Kim Novak: San Francisco's Cinematic Icon
"Now let's go back to Vertigo. If we don't let them know, they will speculate. They will get a very blurred impression as to what is going on." Alfred Hitchcock
Kim Novak is "San Francisco's Cinematic Icon", and she was awarded that honor on June 14 at the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.
Kim Novak agrees: “San Francisco has always been my favorite city of all time,” says the now 79-year-old actress. “I was privileged to feel a part of this magical place in two films — "Pal Joey" with Frank Sinatra and Alfred Hitchcock’s "Vertigo". What an honor it will be to receive this special award from San Francisco. It will be like coming home again!”
Why does Kim Novak's legacy continue to be associated with Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" exactly 54 years after the film was released?
"Vertigo" is one of those kinds of films that are hard to forget. Medically speaking "vertigo" is a balance disorder, almost a hypnotic experience. It creates the sensation of objects moving or the person themselves moving, or a spinning sensation in the head. An outstanding feature of the film is how cinematographer Robert Burks was able to convey this inertia through the camera not only through editing and moving images but graphic inserts of spinning vortexes to represent mental states.
Hitchcock named his film appropriately, and not just for detective Scottie Ferguson's vertigo attack one night (Jimmy Stewart) pursuing a suspect that resulted in a fatal fall of a police officer from a building. This event sets him up for the film's mystery.
Moreover, Kim Novak falls, not just once, but twice in the film. First, into the San Francisco Bay near the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, and off the bell tower of the San Juan Bautista mission south of San Francisco. Both falls are induced by feigned or imagined mental states.
"Vertigo" is an eerie "box within a box" kind of film. Novak not only plays Madeleine Elster, who seduces Scottie into thinking she is the reincarnated spirit of her ancestor Carlota that committed suicide, but the trickster herself, Judy Barton. (Hired by Scottie's friend Gavin Elster). This is great acting, especially Novak's interpretation of the class differences between the aristocratic Nob hill Madeleine and the gum-chewing Magnin salesgirl Judy. Just like Scottie, we are seduced into thinking Madeleine later jumps off the bell tower. Together with him we discover the deception and watch Madeleine's impersonator fall again in the same place.
Scottie is wrong. It does matter to Judy that she continues to impersonate Madeleine for him, which with premonition leads to her own death. This time it is not a jump in the bay by Fort Point, but from the heights of a mission in a 91 mile drive from San Francisco.
Today we continue to associate "Vertigo" with Kim Novak even if her life is very different in Oregon as the wife of a veterinarian and as an artist.
The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society not only honored Kim Novak last week for her screen contributions in San Francisco but for her art.
Alfred Hitchcock was in love with the San Francisco Bay Area. Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal's fantastic monograph Footsteps In The Fog: Alfred Hitchcock's San Franciscotraces the British director's steps through the Bay Area with maps and markers. It just so happens that Kim Novak's journey in "Vertigo" crosses the most destinations in San Francisco in Hitchcock's Bay Area films: Argosy Book Shop, several streets and buildings of San Francisco, Nob Hill, the Legion of Honor, Union Square, Mission Dolores, and Claude Lane. She also visited the Bay Area day excursions of Muir Woods, Carmel and Monterey.
For good reason, perhaps for this trajection of historic landmarks and spaces, we still associate Kim Novak with San Francisco. And we can continue to follow the map to those places that make "Vertigo" an unforgettable film.
Congratulations, Ms Novak on your award!