The word that comes inevitably to mind when thinking of The Notorious Landlady is “charming.” A winding (and deeply British) murder mystery wrapped in a romantic comedy, the movie is not overly well-known, a sort of overlooked gem for fans of classic film, any of the main stars, or caper-esque rom-coms. The movie is based on a short story called “The Notorious Tenant” by Margery Sharp, adapted for the screen by Larry Gelbart and Blake Edwards, and directed by Richard Quine. With a stellar cast to round it off, it’s no wonder the film has maintained its appeal.
Kim Novak, appropriately, gets top billing as Carly Hardwicke, an American woman living in England who has become the source of scandal upon the disappearance of her husband, in whose presumed murder (no body has been found) she is the prime suspect. Carly, having been denied a work permit due to the ongoing investigation, decides to rent a room in her London home to a boarder to make ends meet, becoming the titular landlady.
Enter Bill Gridley (Jack Lemmon), an American diplomat just back from the Middle East on a new assignment in England, who needs a place to stay. Unfamiliar with the shroud of mystery surrounding Carly, he answers her newspaper ad for a flat to let.
The way these two characters meet sets the stage for the madcap nature of the plot. Carly, whose prospective tenants have consistently retracted their interest in her flat upon discovering their future landlady is the suspected murderess they’ve read about in the papers, decides to disguise herself as “Hilda,” the parlor maid to the phantom “mistress of the house” while conducting interviews. She is in this costume when Bill Gridley makes his inquiry about her room to rent.
Taking on a deliberately over-the-top cockney accent, she reluctantly allows Bill to view the flat, with the charade lasting a few brief moments before Bill catches on (and becomes completely enchanted by her, weirdness and all).
It’s in this cornerstone of the story — Bill’s attraction to Carly no matter how many bizarre twists and turns pop up in front him — that allows this film to remain entertaining despite the wildness of the plot. Bill is hyper-romantic, with Lemmon doing some of his best high-energy comedy. He is intensely defensive of Carly after one — ONE — date. He will brook no maligning of her character and scoffs at the accusations against her. Which, once again, include potential murder.
Cleverly, the film acknowledges this absurd level of trust and incorporates it into the story. Fred Astaire, in a wonderful supportive role as Bill’s boss at the American Embassy, Franklyn Ambruster, accosts him frequently about his blind faith in Carly after having known her for almost no time at all. In fact, Ambruster’s constant dismay at Bill’s increasingly erratic behavior on behalf of Carly is one of the best sources of comedy in the movie.
For her part, Novak is ideally cast. The script makes clever use of the femme fatale trope and works with it playfully. Novak’s signature enigmatic persona is note-perfect for Carly, who we’re pretty sure is innocent of the murder, but we’re also very sure is hiding things. And, like Bill, we really like her and want to know more about her. Unlike the usual femme fatale, however, Carly proves repeatedly inept at anything approaching sinister (let alone violent) behavior, even trying to break off her blossoming relationship with Bill over concerns of damage to his reputation through association with her scandalized image. (Bill, unsurprisingly, chooses to “associate” with her anyway.)
The movie takes notes from the pages of Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, and noted screwball directors like Howard Hawks and Frank Capra. There is a wonderful array of secondary British characters, including an unflappable Scotland Yard detective and delightfully sharp elderly neighbor played by Estelle Winwood. There are multiple “McGuffins” at play in the story, but as is usually the case with that plot device, we are perfectly happy to overlook them in favor of the humorous suspense and romance. And with plenty of antics and hairpin turns (Lemmon himself joked about having been totally confused by the plot), it pulls off a broadness of style that movies with lesser talents at the helm probably could not have.
There are also numerous inside jokes and Easter eggs for the eagle-eyed to find, including a callback to Lemmon’s and Novak’s previous film together, Bell, Book & Candle during an ill-fated backyard barbecue, and a non-speaking appearance by Lemmon’s father in the final sequence of the film.
Overall, this film is deliberately zany and a lot of fun. Novak uses her mastery of on-screen mysteriousness to perfect romantic and comedic pitch, playing an endearing character who is impossible not to pull for. And Lemmon employs his signature bouncing-off-the-walls style of comedy performance to keep pace with a story that seems to be always changing directions. It’s a genuinely enjoyable film, especially if you have a soft spot for either (or both!) of the main stars.
Novak’s ability to walk the tightrope of being both elusively sexy and vulnerable does a good bit of the heavy-lifting of the movie, however. And it is, of course, her story we’re watching unfold. The titular landlady has been through some things, and she evolves from something of a shut-in who dons literal costumes to avoid more unwanted attention to a full-fledged leading lady who takes down not one but two of the film’s antagonists. This is one of Novak’s most appealing screen performances in my book.