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Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo has one of the best romantic pairings of the fifties, and Columbia Pictures repeated it with an equally romantic but completely different kind of film -- a whimsical fantasy about witchcraft. James Stewart and Kim Novak seem to be taking a sentimental vacation away from murder plots and falls from great heights ... swapping Hitchcock's mysterioso mood for an amiable and sensual treatment of --- witchcraft.
1958's Bell, Book and Candle plays like a do-over to allow Novak and Stewart a happier finish. Beautiful, mysterious art gallery proprietress Gil Holroyd (Novak) is actually a practicing witch. She resorts to a love charm to attract publisher Shep Henderson (James Stewart), prying him away from his icky fianceé Merle (Janice Rule). Gil's Aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and her own brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon are happy-go-lucky Greenwich Village practitioners that limit their magic to petty ends -- Nicky can't find a good job. Nicky foolishly helps phony occult writer Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs) learn about real witchcraft, which threatens to expose all of them witches.
No show could be further from the paranoid horror of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, which is also New York- based. Greenwich Village has come a long way from the uptight, neurotic Satanists of Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim. Less like the occult thriller Burn Witch, Burn and more like TV's Bewitched, witchcraft here is an apparently non-Satanic lifestyle. Nonconformist Gil celebrates Christmas, or at least decorates for the holiday. The impish Nicky is a sly prankster and Aunt Queenie so irresponsible with her potions and charms that she risks letting out their secret. But Gil is at heart a soft and loving woman just looking for that right guy. She just happens to practice the secrets of Black Magic, is all.
Of course, the romantic problems arise when Gil breaks the rules of witchcraft by falling in love with her new 'enchanted' boyfriend, and regrets not winning him the honest way. This is of course foolish, as any breathing man would crawl through fire for a date with Gil, who is a knockout in her glamorous hip-chick costumes. The vision of Kim Novak in soft sweaters, conversing with her cat-familiar Pyewacket, strikes close to the spirit of the actress herself -- creative, calm, self-possessed. Kim Novak takes to the barefoot Bohemian style quite well, even with a pair of painted eyebrows that resemble giant commas come to roost.
Richard Quine directed a pile of early Novak pictures, some better than others. Here he's aided by terrific star chemistry. Novak and James Stewart seem made for each other despite the obvious age difference. Stewart exercises his comedy skills without resorting to Harvey- type slapstick. His late night snuggling scenes with Novak equate romantic infatuation with magical enchantment. If Bell, Book and Candle had played as a straight drama, it may have had trouble with the Production Code. Hollywood movies in the 1950s insisted on Judeo-Christianity being the only acceptable context for most relationships. I imagine that plenty of today's religious fundamentalists today would be offended by the film's portrayal of witchcraft as benign.
This was Jack Lemmon's last feature before the quantum stardom boost that came with Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot. He and the eccentric Ernie Kovacs make a great team. Kovacs is perfectly cast as a fraudulent occult author who can't believe he's latched onto the real deal. Elsa Lanchester handles the dotty comedy well enough -- we wish she had been cast with a little more creativity -- and Hermione Gingold is a wise elder member of the local coven.
Columbia gave Bell, Book and Candle the best production values it had to offer. Cinematographer James Wong Howe paints the elaborate Greenwich Village sets in attractive colors, lending New York a hint of fantasy. The local Satanic hangout, a smoky hep-cat nightclub, serves as an interesting contrast to Gil Holroyd's tasteful arts shop. George Duning provides the lush score. Bell, Book and Candle plays very well on a large screen but tended to seem slow on old TV airings broken up with commercials. This widescreen Blu-ray really recreates the theatrical experience -- we feel like we're cozying up with two of our favorite people. The various plot conflicts are secondary considerations -- quite a few Novak fans think this is her most entertaining picture.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Bell, Book and Candle follows up on a Sony DVD that came in a 2010 Kim Novak set. The super-saturated color replicates the lush look of original Technicolor prints. The DVD's lesser resolution hid the slight granularity of the (probably slightly) faded original film elements, but the full scan of HD for this disc shows more grain. Also, the Technicolor printing process -- a 'publishing' process as opposed to a photochemical one -- smoothed out the original grain as well. 1
Twilight Time thoughtfully includes a couple of featurettes from the 2010 disc, produced by Greg Carson and interviewer Steven Rebello. Kim Novak sticks to standard praise to talk about her co-stars Lemmon and Kovacs but assures us that she recognized a fellow 'real person' in James Stewart, a man as comfortable "as a pair of old slippers". Novak also cops to loving the witchcraft angle -- she obviously delighted in working with Pyewacket, the Siamese cat.
Also included is an original trailer and the expected Isolated Score Track, which is like getting a free Original Soundtrack Album included in one's purchase. TT's house scribe Julie Kirgo uses her pamphlet essay to discuss Bell, Book and Candle from interesting angles. Kim Novak's Gil gets rid of James Stewart's fianceé, played by Janice Rule; the cruel irony is that Rule played the lead in Picnic on Broadway, only to see Novak swipe the part when the play came to the screen. We love Janice Rule's bitchy Texas wife in Arthur Penn's The Chase, but Columbia also cast her in demeaning shows, like the Dean Martin / Matt Helm superspy dud The Ambushers. Rule has the thankless role here, and carries it off with charm to spare.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bell, Book and Candle Blu-ray rates:
1. I was not bothered by the Blu-ray's appearance, and I thought I'd defend it against some of the comments I've read on the web. Now is not a time to be releasing videodiscs, if you are sensitive about the kinds of discussions that float around on Bulletin Boards and other web discussion sites. Not only is everyone an instant expert, there's altogether too much ignorant outraged protest against this and that 'filmic crime' being perpetrated by film restoration people. Yeah, it does seem that if a picture has problems, it'll be one of my personal favorites. But I don't start accusing people or forming aesthetic lynch mobs. Bell, Book and Candle may have a bit of extra grain, but I congratulate Sony for not wiping it out with excessive DNR.
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T'was Ever Thus.