Can a witch and a mortal find true happiness? This is the inquiry at the crux of John Van Druten’s sexy comedy, Bell Book and Candle, produced on Broadway by Irene Mayer Selznick and winningly brought to the screen by director Richard Quine in 1958. The play, a light-hearted romp with few obvious moments for cliché or hyperbole, nevertheless proved an adroit winner with theatre audiences. The film has a bit more difficulty selling its wares, not because Quine and screenwriter, Daniel Taradash have altered the original chemistry or even construction of the piece, but rather because witchcraft and the occult seemed on film then – and continue to appear today – as strange bedfellows in a mainstream romantic comedy without the obvious laughs factored into the equation.
Yet, Bell, Book and Candle is sincere to a fault about its subject matter. This isn’t TV’s Bewitched or the big screen’s Harry Potter, but a fairly well grounded, if slightly sadistic, manipulation of the natural state of love; pitting the naiveté of a hapless male, whose genuine affections are almost dispatched, merely to satisfy the figment of a woman’s guileless boredom. Thankfully, the film is ideally cast with ‘everyman’ James Stewart as Shepherd Henderson; a congenial book publisher who is looking to expand his credits into the occult after author Sidney Redlitch’s (Ernie Kovacs) novel ‘Magic in Mexico’ proves an unlikely overnight sensation.
Into this mix we add Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak); the sinfully mysterious proprietor of a gift shop specializing in African art. As it turns out, Gillian and Shep’ are neighbours. He rooms just above her establishment. After Gillian’s Aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) casts a spell on Shep’s telephone, Shep’ inquires if he might use Gillian’s to confirm a rendezvous with fiancée, Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule). Although Gillian allows Shep’ the use of her telephone, she has already secretly decided to have a relationship with him too.
Gillian suggests to Shep’ that he might take Merle to the afterhours Zodiac nightclub where she intends to celebrate Christmas eve with Queenie, and her brother, Nicky (Jack Lemmon) – who also plays the bongos in the jazz quartet there. Yet, almost from the moment Shep agrees to her invitation, Gillian systematically sets about to ruin his pending nuptials. At first, Gillian’s deceptions are playful. Recalling that she and Merle once shared a dorm in college, and furthermore, that Merle was deathly afraid of thunderstorms, Gillian has Nicky and the boys in the band break into a wild rendition of Stormy Weather, complete with flashing light effects to simulate lightning. The song sends Merle over the edge and she flees the Zodiac with Shep in tow.
Later that evening, however, Gillian plots a more deliberate temptation for Shep, enticing him to the backroom of her shop and casting a love spell over him. Unable to control himself, Shep’ falls for Gillian and the two spend a blissful Christmas day together. Afterward, Shep’ goes to Merle’s apartment and rather cold-heartedly dissolves their wedding plans – growing ever more pleased with himself as he smartly dashes off in pursuit of Gillian. The wrinkle herein is, of course, that Gillian has no lasting interest in Shep. He is merely her latest distraction.
Gillian next uses her powers of black magic to summons the loveably alcoholic Sidney Redlitch away from his island retreat. He arrives at Shep’s office and proposes a sequel to ‘Magic in Mexico’ entitled ‘Magic in Manhattan’. Overjoyed to near euphoria, Shep agrees to publish this, as yet, unproduced manuscript. In the meantime, Nicky decides to have a little fun with Sidney by revealing that he is a warlock. Astounded and confused, Sidney agrees to co-author his book with Nicky.
The one fly in the ointment is Gillian’s arch rival, Bianca de Passe (Hermione Gingold). When Gillian threatens to boycott Nicky’s collaboration on Sidney’s book with another spell, Nicky does his sister one better by taking Shep to Bianca’s isolated home in the country to permanently undo Gillian’s love spell. This Bianca does quite effectively; perhaps too well. After his reawakening, Shep’ reads Sidney and Nicky’s book and thinks it ‘A’ number one trash.
The great tragedy, however, is that Gillian has decided to forsake witchcraft for her one and only chance to be happy with Shep’ as a mortal. The proof of her contrition is in her sudden ability to feel genuine emotions and cry – something witches apparently cannot do. Shep’ who has already read about this anomaly in Nicky’s book realizes what a monumental sacrifice Gillian has made for him and falls in love with her all over again – only this time their magical chemistry is real.
Bell, Book and Candle is the sort of bizarre tripe that could only have worked quite so well during Hollywood’s golden age. Its crackling wit is an artistic subterfuge for an utterly nonsensical story without much of anything else going for it. The strength of the piece is therefore not derived from its narrative, but from clever character-driven star turns that manage to buttress our interests until the film’s inevitable conclusion.
James Stewart and Kim Novak’s reunion (having already co-starred in Hitchcock’s Vertigo 1958) seems not only a continuation of that winning association, but an obvious extension to the parts already played. Novak’s reluctantly devious Judy in Vertigo is brought to full blossom as the diabolically manipulative Gillian in Bell Book and Candle. Stewart’s Shep’ is even more obsessed with possessing Gillian than his Scotty was at keeping tabs on Judy in Hitch’s film. Herein, Stewart is never anything less than genuine, while Novak, at long last, eschews her rather ambiguous sensuality in the movies, evolving it into a steely-eyed insincerity that simply smolders with refined sexual tenacity.
And then, of course, there are the many distinguished in supporting roles who are every bit as integral to the film’s success as its two principle stars. Hermione Gingold, Elsa Lanchester, Janice Rule, Ernie Kovacs and, Jack Lemmon (on the cusp of his own super stardom) make indelible impressions that continue to ‘haunt’ us even when they are not on the screen in a particular scene.
That tangible quality – to be memorable even in absentia – adds another layer of credibility to Bell Book and Candle - the movie - that arguably the play never had. In lesser hands, these parts would seem moderately silly to grossly ridiculous. Yet, none falters in their faithfulness to the material. Arguably, their commitment makes Bell, Book and Candle the first movie to be justly classified as both a fluff piece and a substantial work of cinema art. In the final analysis, there is something truly magical about this movie.
Via an exclusive arrangement with Sony Pictures (custodians of the old Columbia Pictures film library), Twilight Time Home Entertainment gives us a relatively admirable 1080p transfer. The results are hardly perfect. Bell Book and Candle was shot at a particularly perilous time, long after the old 3 strip Technicolor dye transfers had given way to the more cost effective monopack vegetable dye process. However, almost immediately studios began to notice that this new colour system did not yield as rich a palette and was hardly as resilient against the ravages of time.
Bell Book and Candle’s original negative hints at some ‘vinegar syndrome’ deterioration. Blu-ray’s superior fidelity brings this out more readily and with greater clarity. As example, certain sequences exhibit a rather grainy quality coupled with softness and slightly faded colours. This degeneration is presented inconsistently throughout this 1080p transfer. Flesh tones that appear naturally pink in one shot suddenly look quite pallid in the next, or worse, take on a decidedly yellowish characteristic.
The overall image quality is gritty than expected. Again, this is not a flaw in the 1080p transfer but an age related anomaly that nothing short of a complete digital restoration effort could have rectified. Overall, contrast levels are adequately balanced, although these too have a tendency to be slightly bumped. Exterior location photography looks duller than interior set pieces and rear projection shots are painfully obvious. The DTS 5.1 audio is a revelation, particularly when augmenting George Duning’s original underscoring. With a few rare exceptions, dialogue is incredibly natural sounding.
Extras are a curiosity. We get Bewitched, Bothered and Blonde – a featurette in which Kim Novak waxes affectionately about her participation in the film. The oddity is a featurette, also with Novak, that focuses on Middle of the Night – another film entirely that is not a part of Twilight Time’s general release calendar. The isolated score track also leaves something to be desired as it tends to fade in and out to accommodate moments where dialogue is absent. There’s also a theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)