Tuesday 28 June 2011

Bell, Book and Candle

Bothered and Becandled

Bell, Book and Candle US 1958
Directed by Richard Quine
Columbia Pictures

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.


  1. Awesome review! I haven't seen this for many years, I first caught it during one of TCM's Jimmy Stewart marathons when I was around 15. I watched about 7 of his films straight through so some of them run together haha. I agree this doesn't hold up against VERTIGO, but is still a fun watch! I primarily remember it for introducing me to Jack Lemmon, whom I found funny and charismatic as Kim Novak's brother. I think after this I watched HIS marathon on TCM and he became my new favorite!

  2. By the way, I love how you collect together various posters for films you write about. Any recommendations for good film poster websites? Especially ones with international posters.

  3. Hi Alex,

    Thanks again for your brilliant comments. I'm not a big fan of Lemmon but thought his performance in this one was a bit out of kilter with the image I have of him from other movies I've seen him in.

    I just use a google image search for the posters... but if you want to see an amazing blog of tons of really great movie posters with some really obscure movie titles, do a search for a place called "Dark Side of the Art". You'll be blown away!

    Thanks again for stopping by and reading.

  4. (A year afterward)...

    I'm a big fan of this film and your negatives are echoing truly for me, too. I think the "big fan of this film" originates from my great crush on Kim Novak, my favoritism towards Jack Lemmon and then throw in Elsa Lanchester anywhere and I'm a happy camper.

    Ernie Kovacs character is fun, too, but in the many rewatchings I've donated, I am more intrigued with Janice Rule as the college 'bully babe' who never realized she'd picked on a young witch, long long ago.

    1. HI Chuck,

      Yeah, there's that amazing "over the cat" shot of Novak in this one that sends shivers down the spine (and to other places perhaps best not mentioned).

      Ahhh... Elsa will always be Mary Shelley (and her hissing creation) to me.

      Thanks for reading.

  5. I've tried to get a larger collection of Elsa works, with little success due to a lack of home-video offerings. But I was glad she traded in her white-streak for nurse-whites in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. This is a hundred-time rewatched film, and I always enjoy her role in it.

    She is also in one of my favorite I LOVE LUCY episode where Lucy & Ethel argue with 'the boys' and decide to hitchhike to Florida on their own.

    Elsa is the happy motorist that picks them up, and they separately begin to suspect the other to be a serial killer (or killers) on the run from New York "heading to Florida". A great little episode, and Elsa's such a sparkle of a character.

  6. Hi Chuck,

    Her autobiography is worth picking up if you can get hold of a copy.