With a solid play to draw from, the makers of Bell Book and Candle managed to create an absolutely perfect fantasy comedy that should never, ever, be remade. It has been done, but why even attempt to recreate the innate sultriness of Kim Novak as love-hungry witch Gillian Holroyd, with those luscious big eyes and cat-like movements? Who could assume the place of James Stewart, playing way older man Shep Henderson, unwilling to entertain even a date with Gillian until she plants a spell of love on the poor Joe?
Then there’s Gillian’s goofball cousin Nicky (Jack Lemmon), a bongo playing warlock who wants to progress from changing streetlamp colours to more powerful spells of manipulation; and Elsa Lanchester as Gillian’s meddlesome aunt Queenie – the first force who attempts to set up a blind date between Gillian and Shep by coordinating a ‘chance’ encounter.
For screenwriter Daniel Taradash (Desiree [M], Picnic [M]), John Van Druten’s play came with zippy dialogue, and strong characters surrounded by colourful oddballs: Ernie Kovacs steals scenes as occult author Sidney Redlitch who attempts to write a book on witches, unaware he’s surrounded by them threefold; and Hermione Gingold is delightful as a weirdo witch to whom Shep is sent by Nicky in the hope of quashing Gillian's love spell, and perhaps weaken his cousin's stature within the coven.
There’s slapstick, cartoon sound effects, and hysterical moments of absurdism (the Candoli brothers at the coven's jazz club have a great scene blaring solos into Shep’s would-be fiancée), but a vital ingredient to the film’s enduring potency is the lush colour cinematography by the great James Wong Howe (Picnic, Seconds), who presages Mario Bava’s pastel colour lighting with intricate layers of graduated colour schemes. The set décor and costumes still look quite stylish, and Jean Louis’ costumes for Novak capture her character’s gradual devolution from an independent, assertive, and very powerful witch able to dominate her lovers with trickery and animal magnetism to a hausfrau.
Well, almost. By the end, Gillian’s métier changes from a vendor of occult knickknacks to potted and arranged flowers, and her clothes shift from witch-like robes and deep blacks to two-piece outfits symbolizing her loss of power, now that she’s experienced love and has been rendered inert (and perhaps mortal). The finale provides hope for the two characters, but it is intriguing the way colours, lighting, and specific shots follow the imbalanced romance between the two charismatic leads; one can also believe that Novak would fall in love with older, somewhat befuddled Shep because there’s a sexual connection that doesn’t exist between him and original fiancée Merle Kittridge (hottie Janice Rule, seen later as slutty Emily Stewart in the overcooked The Chase [M]).
George Duning’s score is centered around a bongo-peppered ditty which he cleverly spins off into a haunting theme Gillian hums to seduce Shep, and jazz elements are smoothly integrated into cues which reflect the deepening conflicts between Gillian, Nicky, and Shep once the latter realizes he’s been snookered and wants to free himself from Gillian’s clever spell.
In the bonus featurette on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray (ported over from Columbia’s 2011 Kim Novak Collection), Novak (who’s never seen on-camera) recalls her co-stars, and has fond recollections of Richard Quine, an underrated director who brought a smart commercial style while making sure every scene advances the main characters. Highpoint include Gillian’s seduction of Shep (with massive close-ups of Novak’s face nuzzling sneaky cat Pyewacket) that’s filmed in a kind of Fat Technicolor; and a great little scene where the newly minted couple watch the mist rise from Manhattan during the morning from the flatiron building, after which Shep tosses his hat over the building – which Quine had filmed in one fanciful, poetic shot.
The second featurette - "Reflections in the Middle of the Night" - covers the making of the Paddy Chayefsky-scripted Middle of the Night (1959) and although it seems like an odd bonus inclusion, it does offer some insight on Novak's decision to slowly step away from Hollywood. That film's box office failure justified Columbia's mogul Harry Cohn to exclaim 'You see why you should've listened to me?' but it also symbolizes the film and stage options actresses like Novak wanted to explore, but were denied because of the phony paternal desires of studio bosses.
TT’s BR features a pristine transfer, an amusing trailer comprised of separately shot footage designed to add mystery to the film’s mysterious story of a witch seducing a mortal, and a stereo isolated score of George Duning’s score (which seems to feature some source cues not present on the original soundtrack album).
Julie Kirgo's booklet notes provide some extra background info on the cast & director, not to mention the technical brillance of cinematographer Howe. There's also the curious bits of trivia, such as actress Rule being the original co-star of the stage version of Picnic, and the teaming of Stewart and Novak in roles far less tormented than the classic icons in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, made the same year.
Bell, Book and Candle was in fact remade for TV three times: in 1966 for Dutch TV, in 1976 by Columbia, and in 1981 in France. Van Druten’s other plays include I Remember Mama (1948), and I am a Camera, filmed in 1955 and in 1972 as Cabaret.
Quine ‘s career is generally filled with glossy Hollywood productions such as The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), Operation Mad Ball (1967) with Kovacs and Lemmon, The World of Suzie Wong (1960), Paris When It Sizzles (1964), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), and Hotel (1967).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan