I was pretty disappointed the first time I saw Bell Book and Candle (1958), a romantic comedy-fantasy about a witch who falls in love with a mortal man in present-day New York. Given the cast, headlined by James Stewart, Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, and Ernie Kovacs (and Hermione Gingold and Elsa Lanchester), expectations ran high yet almost unfathomably the film never seemed to live up to its potential.
Seeing it again, via Twilight Time's excellent Blu-ray release, I can appreciate its many virtues while identifying, finally, where it goes wrong. It's an unusual, almost experimental film by big studio standards, very subtle both visually and in its screenplay in ways that disappointed audiences expecting a different sort of film. And yet this experimentation and subtlety is what makes Bell Book and Candle (no commas in the title) so interesting today.
It was photographed by one of Hollywood's great cinematographers, James Wong Howe, and Twilight Time's Blu-ray is generally excellent, with notably good color and a general precision in the transfer that captures Howe's unique look. Audio is listed on the box as 5.1 DTS-MD but in fact the feature is 1.0 DTS-MD mono, while the isolated score is 2.0 DTS-MD stereo. A few older extras from the August 2010 Kim Novak Collection DVD set have been ported over.
Just before Christmas, Manhattan publisher Shep Henderson (James Stewart) is engaged to Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule), but his downstairs neighbor Gillian "Gil" Holroyd (Kim Novak), who runs a gallery/boutique of primitive African art, admires him from afar. Being a witch, Gil casts a spell on Shep, causing him to abruptly break off his imminent wedding to Merle while falling hopelessly in love with Gil.
Other characters become entangled in this story. When Shep expresses an interest in meeting bestselling author Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs), Gil casts a spell on him, too, compelling the writer to fly to New York to meet with Shep. Sidney pitches a book about witchcraft in modern-day Manhattan, which alarms Gil, so she instructs her warlock brother, bongo drummer Nicky (Jack Lemmon), to throw Sidney off the scent. Ambitious Nicky instead strikes a deal with Sidney for a tell-all exposť about the local witchcrafting community.
I think the basic problem with Bell Book and Candle is that Stewart's character is a passive participant for almost the entire film. For the first three-quarters of the picture, he's completely oblivious to the spell cast on him, and when finally told by Gil for a long time after he refuses to believe her. In short, despite Stewart's top billing the movie's drama and conflicts really have nothing much to do with him, nor does he drive the plot at all. Instead, it's all about her conflicted emotions, of being attracted to and repulsed by mortal notions and consequences of falling in love. For Novak this is an excellent star turn, but Stewart is like a fifth wheel.
Bell Book and Candle was a package deal in the days before such things were commonplace. Vera Miles was to star opposite Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (the new Greatest Film of All-Time, cough-cough, according to the BFI/Sight & Sound poll), a Paramount production, but she got pregnant, so instead a loan-out arrangement was made to borrow Kim Novak from Columbia with the proviso that Stewart would then appear with Novak in Bell Book and Candle for Columbia. Ironically, Cary Grant wanted to play Stewart's role in this, while Stewart coveted Grant's role in North by Northwest, being made simultaneously.
Bell Book and Candle is notable mainly for its unusual look. Although confined largely to Hollywood backlot sets cinematographer Howe's subtle lighting* and cinematography (aided by Life photographer Eliot Elisofon) is so good that it accurately captures New York of the late-1950s better than just about anything not actually shot there. The lighting of interiors is more realistically darker, less harsh and warmer than was usual for the period, giving it a look closer to an episode of Mad Men than most late '50s films.
To achieve this subtler visual approach, Howe may have used a faster but grainier film stock, which would explain the much higher level of grain present throughout Bell Book and Candle, but it's a valid trade-off.
Other virtues likewise become more apparent on a second viewing. Jack Lemmon, who tended toward the gratingly manic at this stage of his career, underplays Nicky, a wise move and one that adds an intriguing bit of menace if not subtly playful sadism to his character, a trait not usually associated with the everyman actor. The irreplaceable Ernie Kovacs, his mumbling writer alternately rumpled, disheveled, and nonplussed, creates quite a funny and original characterization.
Video & Audio
Released 1.85:1 and presented here in 1.78:1 full frame format, Bell Book and Candle looks terrific for reasons described in more detail above. The fine, grainy film stock is justified by the warm, more authentic look and rich colors it achieves, and it has never looked better on home video. The 1.0 DTS-MD mono is better than adequate, while the isolated score, in 2.0 DTS-MD stereo, sounds great. The all-region disc is supported by optional English SDH subtitles.
Supplements include a short trailer and two somewhat odd and largely unexplained segments, "Bewitched, Bothered and Beautiful" (mislabeled "Bewitched, Bothered and Blonde" on the packaging) and "Reflections in the Middle of the Night" feature clips from Bell Book and Candle and, in the latter's case, a lesser-known Kim Novak film called Middle of the Night (1959). In both segments, only clips are shown as an unidentified Stephen Rebello interviews Novak about each film, her face never shown. Twilight Time hasn't announced a DVD and/or Blu-ray of Middle of the Night up to now, so its inclusion is baffling.
Seeing Bell Book and Candle in high-def and on Blu-ray doesn't really make it any better a movie than it was on DVD (or, for that matter, on 16mm when I first saw it), but one can certainly appreciate James Wong Howe's subtle cinematography more, and just about everything comes off better on a second viewing. It's a handsome disc, and Highly Recommended.
* Whenever Gil or her various friends and cohorts perform magic, Howe's lighting effects turn everything a subtle emerald color. Note how in the witches' hangout, the proto-beatnik Zodiac Club, rife as it is with witches and warlocks, the place is positively bathed in the same hue.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.