Film Focus: Kim Novak (1957 – 1959) – Imprint Collection #310 – 312

Film Focus Kim Novak: Pal Joey, Jeanne Eagels and Middle of the Night.  Imprint Via Vision Blu Ray Box Set – 2024



For too many people Kim Novak has been over-associated with one supreme film Vertigo (1958).  Being the luminous blonde icon in what is now universally considered to be one of the greatest films ever made has placed Novak on a Hitchcock-driven goddess pedestal that has tended to eclipse her other intense acting achievements.  She shone very brightly through 1955 – 1960 (her best period) creating alluring and emotionally fragile women and, as in the multi-tense Vertigo, Novak was consistently superb at conveying anxiety, loneliness and alienation: all the time fighting back at masculine control from her image making studios.

The three films on this set are from 1957-59.  Pal Joey, Jeanne Eagels and Middle of the Night.  Rita Hayworth received top billing in Pal Joey (Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra are co-stars).  Whilst in Jeanne Eagels and Middle of the Night Novak is equally billed with Jeff Chandler and Frederic March.

Self-worth, vulgarity and class are the irritants, not of Novak, but Frank Sinatra in Pal Joey who plays Joey Evans a coarse and calculating singer / night club compere.  In spite of his brashness, and a then taken for granted sexism, Joey exudes a charm that seduces both chorus girl Linda (Novak) and ex-stripper Vera (Rita Hayworth).  Joey wants to transform the club into something more sophisticated and so courts Vera with her considerable wealth.  However he’s more romantically drawn to the naïve Linda.  Though from the beginning Joey feigns disinterest, even to the point of not remembering her name.  (“It’s Linda English.” she repeats frustrated.) Ironically that putdown, concerning the surname, lands in Sinatra’s lap when Vera’s posh guests sneer at Joey for not speaking proper English.  And at the age of forty two Sinatra wasn’t despite his great and seductive voice that physically attractive.

It’s not really until Kim Novak sings (dubbed by Trudy Stevens) My Funny Valentine that Linda begins to assert herself.  The song’s lines “Your looks are laughable and un-photographable” hit their Joey target aided by George Sydney’s expressive direction.  From then on Kim Novak’s acting grows with a confidence to differently rival the sassy Rita Hayworth.  She gives much to a part that’s an aspiring attempt to overcome her constant put downs in club-land.

Pal Joey is a comedy drama with some wonderful Rodgers and Hart songs.  It’s glossy and very entertaining.  The happy ending is a kop out compared to the original play.  Yet this is vintage 50’s Hollywood craftsmanship and its three stars relish their roles.  Just to hear Novak’s My Funny Valentine and Sinatra sing the Lady is a Tramp and Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered critically disarms you enough to forgive Pal Joey’s negligible plot.

Although the relatives of the real Jeanne Eagels (1890 – 1929) disliked Jeanne Eagels the film isn’t a bio-pic.  Perhaps the main thing that the film and reality have in common is that Jeanne Eagels was dependent on alcohol and cocaine and refused to join the actors union.

A waitress (Jeanne) loses a beauty contest at a carnival.  She persuades the owner Sal (Jeff Chandler, an excellent performance) to work for him as dancer.  But the authorities consider it obscene.  Sal wants to set it up big at Coney Island amusement park.  But Jeanne is pulled to serious stage work and after being accepted, as an understudy, in a Broadway play goes on to be a successful actress.  Conflict then arises between Jeanne and Sal that splits open their relationship.

Jeanne Eagels, like Pal Joey, is generally about self-worth and ambition.  Yet Eagles’s story and plotline is much stronger than Joey’s: it’s really the dominant presence of Kim Novak, her hesitancy constantly pulling against a ruthless drive: an intense need to be accepted as a person that’s most powerfully conveyed.  Whether being humiliated by being forced to dance in a tawdry carnival or haunted by the memory of stealing the lead part, in Somerset Maugham’s play Rain, written by an ageing actress, Kim Novak is dazzling as she identifies with the rawness and volatility of Eagles’s inner struggle.

Kim Novak was very beautiful.  And like Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle, Jeanne Eagels displays her physical power with a depth of innocence that hasn’t dated.

“Her inner shyness gives her display an orchidaceous quality.  She is a flower wrapped in the cellophane of her own provocation…But her china doll quality palpitates with nervous tensions.  She is a frozen avalanche of feelings.”

That was the critic Raymond Durgnat in his 1967 book Films and Feelings.  He also speaks of Novak as fully bringing alienation to the screen in fifties Hollywood whilst Antonioni in Italy was still exploring this terrain – fascinating to compare Monica Vitti and Kim Novak as lonely heroines! Durgnat was one of the first critics to understand Novak and appreciate Jeanne Eagels which is for me a splendid, seriously unloved and underrated film (Perhaps the film’s only niggardly flaw is to be found in the sequence where Jeanne Eagles is being directed by the great romantic Frank Borzage.  The action is speeded up in that terrible way that silent film footage, pre-1960’s, was projected at the wrong speed.  Could someone digitally correct this one day please?).

George Sydney was one of Kim Novak’s most sympathetic directors.  She obviously had a rapport with Sydney.  The most beautiful expression of this is when, just after an attempted sexual assault, Eagles takes some tablets, says this is my cue, and descends a staircase to her death.  Sydney’s control, Novak’s tired giving up and how the camera halts on her neck and face at the end, is perfect cinematic tragedy.

In Middle of the Night Novak plays Betty Preisner, a working class receptionist for a clothing manufacturer.  A role which seems on the surface, to be in complete contrast to her showbiz characters on this box set.  But internally Betty is similarly confused and experiencing an emotional whirlwind.  She’s recently divorced her husband George.  It was a loveless marriage and she’s depressed.  Jerry, Betty’s boss, listens to her story, takes Betty on dates and falls in love with her.  At first Betty is reluctant to embark on a relationship but when she does feelings of love towards Jerry grow.  This is publically carried out with everyone knowing the big difference in their ages.  She is 24.  And Jerry is 56.

Frederick March plays Jerry and figures more in Middle of the Night than Kim Novak.  Both parts are beautifully written by Paddy Chayefsky.  And March was nominated for his brilliant performance.  There is never a suggestion that he is preying on a young girl.  His affection and love for Betty is of great sincerity.  Nor is she playing around with the older man.  They defy the social norms and conditioning of 1959 and passionately hold onto their relationship.  Middle of the Night took a brave and radical stance for Holly wood then.

Although Novak has less screen time than March she acts with terrific conviction.  It’s one of her finest performances in a very touching and gritty screen romance.  The couple’s passion is set against the backcloth of a very wintry New York exactly caught by the cinematography of Joseph C.  Burn.  And director Delbert Mann never made a better film than this.

Novak loved working on Middle of the Night because her subtle suggestions about Betty’s character and Jerry’s were listened to by Chayesvsky and Mann.  This was in sharp contrast to mogul Harry Cohn who didn’t want her to make the film and sought to commodify his Novak property.  Yet Strangers When We Meet, coming right after Middle, is another Columbia picture that perfectly expressed her gift for projecting inner strife.  (A note to Via Vision, Any chance of acquiring this fine film for a future Blu Ray release?)

In Pal Joey (1957) we view Novak’s skill as an actor coupled with the deliberately unconfident role she’s been written.  In the same year Jeanne Eagels positions Novak as a renowned, but now forgotten, silent movie star in a part where she attacks the traps of show business.  Yet when Novak’s cast in Middle of the Night her struggle is not now for ambition but an emotional maturity irrespective if a man’s involved or not.

For all Kim Novak fan’s this three film set is self-recommending.

For anyone else if you only really know Kim’s Judy in Vertigo, then please educate yourself in her remarkable screen presence: one that still remains as sensitive, intelligent, captivating and painfully caught as Marilyn Monroe’s.

Alan Price©2024