Kim Novak lures us in as... The Notorious Landlady (1962)

Back in February of 2015, I wrote a post on The Notorious Landlady, an underrated comedy from Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon in celebration of their birthdays. I was relatively pleased with the post and it seemed to get a good amount of page views, but then, just a few days over the one-year mark, I noticed something horrifying: the post looked terrible. Apparently, when I switched backgrounds and messed with some formatting, it wreaked havoc on poor Kim and Co. Everything looked wrong, including the awful pictures I had taken from my TV. The post just couldn't be saved, so I deleted it in order to give The Notorious Landlady the great post it deserved. After all, it's been getting the shaft for years -- why should I contribute to that?

The film opens on a pretty London square, where children are heard playing, people are out walking, and the leaves are falling. I love that the first shot is this sign about "No Unnecessary Noise," a funny piece of foreshadowing. As the camera drifts around the neighborhood, a little boy playfully shoots a toy gun at passerby, a scene that reminds me of the beginning of Charade although that film wouldn't be made for another year. However, when the boy "shoots" a second time, a real gunshot is heard coming from the
house marked #33. All the neighbors are panicking and a few see a man's body being dragged into the house's garage. A car then speeds away and we fade into the credits. It's quite a way to introduce the mood. We get another puzzling sequence as the credits roll. It's nighttime and a woman discreetly leaves #33. Fog abounds as she meets up with a man and they go walking somewhere as she holds something covered in her arms. We won't know where they were going until much later.

Some time has passed, and #33 is now renting out a room. A couple and their daughter start to inquire about it, but once the wife sees the woman who answers the door, she whispers to her husband and they quickly leave. Enter Bill Gridley (Lemmon), an American looking for an apartment after a job transfer in the American Embassy. He arrives at #33, but instead of getting a warm reception from his prospective landlady, an evasive Cockney maid answers the door.

She's actually Carlyle "Carly" Hardwicke (Novak), the woman of the film's title. Carly is in a bit of a spot -- because she's suspected of her husband's murder, all of London knows who she is. Plus, the government has taken her passport and they've denied her a work permit, which is why she must rent out her extra room, a room that's difficult to rent because of her notoriety. Bill seems perfect since he's utterly clueless about this mess, but Carly doesn't want him. After all, her
neighbors are already incredibly nosy and how would it look for a handsome single man to live alone with her right after her husband's death?

She tries to discourage Bill under her maid disguise, but he figures out she's really the landlady and talks his way into staying ("Mrs. Hardwicke, I appeal to you. Don't I appeal to you?"). He also asks her out to dinner, which she reluctantly agrees to. You can see their first scene together here.

Bill then leaves to go meet his new superior, Franklyn Ambruster (Fred Astaire!). Their talk gets around to Bill's new landlady, whose name sounds awfully familiar to Ambruster, yet he's not sure why. Annoyed by this, he calls the research department once Bill leaves and is told the juicy details. Uh oh. Back at the townhouse, Carly and Bill flirt like crazy and it's adorable. He gets weird vibes, though, when he finds a locked closet in his room and Carly avoids giving him a straight answer about where her husband is. They go to dinner and just barely miss Ambruster, who is on a mission to inform Bill about Carly in hopes of avoiding a scandal by having an Embassy employee involved with a suspected murderess. You know, that old problem.

A great tracking shot takes us through the restaurant where Bill and Carly are eating, Bill unaware that everyone is staring and whispering bad puns about his date ("Dressed to kill, isn't she?" Ugh). One rude man even eavesdrops on their conversation.

Blissfully ignorant, Bill is clearly enchanted with Carly, yet there are some things he can't explain. For example, when the twosome start to head home, that man from
the strange credits sequence (Henry Daniell, naturally) comes from the fog and asks to speak to Carly. Bill brushes it off, and once they get home, they're back to being super flirty and cute. Carly even gives Bill a little kiss before they go to their separate rooms for the night. Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak had great chemistry, I must say.

The next day, a displeased Ambruster grills Bill about Carly:

"Were you able to find anything out about Mr. Hardwicke?"
"Yes sir, they're separated, and in my opinion, a divorce is imminent."
"Don't you think that would be adding insult to injury?"
"How's that?"
"Gridley, Mrs. Hardwicke murdered her husband."
"Well, that's certainly grounds for -- she what?!"

Carly hasn't been officially charged, but it's only because the body hasn't been found. Bill finds it all pretty hard to believe, so Ambruster brings in a Scotland Yard detective named Oliphant (the tremendous Lionel Jeffries) to talk to him. Determined to prove Carly's innocence, Bill agrees to spy on her.

Arriving at home that evening, his jittery nerves are in full force, especially after Oliphant's gruesome tales of other female killers, such as one who murdered men by putting poison in kidney pies. Oh, by the way, Carly purchased a lot of arsenic that morning. And Bill finds an unsettling note on the floor that sounds like talk of disposing a body.

His suspicions get worse as he inspects Carly's room
and notices several books about murder. He also discovers a gun in her bedside table, which he takes. Carly unexpectedly comes home, causing Bill to hide in her closet. In one of my favorite bits, she hangs a shirt on his ear in her hurry to answer the phone and he overhears a very queer-sounding conversation. His imagination goes crazy, particularly when Carly tells him she's making them dinner.

This next scene is a definite sign that Blake Edwards had his hand in the screenplay. Carly surprises Bill with a charcoal grill so they can have a real barbecue for supper. Bill, however, puts way too much accelerant on the charcoal and a huge fire occurs. Both of them struggle to hose it down, all while the neighbors just stare in amusement. (Worst neighbors ever.) The whole thing is a disaster, leaving Bill and Carly soaked and humiliated. You can watch the fiasco here.

Ambruster quickly hears about it and calls Bill:

"Gridley, I want you to meet me at the Lion's Head Pub in Chelsea."
"The Embassy?"
"What are you talking about? I said the Lion's Head in Chelsea. Oh, did you say the Embassy because she's standing there?"
"Yes, I didn't want to repeat the address in front of her."
"Well, if she's standing there, why are you saying that?"
"She's not standing here!"
"Then why are you whispering? Oh, never mind, Gridley. I'm beginning to understand how your mind works and it frightens me."

I just love Astaire and Lemmon's interactions. I've always thought Astaire was great at comedy so this movie is lots of fun for me. Anyway, bottom line is Ambruster is none too pleased. He promises Bill, though, that he's killed the story in the press... which we see didn't work when the next morning all the newspapers make the fire front-page news. Ambruster wants to reassign Bill to avoid any more scandal, but he's interrupted when Carly stops by to intercede on Bill's behalf. Ambruster is immediately charmed by the woman and after they have lunch together, he agrees with Bill that there's no way Carly is a killer. They decide to work together to clear her name.

They arrive outside the townhouse to see Henry Daniell leaving. Bill follows him while Ambruster follows Carly, who goes in the opposite direction. Cue the shadowy, fog-enshrouded sequence. (For those who have seen Vertigo, you might get vertigo watching this scene -- it's slightly reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart tailing Novak around San Francisco.) The cinematography here is magnificent. It takes my breath away at each viewing.
It's a pretty funny sequence to watch as well. Bill trips over something and makes a loud noise, which catches the mystery man's attention so he meows to cover his mistake. Ambruster follows Carly to a church and walks in the adjoining cemetery to get a closer look, only to fall right into an open grave. At the end of all this confusion, Bill realizes that Daniell is a preacher. Carly sold him the organ she had downstairs because she's so strapped for money.

Bill is thrilled, but his mood soon deflates when he comes home to see that Carly has packed up his things. She pays him back his rent money and insists that they can't be involved. Bill won't let go, though:

"I don't care whether you killed him or not!"
"Well, I -- you don't?"
"I knew about that the day after I moved in here."
"...Why didn't you say something?"

"I did, I said quite a few things at the time, among
them that I adored you. Well, maybe I didn't, I'll say it now. I. Adore. You. If you killed three husbands, I'd still love you."

Ambruster interrupts their tender moment to call and say that he followed Carly to a pawn shop. Bill figures out that must have been how she got the money to pay back his rent and both men are relieved. But what about all that arsenic? Suddenly they hear Carly on the line: "It's used for killing garden pests, gentlemen." Oh.

(On a side note, Novak and Lemmon make for a very believable couple. From this point on, they're always touching, whether it's holding hands or Novak holding onto his arm. At one point they kiss just because Lemmon handed her her purse. It's very cozy and sweet.)

Bill decides to call Oliphant to tell him he's not spying on Carly anymore when during their conversation he hears a click like someone is listening in. He then hears scuffling upstairs in Carly's room -- and a gunshot! He drops the phone, leaving the detective to surmise that Carly must have shot him. Bill rushes to find her with a revolver in her hand and her eyes staring at a body on the floor, Mr. Miles Hardwicke's body. This might be a bit hard to explain to the police... (Is it morbid that I really love this screenshot of Lemmon and Novak? I mean, I don't enjoy the guy lying there, but the rest of the shot has great composition. No? Still weird? Okay.)

At her trial, Carly tells her story on the stand. Miles had sneaked into her room and admitted to setting her up for his murder. It seems that he is a thief of some sort and he had stolen a collection of valuable jewels. He killed the assassin who was sent after him (hence the body that the neighbors saw dragged in the first scene) and figured he would fake his death and come back for the jewels later.
As he's talking, Carly tries to grab her gun, but if you've been paying attention, you'll remember that Bill had taken it earlier. She attempted to call the police, but Bill was on the phone. She and Miles were fighting for his gun when it went off. Carly does a terrible job on the stand, making her whole story look real shady. The trial gets worse for her when Oliphant reveals that Bill had been spying on her. Well, drat.

Luckily, a woman named Agatha Brown (Philippa Bevans) is able to save Carly. Ms. Brown is a nurse for Carly's elderly next-door neighbor, Mrs. Dunhill (Estelle Winwood), and she saw the whole encounter through the window, echoing Carly's plea of self-defense.

Carly goes free, but she wants Bill out of her house ASAP. He comes home and overhears Ms. Brown
thanking Carly for leaving a detail out of her story, which apparently the woman is using to blackmail Carly. Bill demands to know what's going on, but Carly is still upset with him. She ignores his questioning and locks herself in her bathroom, which Bill interprets as her getting ready to kill herself. He slams against the door only to bounce back, so he decides to use Carly's gun to shoot off the door knob instead. It's super silly, but Lemmon sells it.
He busts into the room and is mortified when he sees that Carly is just taking a bath. He proceeds to interrogate her with his eyes closed and learns that Miles was after a pawn ticket that night. Carly had pawned a candelabra (possibly what we saw her carrying in the opening credits?), the same candelabra that Miles used to stash his jewels in. She hadn't mentioned that part of her story because she was afraid the police would assume she was involved in the jewel theft, too.

As Carly talks, she has an epiphany: Ms. Brown couldn't have seen her kill Miles because Carly had briefly looked out the window and saw her on the street. By the time she got upstairs, the whole thing would have been over. It must have been Mrs. Dunhill who witnessed the incident! She told Ms. Brown, who then saw a chance for blackmail and getting the jewels herself. Bill and Carly rush to the pawn shop to stop Ms. Brown from collecting the candelabra, but they discover the pawn broker's dead body instead.

They decide they need to find Mrs. Dunhill, unaware that Ms. Brown is hiding in the next room. Things kick into high gear as Bill and Carly hurry to get to Mrs. Dunhill, who Ms. Brown took to an old folks' home by the sea to keep her in the dark about the blackmail. At the same time, Oliphant tells Ambruster that our darling couple were seen leaving the scene of a murder.

A warrant is put out for their arrest and soon word gets back to the detective that the two were spotted getting train tickets. Ambruster pleads with Oliphant to go with him so he can talk to Bill before they do anything. He is still an employee of the Embassy, after all.

Ms. Brown beats Carly and Bill to the resort by mere seconds. She wheels Mrs. Dunhill away from the outdoor concert she's attending and pushes her down a hill. Bill and Carly literally race to save the old woman -- Carly goes after Ms. Brown and Bill runs after Mrs. Dunhill. This is another example of Blake Edwards's touch. The concert Mrs. Dunhill was listening to was music from The Pirates of Penzance, which continues playing as this whole slapstick adventure goes on. It's the kind of silent film-type setpiece that
Edwards enjoyed doing, and the shots of Lemmon running after Estelle Winwood are quite funny. My favorite is when he thinks she's going off of a cliff so he jumps, only for her to continue straight on to a bridge as he falls into a ditch. Bill succeeds in stopping Mrs. Dunhill's wheelchair and Carly manages to knock Ms. Brown out after some pretty embarrassing tries (let's just say Novak wasn't afraid to fall on her behind... a lot).
Ambruster and Oliphant arrive via helicopter, and both are totally confused. Their confusion gets worse when Bill, Carly, and Mrs. Dunhill try to explain what happened at the same time while Ms. Brown just passes out in a tree. Everything eventually works out -- Ambruster reassigns Bill to America, Carly is going with him, and Ambruster finally gets a kiss on the cheek from her. Unfortunately, Mrs. Dunhill's wheelchair goes sliding and the film ends with our gang rushing after her again.


Notorious Landlady has a few references to other films that its stars did. The score is mainly comprised of "A Foggy Day," a Gershwin song Astaire introduced in A Damsel in Distress in 1938. I think my favorite use of it is after Bill and Carly's first kiss. Bill is so giddy, he sings the song to himself while going to bed and then directs it towards the ceiling since Carly's room is above his. It's a sweet character touch, the type Lemmon excelled at.
Another meta-textual reference is when Lemmon and Novak are getting the grill ready and all of the neighbors are watching out their windows to spy on the couple. Novak jokes that maybe the neighbors think they're witches, alluding to their roles in Bell, Book and Candle. Earlier in the movie, Bill is lying in bed when he suddenly hears Carly playing the organ downstairs. He goes to investigate and seeing how somber Carly and the music are, he tries to lighten the mood by asking her if she knows how to play "My Funny Valentine." Novak sang -- well, lip-sang -- the song in 1957 for Pal Joey. You can read my take on that great movie here.

The film was directed by Richard Quine, who has probably done a lot of films you know. This wasn't his first time working with either Lemmon or Novak. Not only did he direct Lemmon's screen test for Columbia in the early '50s, he also did My Sister Eileen, Operation Mad Ball, Bell, Book and Candle, It Happened to Jane, and How to Murder Your Wife with the actor. Quine and Novak were reportedly involved in a romantic relationship for a few years, but by the time they finished Notorious Landlady, that was over. Landlady was their last film together, too. Besides Bell, Book and Candle, the two also made Pushover and Strangers When We Meet. Novak and Lemmon previously did Phffft! together as well. Blake Edwards, who co-wrote the script with Larry Gelbart, never directed Novak or Astaire, but he did direct Lemmon three times: Days of Wine and Roses (for which Jack won a Best Actor Oscar), The Great Race, and That's Life! Is your head swimming yet?

Fred Astaire seems to be the only new one to the party, though he was friends with Quine and Lemmon. Astaire had this to say about Jack: "I thought Jack was the funniest man I'd ever seen, in private and on the screen. Yet I'd seen him do some really good heavy drama, too. He struck me as being very nervous -- probably because he was trying to do so many things." Landlady is one of Fred's few non-musical roles, which is weird at first but you quickly get over it as you become engaged in the film. On a sad note, Astaire's role originally went to comedian Ernie Kovacs. Kovacs and Lemmon were great friends and even talked about the upcoming project on an episode of What's My Line? Tragically, Kovacs was killed in an automobile accident before production began. His wife, Edie Adams, was too inconsolable to identify his body, so Lemmon did it for her and was later one of the pallbearers.

I'm not completely sure why this movie isn't as well-known as it should be. Maybe it's because it failed at the box office...? For whatever reason, it just doesn't gain a lot of visibility. I caught it on TCM randomly five years ago and have yet to see it play again since. Fortunately it's available on DVD. The actors are all so wonderful and the script does a good job of balancing comedy, drama, and mystery. If you're looking for a great movie to curl up with on a rainy day, definitely give The Notorious Landlady a chance.


This post is my contribution to this fun event, hosted by Theresa at CineMaven's Essays from the Couch and Lesley from Second Sight Cinema. Click on either blog name to see the roster -- it's your civic duty, after all!


  1. I'm a big Kim Novak fan...but THIS one has escaped me. Your contribution to our blogathon with "The Notorious Landlady" will put seeing this high on my list. Thanks again for joining us in court, Michaela.

    1. Thanks, Theresa! I love Novak too, and this film is one of my favorites from her. It's one of my faves from Lemmon, too. It isn't a very well-known movie, and as I said, TCM has mysteriously stopped showing it for a few years now, but I found a good cheap copy on Amazon that's part of a Lemmon collection. Hope you enjoy it whenever you do see it!

  2. I love your love for "The Notorious Landlady" and hereby promise forthwith to revisit with an open mind and open heart. I do have a fondness for the melacholy comedy of Richard Quine.

    1. That makes me so glad! Every time I revisit it, I find something new to enjoy. I hope you're not disappointed when you give it another chance!

      Richard Quine certainly picked some good, quirky films -- Bell, Book and Candle may be my fave of his, although perfect it ain't. Thanks for reading, as always!

  3. Thank you for being part of the blogathon, Michaela, and for putting us onto a lesser-known title. I look forward to seeing it. Another thing in its favor might be that it lets Miss Novak play against a leading man closer to her age—in most of her movies in this era her costars are around 50, while she was in her mid-20s. Novak and Lemmon sound refreshing!

    Lesley / Second Sight Cinema

  4. That's an interesting point. Although I rarely look at ages in the movies, it probably does help that Lemmon was in her age group. They make a really wonderful pair in my opinion. Thanks for co-hosting this event!

  5. Whoa! I've never even HEARD of this film, even with this terrific cast. I'll see if I can find it in our library. Thanks!

  6. I heard bout this film once, maybe twice, and with your review I'm even more tempted to watch it. I need to see more of Kim Novak's filmography!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. It's such a good film. I hope you get to check it out sometime. Thanks for reading!

  7. Can anyone please tell me who the first body belonged to, the one which was dragged into the garage?
    Initially, we are led to believe that it's Carley's husband, but he appears to be alive until his gun goes off in a struggle with Carley. I csn't imsgine who it is. Any suggestions ?

    1. Good question! I actually had to rewatch a part of the film just now to answer that because I couldn't even remember the explanation. The husband, Myles, tells Carly that the man he stole jewels from sent an assassin to kill him but he managed to kill him first, so I'm assuming the body belongs to the assassin.


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