If, a quarter of a century ago, you had mentioned the word "thriller" to a friend, the first image that came to mind might have been not a single white-sequined glove, but a fleshy double chin. In 1958 Alfred Hitchcock was the undisputed king of suspense with Vertigo, starring Jimmy Stewart in a masterfully choreographed double helix of a plot. Unlike Hitchcock's 1954 Rear Window, Vertigo was graced not by Kelly as Stewart's blond siren but by the curvier Kim Novak. Then 25, the younger of two daughters of a railroad dispatcher, Novak had been an art school student and a traveling Miss Deepfreeze model for a refrigerator-ad campaign when she was discovered in L.A. A product of lower-middle-class Chicago, she was snapped up by Columbia and signed to a $100-a-week contract. She later starred in such hits as The Man With the Golden Arm and Picnic. But her mind-bending dual role in Vertigo was especially demanding, requiring her to play both objects of Stewart's obsession: a cool blonde and a voluptuous brunette. Like Window, Vertigo was kept out of revival cinemas until last year. Now Vertigo is grossing $3.4 million in its second release, though Kim, unlike Stewart, gets no percentage of today's beefed-up grosses. Still, the Hitchcock craze (three more of his gems have been dusted off this year) has turned Novak, 51, into a most unlikely box-office favorite for 1984. Though Hollywood is far behind her—she shares her 20-acre spread in Carmel, Calif. with second husband Robert Malloy, a veterinarian—the film has brought back lots of memories.

Hitchcock, says Novak, was "a piece of cake" to work for, compared with her Columbia boss, Harry Cohn. Still, Hitchcock remained enigmatic, aloof and not terribly helpful. He never discussed "the whys of a part, only the whats," she says. He paced technically intricate scenes with metronomes but "never tried to reach for the things inside of you," adds Novak. "It was all still so new to me. I needed as much help as I could get. I was fascinated, in awe of him, but I got no help." It was Stewart who gave her actorly advice. "He made me feel so comfortable, so loved. He didn't try to take over."

Hitchcock once overruled her when she spoke up and said she'd feel more at home in beige shoes than in black, as scripted for the blond Madeleine. "He thought it was good that it made me feel Madeleine's discomfort. He never cared. A woman was supposed to be in her place and do as told. Actors are much freer today, but I wouldn't trade in my experiences. I worked against obstacles, they became challenges to grow from, and I survived them."

Scenes from Vertigo, Novak's 11th film, were shot around Carmel and sparked her first yearnings for a serene private life beyond Hollywood. In 1962 she bought a retreat in the Carmel highlands. Despite dates with studs and stars such as Frank Sinatra, Aly Khan and Cary Grant, it was Carmel that seduced her.

But the lush pastoral Northern California haven couldn't protect Novak from a "black period" in the late '60s. Though she had discovered poetry, artists and serious painting, a yearlong love affair with musician Al Shackman had fallen apart. Her subsequent marriage in 1965 to actor Richard Johnson ended after a few months. That same year she fell from a black stallion while on location in France and spent months recovering, flat on her back. Then came an eerie scene that even Hitchcock could not have devised. Two years to the day after Novak fell, after she had just wrapped The Legend of Lylah Clare, a stuntman's horse, another black stallion, broke from a corral. She chased it off an L.A. freeway in a car, but the horse went berserk. It crashed into the car and through her sunroof, and after getting its legs "horribly mangled" in the glass, died in her arms.

Later she found peace of mind on her new 20 acres, where she built a barn for her animals, a tree house and the two-bedroom aerie she has filled with her oil paintings, polished driftwood chairs and earth-tone pillows. A sun deck hot tub overlooks a redwood canyon and Monterey Bay on the horizon. Her menagerie has grown from her first llama, Uno, now 14, to include 19 other llamas, several horses, dogs, a donkey and a goat. Appropriately, the new man in her life turned out to be the vet who showed up for a house call.

Nebraska-bred Malloy, 44, the divorced father of a teenage boy and girl, hardly knew Novak's screen credits. But he shared plenty of things in common with her—from the same astrological sign (Aquarius) to a passion for Arabian horses and skiing to left-handedness and the same brand of chainsaws. They married in 1976 under an oak tree on her land.

Malloy runs an animal hospital near Salinas and has shown Novak how to deliver calves, foals and llamas. Though she still does the odd "departure" film, like The Mirror Crack'd with Liz Taylor in 1980, "just to show people I'm still around," Novak's life is all Carmel and caring for her llamas, which sell for $6,000 apiece. "It's such a happy hobby," she says. "You know they'll be loved, not butchered like cattle. People want llamas for backpacking or just as companions. We try to match each up with just the right person."

Novak is still a traffic-stopping sight in town malls, keeping fit and shapely with regular ski trips and the three weekly exercise classes she gives at a nearby Boy Scout hall (the $5 fee for 90 minutes covers rental and insurance only). She has cut out sugar, never smoked and confines her drinking to dinner wines. She remains unaffected and can be effortlessly glamorous in casual outfits, even when picking ticks off her dogs. Refreshingly, she displays none of the dreary narcissism of a fading screen queen. Indeed, Novak is far more interested in her future than in her past. "I look forward to the changes and experiences that go along with the aging process," she says. "There are all those things you don't have to deal with anymore, and that's a great freedom. As a child I was shy and quiet, always staying behind the scenes. Now I can be the person I always was."

  • Contributors:
  • Suzanne Adelson.