Synopsis: Meet Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak), Greenwich Village’s most seductive sorceress. Powerful, glamrous, and a wee bit bored, Gillian knows that witches can’t fall in love. But they can have fun…especially if their lover belongs to another woman! So when Gillian discovers handsome new neighbor Shep Henderson (James Stewart) is the fiance of an old college nemesis (Janice Rule), she promptly puts the befuddled publisher under her spell. But while her sex may have heated up Shep’s heart, it has also unthawed her own, leading to a romantic compilation that not even Pyewacket — Gillian’s mind-reading cat – could have foreseen.
Bell Book and Candle 6.75
eyelights: the unusual setting for the genre. the lithe and well-trained cat.
eyesores: Kim Novak. the third act. the final scene.
“Oh, Pye, Pye, Pyewacket. What’s the matter with me? Why do I feel this way? It’s such a rut. The same old thing day after day. Same old people. I know I’m feeling sorry for myself but it’s true. Why don’t you give me something for Christmas, Pye?”
“Bell, book and candle” is a reference to excommunication, which is performed by bell, book, and candle. Despite its title, ‘Bell Book and Candle’ (note the grammatically-incorrect missing comma) is actually a romantic comedy revolving around witchcraft. It is adapted from John Van Druten’s successful Broadway play.
Featuring James Stewart and Kim Novak as the leads, it comes off like any of the many late-’50s, early ’60s romantic comedies with one notable exception: its theme. If not for the overarching witchcraft elements, this would fall neatly down the middle of the road with any of the lesser Rock Hudson and Cary Grant vehicles.
In fact, Cary Grant actively sought this film out, but lost out to Stewart. The studio had allowed Stewart to go do ‘Vertigo’ with another studio so long as he did this film with Novak. Ironically, Grant got his revenge by snatching ‘North by Northwest‘, which Stewart badly wanted – because Hitch thought that ‘Vertigo’ had failed due to Stewart’s performance.
‘Bell Book and Candle’ consists of the usual three acts:
Act 1: On Christmas eve, we find Gillian, a high-end shopkeeper, pining for something different in her life – and points out her upstairs neighbour, Shep Henderson, to her cat -and familiar- Pyewacket. Shep, meanwhile, is drawn to her when his upstairs neighbour, Queenie, who happens to be Gillian’s kooky aunt, scrambles his phone out of spite – sending him downstairs to make a phone call. He and Gill hit it off, but Shep concedes that he’s about to be married. It’s nothing a little mischief, with the help of Queenie, Pyewacket and Gill’s brother Nicky, won’t fix.
Act 2: Spellbound, Shep falls in love with Gill. He can’t help himself but to unceremoniously ditch his fiancé, Merle. Then he and Gill spend the holiday season together, and Shep suggests marriage to a hesitant Gill – who would obviously have to relinquish her lifestyle (and her witching ways) in the process. Meanwhile, Nicky has decided to help an author that Shep is planning to publish with his book on witchcraft – using himself as a reference, and risking the whole community in the process. This doesn’t sit well with Gill who believes that being outed may also jeopardize her romance with Shep.
Act 3: Gill stops Nicky from having his book published by putting a spell on the manuscript. Then Gill admits to Shep that she’s cast a spell on him. Upset, he has it removed – with the help of Nicky, who has a vested interest in spiting Gill. Shep is upset but somehow he and Gill reconcile and live happily ever after anyway. Lahdeedah.
If one gets the impression that it’s rather conventional, that’s because it is.
What isn’t, however, is its take on witchcraft: According to this story, witches are not human, they can’t cry, and if they fall in love they lose their powers – only to become human. Um… okay. It feels simplistic – naive, even. What worked as light-hearted stage play simply doesn’t make the cut in the context of a more sophisticated motion picture.
Of course, I suppose that a more serious, more “realistic”, approach to witchcraft would have made it virtually impossible to fit the romantic comedy formula of the time. After all, the witch would be human, and thus would not long to be anything else, falling in love would have absolutely no impact on one’s magical abilities, so there would be nothing at stake.
(Burn the witch! Burn the witch! Burn, burn, burn!)
If anything, I saw the whole witchcraft angle as analogous with a then-blossoming women’s lib, in that Gill’s abilities and lifestyle depend on her remaining romantically unattached. Should she fall in love, she invariably had to get married and leave everything behind. She had to conform to a model that was prescribed by society and couldn’t have both.
So I saw her independence as being something that is not to be cherished, in that no matter how much she had, she didn’t feel complete without a man. It felt perverse in some ways, as though the original author (or perhaps the screenwriter – I don’t know how much was adapted) insisted that women had to give it all up for a man. Or be unhappy. Ugh.
Further adding to my dismay is a severely disappointing cast:
- I’m a fan of James Stewart. I like that his delivery is so uniquely his and that he doesn’t have the star quality of Cary Grant; it makes him more relatable. Fact is that Stewart was pretty good until he had to do the comedy bits – after which he came off as fake, ill-at-ease, amateurish. Grant definitely would have done that better. Even Stewart felt miscast here, and this would be his last romantic lead. Given that his co-stars were often half his age by this point, he decided to focus on “everyman” and father-figure types.
- Kim Novak had a few scattered good moments (Her best moments were with the cat, Pyewacket). Until the last act, that is – in particular the final scene with Stewart, in which she is absolutely horrendous, not affecting one credible emotion or motion. Still, even at her best, she reminded me of Sharon Stone at her worst. Stone can be baaad when she’s not on top of her game (‘Diabolique‘), even as she can be wicked when on top (‘Basic Instinct‘). Plus which I hated her nail polish and her massive painted-on eyebrows.
- Elsa Lanchester was frickin’ horrible, over-acting every single breath her character took, making Queenie too kooky and unbelievable to be endurable. Was she purposely trying to play up the comedy, and failed? Or was she just bad? I don’t care: she managed to make an unbelievable character even less believable.
- Ernie Kovaks was actually decent as author Sidney Redlitch, who’s basically an alcoholic (not to be confused with a drunk). He played it straight, mostly deadpanning his humourous bits, so it worked. He wasn’t stellar, but it worked.
- Jack Lemmon is by far the best of the bunch. At first, I had the impression that he was going to be going all out, in that cartoonish manner he can affect sometimes; the way that he overacted Nicky’s bongo playing suggested ninety minutes of pain. But the rest of the time he plays it more subtly, and even added finesse to his part. It’s hardly surprising that he became a leading man himself.
Truth be told, the one I was most impressed with was the Siamese cat who played Pyewacket. It was extremely game for anything and well-trained. It would climb on Novak’s shoulder from its perch and wrap itself around her neck and let itself be handled by all the actors. It looked like a sweet, truly lovable creature.
It’s sad to think that the highlight of a movie that features so many silver screen stars would be… the pet. But, given the trite concept, the poorly though-out material and the casting issues, it doesn’t come as a big surprise. Some productions gel, and others don’t. This is one instance when the end result is not the sum of its parts.
But although ‘Bell Book and Candle’ lacks the magic needed to make it superior to its peers, it’s not all bad. If not for the last act, I would have given it a 7.0. And with a more captivating cast, it could easily have been a 7.5. There are some fun moments and it certainly has potential, but it didn’t have the right ingredients to make the most out of this formula.
Date of viewing: December 2, 2013