In the still-vital book Hitchcock/Truffaut, made up mostly (and in the first edition, pretty much entirely) of interviews between the former critic and filmmaker François Truffaut and the director Alfred Hitchcock conducted in the summer of 1962—over fifty years ago, now—the older director discusses his 1957 1958 film Vertigo mostly in terms of disappointment. While the filmmaker who at the time was known as the "Master of Suspense" seems pleased with the daring of the movie's scenario—"To put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who's dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia"—and is understandably proud of the way he pulled off an ostensibly impossible track-out/forward zoom shot—"it only cost us nineteen thousand dollars"—for most of his exchange with Truffaut he plays the skeptic while the younger filmmaker tries to reassure him of the movie's strength. It's hard to remember, reading this book now, just how much its very existence was an argument for what few in the mainstream of movie culture at the time believed, e.g., that Hitchcock was a great artist. While the through-line of the perception of the greatness of Citizen Kane has been a largely consistent one, the world in which Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock is one that's a rather long way from a world in which Vertigo is proclaimed the greatest film of all time, or any such thing.
Hitchcock had originally planned to put Vera Miles in the lead role of Vertigo, and the details of their relationship and falling out are, as they've been revealed over the years, pretty unpleasant, and don't reflect well on Hitchcock. Hitchcock's account to Truffaut is both plain and enigmatic: "[S]he became pregnant just before the part that was going to turn her into a star. After that I lost interest; I couldn't get the rhythm going with her again."
Truffaut moves on: "I take it, from some of your interviews, that you weren't too happy with Kim Novak, but I thought she was perfect for the picture. There was a passive, animal quality about her that was exactly right for the part."
As it happens, one is now able to hear the actual tapes of the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews through the agency of various archives, online and off. I have not audited the discussion of Vertigo, but I can't help imagining Hitchcock emitting a long exhalation, if not an outright sigh, before saying: "Miss Novak arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn't possibly go along with. You know, I don't like to argue with a performer on the set; there's no reason to bring the electricians in on our troubles. I went to Kim Novak's dressing room and told her about the dressed and hairdos that I had been planning for several months. I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the over-all visual impact on the screen, once the picture is completed."
Truffaut counters with a "there, there" variant: "It seems to me these unpleasant formalities make you unfair in assessing the whole picture. I can assure you that those who admire Vertigo like Kim Novak in it. Very few American actresses are quite as carnal on the screen. When you see Judy walking on the street, the tawny hair and make-up convey an animal-like sensuality. That quality is accentuated, I suppose, by the fact that she wears no brassiere."
While his erotic predilictions, both those that were obvious fifty years ago and have since been gone into in further detail, do not suggest that Hitchcock was much of what we call "a breast man," he does perk up here, and responds, "That's right, she doesn't wear a brassiere. As a matter of fact, she's particularly proud of that."
Animal-like sensuality? Hell, for the whole exchange Hitchcock and Truffaut do sound as if they're discussing some exotic zoo exhibit. And Truffaut's demural concerning "unpleasant formalities?" It's called directing, guys. While his routing condemnation on account of that "cattle" quip is indeed unfair, it's kind of undeniable that Hitchcock didn't have much patience with fussy performers. Not just the females—Paul Newman drove him up the wall. And when he wanted to play Pygmalion, watch out. It's also revealing to see the ostensibly more "progressive" Truffaut so naturally sliding into the alienated patriarchal mode of perception. In the event you were ever wondering why The Feminine Mystique needed to be written, it's all here in a nutshell. (It came out in 1963.) And yet, who would argue, if we look at the work by itself, that both Hitchcock and Truffaut were among the greatest directors of women, and among the most consistent providers of substantial roles for women. (Even at their most ornamental, Hitchcock women are never cardboard cutouts.)
Do directors talk about actresses as if they're objects because they (the directors) are men, or because they are directors, people whose job is, in a sense, to make subjects out of objects? In a 1960 interview with the journalist Archer Winsten, the director Richard Quine, talking about his latest film, Strangers When We Meet, said of Novak, the female lead in that film, "She's tremendously sensitive." He was quick to add a caveat: "If she doesn't know what she's doing, she draws a blank. Like in Pal Joey, she's innocuous." "Innocuous" is maybe the worst word you can apply to a performer. Perhaps Quine had a special investment in trying to sound professional, objective, in charge; he and Novak were romantically involved at the time of Strangers' making.
My friend Farran Smith Nehme recently posted, on her blog, a short essay about the largely lacking-in-compassion, and, to my mind and hardly incidentally, anti-feminist reaction to Novak's appearance at last Sunday's Oscar ceremony, and in that piece she examines the boorish, opportunistic treatment of Novak by Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn. If Novak had anything like a knight in shining armor at the studio, it was Quine, a one-time comic actor who had a number of B-pictures to his name as a director when Cohn assigned him to handle Novak's first starring vehicle, 1954's Pushover. If one of Pushover's most special features is just how prominent Novak's bralessness registers in a film girdled by the Production Code (honestly, not since Sign of the Cross has their been a more jarringly out-of-its-time reveal), Quine's overall treatment of Novak signals an appreciation of the depths that lurk beneath the breathtakingly alabaster surface. And in fact that is the theme of his next two films with Novak. In Bell, Book and Candle, Novak plays a character who can be rendered impotent by revealing her vulnerability. In Strangers When We Meet she plays a woman whose gorgeous looks back her into a neighborhood-sexpot corner that her gentle true nature inhibits her from clawing her way out of; all of her subsequent actions in the movie are determined by her impossible position. Of his four films with Novak, it's the final one, 1962's The Notorious Landlady, made after their romantic involvement ended, that iterates this dilemma as farce (Novak's character is suspected of a murder that of course she did not commit).
This, I think, adds up to a cinematic paradox that is both glorious and tragic. That Harry Cohn's best/worst efforts notwithstanding, Kim Novak became a great screen actress, and that at her greatest, the subject of her work was the difficulty of being "Kim Novak." See also Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid, the most frenetic and confused and strangely exhilarating of meta-movie farces, and Aldrich's The Legend of Lylah Clare, the most vicious of meta-movie expressions of self-loathing.