“To put it plainly, Mr Gridley, I have a dubious reputation.”
“You do? I’ll pay you £45 a month.”
– Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon in “The Notorious Landlady” (1962)
The Notorious Landlady
Kim Novak had become such a big name by the early 1960s that she was given top billing over Fred Astaire and Jack Lemmon in her last film for Columbia – the studio where she rose to stardom in films such as Picnic, Bell Book And Candle and Strangers When We Meet.
“The Notorious Landlady” stars Novak as the landlady, with Jack Lemmon and Fred Astaire as US diplomats. Lemmon is sent to London on diplomatic business and, needing some place to stay, rents part of Novak’s house. He doesn’t know people think she’s killed her husband (Maxwell Reed), who has mysteriously disappeared. Despite rumors and suspicion but without a body, the police are unable to act, although their investigations are continuing.
Lemmon’s boss, US ambassador, Fred Astaire, finds out and is none too pleased. When a detective from Scotland Yard, Lionel Jeffries, arrives at the embassy, he convinces Lemmon, who has by now fallen in love with Novak, to spy on her without letting her know she is being investigated. When a fire erupts as Novak and Lemmon are grilling steaks in the backyard of her house, newspaper reports cause a scandal that threatens Lemmon’s diplomatic position. Since Novak is also a US citizen, she goes to the American embassy to tell the ambassador that Lemmon is a good man and not to send him out of the country. The ambassador, Fred Astaire, takes Novak to lunch and after becoming enamoured with her, proclaims her innocence.
Soon after, Novak’s husband, Maxwell Reed, turns up alive but then is shot and killed by her as Lemmon is on the phone to the Scotland Yard detective. Novak stands trial but is exonerated because a crippled neighbor’s private nurse saw Reed attacking her.
Novak admits she is being blackmailed by the neighbor, who wants the pawn ticket to a candelabra Novak recently pawned to pay the bills. The candelabra, belonging to her dead husband, was stuffed with stolen jewels. When Lemmon and Novak go to retrieve the candelabra, they find the pawnbroker murdered and the neighbor in the act of pushing her elderly patient off a cliff to silence her – the one who witnessed Novak being attacked.
Confused? Don’t worry, it will all (sort of) make sense when you watch it. Directed by Richard Quine, this neglected Anglo-American breezy comedy is a delight and well worth a look. It doesn’t all quite fit together – with a finale comprised of a lengthy Keystone Cops style chase to Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance – but it’s all great fun. The elderly patient is saved as ambassador Fred Astaire arrives with the Scotland Yard detective arrive to arrest the guilty party.
The film had a mixed reception, as you can read from the reviews below, but it nonetheless has its fans and admirers.
“The Notorious Landlady” was filmed along the California coast of Carmel substituting for the English coastline near London. It was also Jack Lemmon’s third film with Ms. Novak, having appeared with her in Phffft  and Bell, Book and Candle .
According to Lemmon in Don Widener’s biography of him, the actor thought The Notorious Landlady “had so many twists and turns I couldn’t follow it. A couple of years ago it came on television and I sat through it again and still couldn’t get a handle on it. I delivered lines in that picture with absolute conviction – and I haven’t the faintest idea to this day what they meant.” – TCM
Poor Fred Astaire comes off the worst of all – he’s stuck as a fawning American embassy chief.” – Dennis Schwartz
A rather mild B&W comedy/mystery, featuring the bumbling comic antics of Jack Lemon and the ravishing beauty of Kim Novak. Under Richard Quine’s laborious direction, the film only perks up for its surprising ending – a takeoff on slapstick comedies from the silent era. The film failed to catch my interest even though the actors seemed to be giving an all-out effort to make this turkey have legs. The main problem lies in the ridiculous script. Poor Fred Astaire comes off the worst of all – he’s stuck as a fawning American embassy chief, afraid a scandal would ruin his career. His part was so wooden, you could have thrown it into the fireplace for kindling wood.
The slapstick climax, set in an old age resort by the sea, sees the funniest moment when the one who could truly clear Kim of any crime, the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Dunhill, is being pushed down a cliff by Mrs. Brown and Lemon is running after her to stop her fall.
– Dennis Schwartz: Ozus World Movie Reviews