An endless number of Hollywood careers have been defined by a single role. Kim Novak's stands out for being defined by a single dual role. As the personification of the duplicitous and seductive blonde in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), Novak's Madeleine Elster reveals herself to be ordinary Judy Barton, a used-and-abused shopgirl whose makeover at the hands of a couple of obsessive men, especially Jimmy Stewart's spellbound necrophiliac, highlights the twin attributes of her unique presence: untouchable ethereality and vulnerable earthiness. Perhaps the great irony of Vertigo is that Novak's own svengali was never satisfied with her performance. Hitchcock dismissed her contributions, though in his legendary interview with the master François Truffaut stuck up for Novak's “animal-like sensuality” — and bralessness.
The remainder of the American Cinematheque's weekend tribute to the star is devoted to restored titles from Sony's soon-to-be-released “Kim Novak Film Collection” DVD box set. They're mostly turkeys but also odd reflections on the fetishistic allure of Novak so perfectly exploited by Vertigo. Ridiculously overwrought breakthrough Picnic (1955) is interesting only for Novak's small-town beauty pageant queen confusedly struggling against the desires she provokes in everyone around her, while in forgettable musical Pal Joey (1957) she refuses to play the “wowza” bombshell — her prickly sensitivity disarms even a smarmy Sinatra. And though it paired her again with Stewart, romantic witch comedy Bell, Book and Candle (1958) would have been deadly dull had Novak's performance not suggested an erotic charge far more feral than the film's defanged black magic. (Egyptian Theater, Friday-Sunday. egyptiantheatre.com)