. She has broken the rules—she has fallen in love with her mark. And her punishment is that he cannot love her as herself, as Judy: he needs “Madeleine.” She knows nothing she does short of donning the mantle of “Madeleine” once more will earn her what she needs from him. It’s the last thing she wants to do … and yet, because she loves Scottie, she cannot—will not—deny him his desire.

The entire film comes down to that single five-minute sequence in which Judy “becomes” Madeleine again. Scottie waits impatiently for Judy to return from her makeover, and is displeased that her newly blonde hair has not been pulled back from her face in Madeleine’s signature updo. He sends her into the bathroom to complete the transformation and waits anxiously for her to emerge. When she does, she is bathed in a hypnotic, strange green light (ostensibly reflected from the neon sign hanging outside the hotel room window), a dreamlike effect that makes it appear as though Madeleine is moving back from the murky past into the solid present. This sense is highlighted through Hitchcock’s brilliant composition of the scene, as Scottie kisses Madeleine and is swept back into a memory of their time together in San Juan Batista while the camera rotates around the embracing couple in a smooth 360 turn.

The uncertain, yearning expressions on her face, the stilted movements of her body as she walks in that gray suit once more—everything Novak does is masterfully composed in order to show us just how miserable Judy’s situation really is in that moment. “Judy” is now the one who is dead and Madeleine—the double, the false identity—is her new reality, and must remain so if she wishes to keep Scottie’s love and attention. And the utter hopelessness that comes from that realization is written all over Novak’s face in this scene, effectively foreshadowing Madeleine’s second (and permanent) demise.

It is fitting that Vertigo has, in retrospect, turned out to be the defining role of Kim Novak’s career, because the film features what is undoubtedly the best performance she ever gave on-screen. Her role as Madeleine/Judy remains one of the most intriguing Hitchcock blondes, a mesmerizingly intense woman brought to blazing, impressive life by a truly talented young performer in the capable hands of a truly talented director in his prime. I can’t help but imagine what more Hitchcock and Novak could have done, had they been paired in another film together at some point. What other depths could he have uncovered in her, and what other cinematic brilliance could they have created, had they just been given the opportunity?


Brandie Ashe is a freelance writer and editor from Alabama. An inveterate classic movie fan since discovering the films of Shirley Temple and the Marx Brothers as a child, she indulges her obsession at her blog, True Classics. In 2011 True Classics was honored with two CiMBA Awards from the Classic Movie Blog Assn., one for Best Classic Movie Blog Event and another for Best Profile of a Filmmaker. In addition, her blog was nominated for a 2011 Lammy  Award  from the Large Assn. of Movie Blogs in the Best Classic Movie Blog category. 


  1. Excellent article Brandie! Really enjoyed reading your thoughts. Of the blondes you mention in your opening paragraph I think Novak's character in VERTIGO is the most vulnerable of all. She hurts and wants to be loved. This was probably Novak's best performance. Of course, she had one of the great director's guiding her.


  2. Brandie, your post about VERTIGO truly touched my heart and provided a lot of food for thought. I was especially moved by this passage: "...everything Novak does is masterfully composed in order to show us just how miserable Judy’s situation really is in that moment. 'Judy' is now the one who is dead and Madeleine—the double, the false identity—is her new reality, and must remain so if she wishes to keep Scottie’s love and attention." If that isn't a tragic fate and a textbook case of doomed love, I don't know what is! Even if Scottie and Judy-as-Madeleine somehow managed to survive and make a go of it as a couple, it would still be a poignantly dysfunctional relationship at best! Kudos to you an a truly phenomenal VERTIGO post, Brandie!

  3. Eve, I've been having trouble leaving comments. I tried to leave one earlier and don't know if it worked. If it did, ignore this one.

    Well done, Brandie. Great insights into both Kim Novak the professional and her performance as Madeleine/Judy. Her Madeleine is very ethereal, the perfect dream object, her Judy all anxiety. Great insight too into Hitchcock and how "Vertigo" reflects his own sexual preoccupations. He was a product of Victorian attitudes, and I found your observation about the dual "lady" and "whore" attitude of men expressed in the two people Novak plays here most intriguing. I also liked your very thorough description of the way Novak conveys Judy's inner conflict--perhaps the most challenging thing she ever had to do onscreen.

    I don't think she was a great actress, but sometimes those are the best for very demanding and visionary directors like Hitckcock. At this stage in her career she often had a quality of a surface beauty that attracted men but concealed a more sensitive and vulnerable person underneath. That came through in two of the films you mention, "Picnic" and "The Man with the Golden Arm," also in another film I've seen recently, the film noir "Pushover." I thought that in the Preminger film she came off very well next to Eleanor Parker, whose stilted, florid performance made Novak seem very naturalistic in comparison. I liked her a lot in "The Notorious Landlady" too. And in the other film she made with James Stewart at about the same time as "Vertigo"--"Bell, Bood, and Candle", a film that couldn't be more different from "Vertigo" but has its own delights. In any event, another great post in "A Month of VERTIGO." Writing about this film seems to spur everyone to work at their peak of inspiration.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed your take on Kim Novak and her "Vertigo" performance. You wonderfully described, in detail, the scene of the actress torn between dual identities and her need to be loved. I think when it comes to Grace Kelly you hit the nail on the head when you used the word "patrician", which is a quality that would be difficult to imagine Kelly would not have brought to the film - she simply oozed it. Not that it couldn't have been put to good use, but, undeniably, her presence would have had a far different effect in the film than Novak's. I've always found something of a sympathetic quality in Kim Novak that I feel was very effective in "Vertigo". Certainly, like Grace Kelly, she's a blonde goddess, but she also has an earthy quality and I think also inspires a sense of protectiveness in men that may not be as apparent with the Olympian Grace Kelly. As far as what the critics said, I think the passage of time has shown that much of what "Vertigo" had to offer was beyond them back then, and, like many other visionary works of art, it took some years for it to be fully recognized. At this point I'll make the admission that as a youngster, first coming to my awareness of movies, Kim Novak made quite an impression on me (particularly in "Pal Joey", another San Francisco film, "Pushover" and the wonderful "Bell, Book and Candle"). Of course, I thought she was beautiful, but even at that young age I felt the quiet hypnotic draw of her appeal and sensed some of the qualities that you and I have mentioned. For most men Grace Kelly was far out of reach, but Kim Novak was at least close enough to earth to make an attempt - in part, because on some level she seemed to be in need of assistance. I felt that personal quality strongly in "Vertigo", and the accident of fate that brought her this iconic role is, in my opinion, a happy one.

  5. Well done, Brandie. Anything about "potentially voracious sexuality" will catch my attention. You are spot on with your observations of Novak's character, and express them with great clarity.

    Novak recently ran an ad in Variety and denounced the front runner for this year's Best Picture Oscar, The Artist. She was upset that they used some of Herrmann's music from Vertigo in the newer silent movie.

    I wonder if she is bitter that her career didn't become all it could have. It seems to be an attempt to keep the Vertigo moment encapsulated forever, so she doesn't lose anything from her best role.

  6. Now this was definitely an excellent addition to the series! Thank you Brandie for this wonderfully penetrating and well-written article. Novak's performance was indeed brilliant and among the best performances in all of Hitchcock's films. There is a level of complexity in Madeleine/Judy that is beyond any other American film I've ever seen, at least from current memory. I really wonder what it would have been like with Vera Miles. I love her and think she could have created a truly great performance, but Vertigo seems so tailored to Novak. She embodies it whole-heartedly. I love your correlation of Hitchcock to Vertigo and how he himself built and lost his perfect woman.

    You have written an incredible post. Thanks for sharing. Your analysis and research clearly shows dedication and passion. It really is excellent Brandie! I'm signed up for the 28th, so I cannot wait to share with you all my spin on Vertigo! :D :D: D

    - Brandon Kyle The Cinephile

  7. Brandie: a really great article about Novak's contribution to Vertigo. She is not one of my favorite actresses, but she does shine in this film. However, I don't know if she had the personal fortitude to work with Hitch again.

  8. good defense of Ms. Novak...not my favorite actress (sorry, Eve) but her performance in VERTIGO has become iconic and much discussed!!!
    definitely her best!!

  9. Brandie: I loved reading your thoughts on Novak's performance in the film "Vertigo". I do not think the film could not have a better ending.. My other favorite Novak's movie performances are: "Pal Joey", "Bell, Book and Candle" and "Notorious Landlady".

    I'm very sorry to read the recent news that Novak, is very upset that the film, "The Artist" used some of Herrmann's music from the film, "Vertigo".

  10. I really love Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo. It is a shame that Hitchcock did not make it easier for her on the set. But, at the same time, she is elusive, sensual, and stimulating. Great article!

  11. Thanks for your kind words, thoughts, and interesting feedback, everyone! There has been such a high level of writing talent contributing to this event, and I'm honored and really, really pleased to have gotten the chance to participate. Thanks again, Eve, for putting this together with such panache and forethought! :) I can't wait to see what the rest of the month holds!

  12. Brandie - You have captured the essence of Kim Novak's contribution to "Vertigo" (as key to the film as Robert Burks' cinematography, Bernard Herrmann's score, Edith Head's wardrobe...James Stewart's Scottie, etc.). Scottie was mesmerized by 'Madeleine' on sight - he was, indeed, as if hypnotized. It is that quality and the aura of other-worldliness Novak brought to the character of faux Madeleine that helped make Scottie's departure into obsession believable.

    Alfred Hitchcock may have been less sure. He is reported to have said that he had envisioned her character(s) somewhat differently. I have to think he dreamed of Madeleine/Judy as Grace Kelly might have portrayed 'them.' Hitchcock had not required an elegant blonde as his leading lady since Grace Kelly starred in "To Catch a Thief" in 1955. The films between that one and "Vertigo" featured very different female characters and very different leading ladies: Shirley MacLaine in "The Trouble with Harry," Doris Day in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and Vera Miles in something of a 'kitchen-sink' role in "The Wrong Man." Kim Novak was in the unenviable position of being the first to step into Kelly's "shoes" after she left Hitchcock (& Hollywood). Grace Kelly might've managed a decent 'Madeleine,' but I can't see her at all as a credible Judy.

    Thank you, Brandie, for a tour de force on Kim Novak in "Vertigo."

  13. Great article. I've always loved Novak's performance in the film, especially in the latter stages precisely because she so brilliantly conveys the emotional and psychological and maybe even physical discomfort of her character.

  14. Brandie, you have written an insightful portrait of Kim Novak the actress and Kim Novak the hypnotic muse of “Vertigo”. You have captured the essential connection between the success of the story and Kim Novak’s ability to be believable in essentially three roles: as Madeleine, as Judy and Judy as Madeleine. I will admit that Kim Novak is not among my favorite actresses, but I cannot imagine another in the dual roles she portrayed so hauntingly. She asks the audience to take the same journey as Scottie; a journey with mythical overtones that she manages to convey as every bit in the realm of possibility. Her vulnerability to forces beyond her control, not only inspires Scottie’s need to protect and possess her, but equally confuses the audience’s need to believe against all evidence. She also asks the audience to allow her once again to deceive a man who is desperate for the return of his lost love. She looks into the camera with a hypnotic gaze, and as she was once Elster’s partner in the first deception, she has made the audience her partner in this new deception. I have read that Kim Novak bore some resentment to the Hollywood process, which remade her personality to fit a given image. I think it is a sign of her professionalism as an actress that she did not insist (on even attempt) to give either Madeleine of Judy some easily recognizable personal characteristic. She (appears to have) understood that her personal psychology would be at odds with a truly enigmatic creation, and she allowed herself to be lost in both.

  15. It's interesting that Hitchcock and his screenwriters chose to have Judy mention that she was from Salina, Kansas. Salina, Kansas was the setting for "Picnic" (1955), Kim Novak's breakthrough film (as you noted, Brandie). Doesn't it seem as if Madge in "Picnic" could easily have ended up in circumstances similar to Judy's - a working girl in San Francisco (or any big city) once her romantic liaison with with Hal (Wm. Holden) ended - as it surely had to? The reference to Salina, in my mind at least, is as much a circuitous way to add back story to Judy as it is clever.

  16. I've never been a huge fan of Kim Novak's, but I admire her work in four films: The Man With The Golden Arm, Middle of the Night, Kiss Me, Stupid, and Vertigo. That said, I think Vera Miles would have been an interesting choice for Madeleine/Judy.

    Excellent essay, Brandie. Really enjoyed reading.

  17. Excellent post, Brandie! Kim Novak as Madeleine is disturbing and jarring - so, really perfect for this disturbing film. Plus, she had that "mystery" look down-pat!

  18. Sorry I'm so late with my praise, but excellent article on Kim!

  19. I'm fully behind Ms Novak's tirade against "The Artist"!

  20. As a raging hormone aged 15, I thought Kim Novak was an absolutely stunning knockout. While the hormones have calmed down in the passing years, my ardor has not deminished in the least.

    I mention this only because of the fact that when Kim appears on the screen as Judy I truly wondered where Kim went. How Jimmy Stewart ever saw a resemblance between Judy and Madeleine is totally beyond me.

    Judy was not a very attractive female. Her choice of makeup left her looking "hard" and maybe even a little cheap. Her hair color and style didn't help matters either. Even her cloths weren't very attractive. In fact, one of the outfits she wore made her look a little over-weight.

    I guess the makeup artist deserves a lot of credit for doing such a perfect job in divorcing the Madeleine/Judy characters from each other.

    I guess my one question is, does anyone else feel the same way as I do?

  21. Hi, trying to contact Miss Novak. I have alot of personal things to share with her. I was Mr. Stewart's private duty nurse. Thank you for any help. sylviasusanault@ymail.com

    1. You might try to reach her through Turner Classic Movies. There is contact information at http://www.tcm.com/ - scroll down to the bottom of the home page for "Contact Us."