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Kim Novak Collection, The (DVD Review)

9 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
$39.95 three-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars Kim Novak, James Stewart, Frank Sinatra, William Holden, Fredric March.

Sometime in early adolescence I read the word “somnambulant” for the very first time — in a movie review referring to Novak’s acting style. It was used pejoratively, which wasn’t completely fair because in certain cases the actress’s dreamy deliveries were exactly right for the material (think Vertigo — a movie that’s pretty dreamy all around — and Bell Book and Candle). But other times, in ways that didn’t synch with her limited projection capabilities particularly well, scripts required Novak’s characters to blow their tops and spout dialogue in an agitated state.

Filmed at Paramount on a loan-out from home base Columbia Pictures, Vertigo obviously isn’t on this Sony set — nor did her casting in it gain her much respect at the time after Hitchcock claimed he only used her because Vera Miles got pregnant. But to a point, Novak outlived her detractors in part by leaving the business for a satisfying private life and aura of mystery — and because she at least had some of the star-power voltage that’s is in very short supply today. She comes off respectably or better in at least some of her Columbia-heyday releases, five of which are showcased in this box via three re-issues and two DVD premieres. For my money, though (and with Picnic possibly excepted), her best work occurred away from Columbia — in Vertigo (where I’ve never been able to tell if she is really acting or just cast brilliantly) and in Billy Wilder’s once maligned 1964 Kiss Me, Stupid, in which she’s unequivocally on the serio-comic mark.

Released late in 1955 and put into general release early the next year, Picnic was Novak’s 1955’s blockbuster breakthrough following three memorable buildup castings orchestrated by studio chief Harry Cohn in Pushover, Phffft! and 5 Against the House. All better-than-average modest endeavors shot in black-and-white, they were swamped in scale by this CinemaScope/Technicolor adaptation of William Inge’s popular play, which is probably the most fondly remembered of this set’s DVD re-issues. Casting the 22-year-old Novak as an unconfident Kansas beauty who ends up acting decisively on her whirlwind attraction to a visiting ne’er-do-well hunk (William Holden), it contains one of the most iconographic scenes from ’50s Hollywood: the two leads dancing sexily during Fourth of July festivities to Morris Stoloff’s musical backing of “Moonglow” and “Theme from Picnic,” whose Decca single went to No. 3 on the charts. On a bonus section look-back that’s among the collection’s standout extras, Novak says the scene was much more spontaneous than rehearsed, due in part to Holden’s embarrassment over having to dance.

The other re-issues are Pal Joey (1957) and Bell Book and Candle (1958). The first, from Rodgers and Hart’s oft-revived musical about a generally likable heel, is a half-full/half-empty affair that paired Novak and Columbia’s now-fading ’40s goddess Rita Hayworth opposite Frank (“so many women, so little time”) Sinatra. Along with the previous year’s High Society, it’s probably the movie that best captures the singer in peak voice (and with Nelson Riddle arrangements at that), though director George Sidney has a real penchant for cutting away to distracting reaction shots during some of his numbers, which destroys the rhythm and drives Frank-o-philes up the wall. Candle, a supernatural comedy beloved by many cat lovers as well as fanciers of witches and sorcerers, has to me always been something of a stagebound stiff despite a dazzling cast: Novak, James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs and the underrated Janice Rule — along with two of the movies’ foremost eccentrics (Hermione Gingold and Elsa Lanchester) in support. One can’t deny, however, that it’s an interesting contrast to the Stewart-Novak pairing in Vertigo, which came out just seven months earlier.

The set’s premieres go 1-for-2 with one boo boo and one revelation. The boo boo is Jeanne Eagels (1957), director Sidney’s misconceived biopic of the stage actress who originated the Sadie Thompson role in Somerset Maugham’s Rain — and died at 39 of a likely heroin overdose before winning a posthumous Oscar nomination for 1929’s The Letter, a movie pulled all but permanently out of circulation after the well-known 1940 remake with Bette Davis. Top-billed of three screenwriters, Eagles’ Daniel Fuchs had won an Oscar just two years earlier for Love Me or Leave Me, a supreme bio of torch singer Ruth Etting that had the benefit of Doris Day’s greatest dramatic performance and one of the four or five greatest of James Cagney. In this case, it’s Novak and Jeff Chandler — and when we see Novak futilely re-creating Eagels on stage (emoting risibly termed masterful by supporting characters), you can see why the picture did Novak’s career no good with the critics. What’s more, Eagels’ long bio on IMDb.com is about five times more interesting than anything that happens in the movie — though you can’t say that designer Jean Louis didn’t go to town on some of the costumes. (Novak says she thinks he was the best ever at his crafty; take that, Edith Head!).

The set’s revelation is 1959’s inevitably uncommercial Middle of the Night, which reunited writer playwright Paddy Chayefsky with director Delbert Mann four years after they’d collaborated on the Oscar-winning Marty and six after they’d done the latter on live TV. Then, as now, Night isn’t shown too much because its male protagonist is elderly (perish the thought), and we all know what that means at the box office. Cohn, in fact, didn’t want Novak to make it.

Except, to show you how times have changed, the widowed New York garment district executive that Fredric March plays is only 56, and this is long before people ever imagined that people would someday say “60 is the new 40” or that there’d be such a thing as a workout culture outside of Stillman’s Gym. (As a frame of reference, Paul Newman was 56 and still hunky when he starred in Absence of Malice — though, to be fair, March was in truth 61 or 62 when he made this.)

The hook here is that March falls for a beautiful 24-year-old who works in his employ (Novak) who even half-reciprocates his feelings (but will this half be enough to carry the night?). The movie’s power comes from the way it convinces us this very specific story might conceivably happen, being very up front about the doubts and conflicts both parties have and the toxic reactions of families and friends on both sides of a potentially permanent union. Novak’s character is also still sexually attracted to her ex, though that’s about all he had to offer her.

Night originated as a teleplay with E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint and then became a stage success with Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands (that one would have gotten my money, to be sure). Novak seems uncertain of herself and uncomfortable at times, but intentionally or un-, her mannerisms serve the role. Chayefsky’s insightful script is startlingly honest and upfront about her character being damaged goods, which is probably the only way she’d get involved with March’s non-dazzler in the first place (gentleman – and   accomplished professional — that he is).

Novak is as good as she has to be opposite a dynamic co-star, but March is the one who really puts the movie over. He gives us a wealth of emotions not just scene-to-scene but often within the same scene. His performance is one of the great hallmarks of his six-decade career, along with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Best Years of Our Lives (both Oscar winning performances), Death of a Salesman (which, bootleg copies aside, is shown only a little more frequently these days than The Letter), Inherit the Wind and his lovely booze-soaked swan song in John Frankenheimer’s very underrated movie of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

A couple of the films have Novak commentaries for selected scenes, but there are also several featurettes with the actress and Stephen Rebello, who does an outstanding job of drawing her out (it’s obvious that they hit it off) and asking intelligent questions. But unless I turned my head at the wrong time, the few current-day glances we get of Novak are in long (or, if you want to stretch it in a couple instances, medium) shots when one senses that she could still take a close-up. This may be taking the aura of mystery thing a little too far.

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