One of two 1958 movies in which James Stewart finds himself bewitched by Kim Novak, Bell, Book And Candle may be the less-mentioned of the two (the other being Vertigo, of course), but I am sure that those who love this film would sneer at anyone labelling it as a lesser work. In fact, I am now one of those people who love the film, and I know that I would sneer at anyone labelling it as a lesser work. The only label you should put on this is one that says "absolute treat".
Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a woman who owns a small store in New York. She takes an interest in her upstairs neighbour, a publisher named Shep Henderson (James Stewart), and decides to make a move on him, despite the fact that he is engages to Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule). Shep is helpless to resist the charms of Gillian, largely because she's a witch able to cast a love spell on him. Encouraged by her aunt, Queenie (Elsa Lanchester), and her brother, Nicky (Jack Lemmon), Gillian gets a bit carried away with her scheme, also engineering a meeting between Shep and a writer (Sidney Redlitch, played by Ernie Kovacs) he was eager to work with. If it's really meant going to be a genuine love story, however, then Gillian knows that she has to tell Shep the truth. But will they stay together if the spell is broken?
Based on a play by John Van Druten, Bell, Book And Candle is brought to the screen by writer Daniel Taradash and director Richard Quine. Both may have other contenders for their best films, but this one should be fighting for a spot very near the top. It doesn't feel hampered by the adaptation from stage to screen, it fairly zips along through the 106-minute runtime, and there isn’t a weak link in the central cast.
Stewart does what he does so well, being a level-headed and generally swell guy, while Novak manages to be as constantly mesmerising as she needs to be, especially in the shots that show her using her powers with the help of her familiar, a cat named Pyewacket. Lanchester and Lemmon are both great fun, far less coy about using their magical powers than Novak’s character and happy to play tricks on unsuspecting humans in their company. Kovacs is also fun, especially when he is relaying his “expertise” to characters that he doesn’t realise know far more than he does, and Rule does her best in a role that requires her to be pushed aside very early on. Hermione Gingold also needs mentioned here, portraying the powerful Bianca de Passe, someone who may be able to prove the unbelievable truth to our leading man, and may also be able to break the spell.
I am sure that there are great essays out there about this film, with so much to explore under the rom-com surface, but I am just here with a brief and light review. I will mention the wonderful dialogue, the delight viewers will feel as they watch the plot strands weave together, the great score from George Duning, and the sequence that has Jack Lemmon energetically playing the bongos. But I would also encourage fans of the film to check out more in-depth examinations of it, because it certainly rewards further exploration.
“Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble”, I may have got myself in a bit of a muddle, trying to end by encouraging people to see this . . . on the double.
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