The Notorious Landlady (1962)

Notorious-Landlady-poster2Kim Novak is the beautiful landlady accused of killing her nasty husband and Jack Lemmon is the new lodger who falls madly in love with her in this quirky thriller-cum-farce. Recently transferred to London, his State Department career may very well be jeopardized by this affiliation, much to the distress of his boss (Fred Astaire), though he too is quickly charmed by Novak. Is she really the killer depicted in the gutter press, or is she being framed? And if so, why? We begin in a foggy England where little is what it seems …

The following is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film at his Sweet Freedom blog.

Bill: “Are you sure this country isn’t on fire somewhere?”

Blake Edwards and Richard Quine started out as actors before passing behind the camera for much more successful careers writing and directing comedies, musicals and crime dramas. Based mainly at Columbia in the 50s they turned out a large number of modest hits, many of which starred either Kim Novak (who was romantically linked to Quine at the time) and Jack Lemmon, both of whom were re-united, after Quine’s smash hit Bell, Book and Candle (1958), for The Notorious Landlady. This proved to be the final collaboration between Edwards (as writer) and Quine (as director and co-producer) as well as the latter’s fourth and concluding feature starring Novak.

Franklyn Ambruster: “You’re at a level where you can only afford one mistake. The higher up you go, the more mistakes you’re allowed. Right at the top, if you make enough of them, it’s considered to be your style.”

Novak appeared in several films of note, but could be a somewhat stiff and uneasy thespian, too often cast for her ravishing good looks than her skills as an actress. And yet she was tremendously affecting in the difficult and demanding dual roles in Vertigo and hilarious as the pampered actress in The Mirror Crack’d. Despite having the title role in Notorious Landlady and in the full flush of her success, it has to be said that Novak can seem to be a bit on auto-pilot, always looking wonderful (she even designed her own wardrobe for the film) but not very engaged (apparently it was not a happy shoot, her relationship with Quine having deteriorated by this point). It is admittedly an equivocal role but her romance with the brash and cocky Lemmon never really clicks (he on the other hand is on very firm ground, playing what by now was a very familiar role as the State Department employee forced to spy on his landlady).

Carly: “To put it plainly, Mr. Gridley, I have a dubious reputation.”
Bill: “You do? I’ll pay you 45 pounds a month!”

Despite the slightly uneasy star, there is much to enjoy here. Along with the deliberately exaggerated foggy London atmosphere, we have a cast of old reliables such as Henry Daniell (as ever a great red herring) and the great Estelle Winwood as a very dotty old biddy and plenty of farcical hubbub to keep the film going (which it does need at times as at over 2 hours it is definitely a smidgen overlong – an extended courtroom sequence doesn’t help either).

Inspector Oliphant: “Females make not only loving wives and devoted mothers, but very efficient killers, bless ’em.”

In addition there is a lovely music score, which although the responsibility of Columbia’s talented workhorse George Duning, is largely based on variations on George and Ira Gershwin’s classic 1937 song ‘A Foggy Day’, which was written for the 1937 Fred Astaire musical A Damsel in Distress – which makes it doubly appropriate as he plays the third lead as Lemmon’s concerned boss and is just utterly charming throughout even in an otherwise non-musical role. There is even a smidgen of actual location shooting in London, though only Lemmon seems to have been available with Novak being clearly doubled in long shots. The rest was filmed on the backlot, with the clifftop climax staged at Big Sur. With its fog-shrouded atmosphere, attractive leads, a solid mystery plot with several neat twists (one might argue that for a comedy there is maybe just a smidgen too much story) and a great supporting cast, I have always really enjoyed this one – and it is very easy to find on DVD too!

DVD Availability: A fine if no-frills edition available from Sony all round the world, with a decent widescreen image presented anamorpically.

The Notorious Landlady (1962)
Director: Richard Quine
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Screenplay: Blake Edwards and Larry Gelbart
Cinematography: Arthur Arling
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: George Duning (after George and Ira Gershwin)
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Kim Novak, Fred Astaire, Lionel Jeffries, Estelle Winwood, Henry Daniell, Philippa Bevans

*****(3 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Blake Edwards, London, Richard Quine, Scene of the crime, Screwball, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to The Notorious Landlady (1962)

  1. Your excellent review is such a good reminder of how important chemistry between characters, and personal appeal and chemistry are, Sergio. As you say, Novak’s done some good work, but without that ‘spark,’ a film doesn’t rise to the heights it could. Still, it’s good that there were things to like about this one.

  2. Colin says:

    Very nice. It’s been a while since I watched this – I have it as part of the Jack Lemmon box set – but I thought it was fairly good, for a lot of the reasons you mention.
    The atmosphere is great in places and the cast, in general, do some nice work – I thought Astaire was a lot of fun. I think you’re right that it does go on a little too long and there is maybe more plot than is strictly necessary. I remember thinking that, as with a lot of Quine’s work, the wheels start to come off somewhat at the end.

    • Yes, you are probably right about that. I love Quine’s sense of style (lots of long and complex tracking shots that are made to look very smooth and easy) but there was a problem in sustaining the momentum in nearly all his movies. He and Edwards were joint best men for Lemmon at his wedding to Felicia Farr.

      • Colin says:

        Never knew both those guys were Lemmon’s best man.
        Quine certainly knew how to shoot a film attractively and he has some enjoyable titles in his filmography. I think I’ll give Bell, Book and Candle another watch in the coming days as it’s a good Christmas story, and a better role for Novak too.

        • Yes, I agree, Bell is another firm family favourite (I even bought the LP, which may or may not be in my loft somewhere …) along with My Sister Eileen, which I love for its compact pizzaz.

          • Colin says:

            It’s that time of year now I find myself drawing up a provisional shortlist of stuff I’ll try to fit in over the holidays. I never stick to all of them of course, but I will be making a point of watching BB&C for sure.

          • I always want to do that but usually fail to follow through – well, you know how it is, endless haggling over who has control of the remote and the schedules …

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    For me, she just can’t act. Which sort of works in Vertigo but not much else. Jack Lemmon, I love.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have seen the film. It is a pleasant comedy cum mystery though a bit too long. I agree with the rating of 3.
    It is based on the short story Notorious Tenant by Margery Sharp first published in Collier’s (February 3, 1956). Credit is given to the author in the film.

  5. Thanks for the review, Sergio. I thought I’d seen every Lemmon and Astaire film! Apparently not. I’ll be looking for this one. I’m not very familiar with Novak’s movies, except for VERTIGO.

  6. Novak is an enigma: she seems entirely wooden and incapable of acting at all, but just occasionally that fits the part and makes it work – her lack of ability actually suits Vertigo. But my favourite Novak moment is the scene where she dances with William Holden in Picnic – now that’s chemistry for you, complete magic.

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