Bothered and Becandled
Bell, Book and Candle US 1958
Directed by Richard Quine
Ok then... I think this must be my first ever review talking about a movie I’ve watched off of a TV broadcast. Why? Because I’d never seen Bell, Book and Candle before and I wanted to check it out before parting with any of my hard earned cash on a DVD transfer. That simple.
Yeah, I know. Considering one of my all-time favourite movies is Hitchcock’s Vertigo, I probably should have caught up with this one long ago... seeing as it also top-lines Kim Novak and James Stewart and was shot in the same year.
Well... I’ve seen it now and I have to say I was mostly pleased with what I saw. The first half an hour of this tale of a coven of mostly benign witches was actually pretty mind blowing and I was having a good time with it. The film also stars Jack Lemmon as Novaks hip-witch brother (bongo drums and jazz clubs baby) and Elsa Lanchester (possibly my all-time favourite Universal Horror icon - yeah okay, so I’m a walking cliché) as Novak’s aunt... so it’s quite a watch.
To be honest though, after the initial “wow” of the first half hour or so which culminated for me in an absolutely gobsmacking and iconic (there’s that troublesome word again) piece of footage of Novak and her cat/familiar Pyewacket as they “bewitch” James Stewarts “Shep” character to fall for Ms. Novak’s character Gillian, then the film starts to slowly fall a little flat and become a little more hum-drum in its make-up. Seriously though, that scene I just described was like watching raw sex hotwired into the brain as Novak hums a spell of a tune which actually ties into the George Duning score on the soundtrack (not one of my favourites within the context of the movie, but I’ll get on to that later). Her head behind and above her cats head, Novak is already playing the role with an eerie and provocative, lazy, calm sexuality which just about reaches melting point by this time. I thought she was amazing in Vertigo (and she is) but here, although Bell, Book and Candle is a far inferior film to Vertigo... well she’s absolutely scorching.
I think there’s lots of good things I could say about this movie and probably an equal number of negatives.
The colours on this one are superb and though they follow a similar scheme as the colours in some of the scenes in Vertigo, washes of greens and orangey reds contrasted together (and green is not a good colour to light a human face with, they kinda turn neutral), these are not the same intense colours that were on display in Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Neither are hey the full-on almost fluorescent reds and greens of contemporary directors like Mario Bava or his direct “lighting descendent” Dario Argento. These are quite muted greens and reds but I found these kinds of colour schemes in this more pastel palette as interesting as the gaudier directors and cinematographers because the vibrancy created within the juxtaposition of those hues is equally striking... or at least it seemed so to me.
There’s some bad stuff here too though... and I’m aware my views here might be a little sacrilegious for dyed-in-the-wool fans of this movie but, please don’t judge me too harshly... I am going to go back for another look (I just saw how cheap the DVD is on Amazon... woohoo!) on a hopefully perfect transfer from a clean print at some point in the next six months or so.
So, bad to not so great stuff...
First of all there’s the fact that this movie was based on a stage play and, like a fair few movies of this type (I might mention The Seven Year Itch), it never really seems to break away from it’s stage requirements. The whole thing is set in just a few different interiors while the few location shots in the movie seem to be... um... locations built inside a studio. I can understand why, when you have such a successful play as this one obviously was, you wouldn’t want to fiddle with things too much... but this one does seem to suffer from a sense of being anchored to the original stage version a little... clumsily I guess.
Secondly, and this might just be in the casting as opposed to the scripting, but I’m used to seeing Stewart and Novak play off against each other in a very sultry manner and picking their way through the dialogue almost like a cat plays with a mouse... a mouse that thinks it’s also a cat. There’s a very serious edginess to the performances or... well I guess I’d probably be better off calling it screen chemistry here... and these two work very well together, except...
This movie is obviously supposed to be an absolutely hilarious comedy... and I believe it was successfully received as such... and therefore this kind of sexual smoldering seems to makes no sense. I was expecting this movie to go in a much more serious direction than the way it went because of the incredible tension between the two leads... but no! The wild and playful music is telling me this is like the 1958 equivalent of laughing gas and... then you have Jack Lemmon playing the bongos. Doh!
And what about that George Duning music? It’s fine but completely inappropriate to the tone of the piece... if you’re watching the two main leads. For the other characters this raucous and jaunty music makes sense... or at least doesn’t seem to be wildly overscored as it does when you’re watching either Novak or Stewart. This really was a problem for me because I couldn’t quite get a handle on the tone and the whole thing began to feel a little uneven after a while.
But, these minor grumps aside, Bell, Book and Candle is a brilliantly acted, exquisitely shot movie and certainly something I have a feeling will get a fair few repeat viewings from me in the years to come. If you’re a fan of classic, fifties Hollywood movies and you haven’t seen this one as yet, then I would strongly put it on your list as a contender to be watched soon. Just for that one scene where the sultry Novak hums her spell... this alone is worth the price of purchase.