Sunday, August 14, 2011

Belll, Book, and Candle (1958)

More often than not, witchcraft on film has been a source of horror. Indeed, such classic horror movies as Black Sunday (1960), Night of the Eagle (1962), and Warlock (1989) utilised the folklore of witchcraft for the basis of their plots. While witchcraft has been used in horror movies, however, it has been used less frequently in comedies. Indeed, two of the most famous movies dealing with witches are both comedies. One was I Married a Witch (1962), starring Veronica Lake. Another was Bell, Book, and Candle (1958), starring Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, and Jack Lemmon.

Bell, Book, and Candle was based on the Broadway play by John Van Druten. In turn, it would (alongside I Married a Witch) one of the sources of inspiration for the classic TV show Bewitched. That having been said, fans of Bewitched should not expect Bell, Book, and Candle to be a lot like the classic sitcom. It is true that both Bell, Book, and Candle and Bewitched are sophisticated, character driven comedies that deal with witches. And it is also true that both treat witches as beings separate from humans (in Bell, Book, and Candle) and mortals (in Bewitched). And both deal with romances between witches and human beings or mortals. Any similarities between the two end there, however, as in many respects Bell, Book, and Candle is very different from Bewitched.

Indeed, in many respects the portrayal of witchcraft in Bell, Book, and Candle is much more subtle than that portrayed in Bewitched. There are no scenes in which witches appear and disappear in puffs of smoke in Bell, Book, and Candle. Nor at any point do the witches in Bell, Book, and Candle materialise items out of thin air. In fact, for the most part the witchcraft in Bell, Book, and Candle can be explained by coincidence, circumstance, or blind luck. It is only the witches, and the audience, who know better.

In many respects, this makes Bell, Book, and Candle seem more realistic than many movies dealing with witchcraft. One can almost believe that the witches in the movie could actually exist and that their spells could actually work. Bell, Book, and Candle then requires less in terms of suspension of disbelief than many similar fantasies. It also sets Bell, Book, and Candle apart from them. Although often compared to I Married a Witch and known as a source of inspiration for Bewitched, it is quite different from the earlier movie and the later TV programme.

The more subtle handling of the subject of witchcraft in Bell, Book, and Candle is not the only thing which makes it seem more realistic than many comedy fantasies. Much of the film was shot on location in New York City, and as a result Bell, Book, and Candle looks more realistic even than films with more "realistic" premises. Of course, the film just doesn't look real, it also looks quite good. Bell, Book, and Candle was photographed by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. Mr. Howe was at the top of his game in the Fifties and it shows in Bell, Book, and Candle. Not only did he create some of his best shots for Bell, Book, and Candle, but he also made some of his best uses of colour. Mr. Howe's cinematography is greatly aided by the inventive set design of Louis Diage and the art direction of Cary Odell. Bell, Book, and Candle is a very good looking movie.

The realism underlying the fantastic premise of Bell, Book, and Candle is greatly aided by the performances of the cast. As Shep Henderson (the mortal who falls for a witch) and Gillian Holroyd (the witch) respectively, Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak offer very convincing performances.  Their performances are complimented by those of Elsa Lancaster (as Gillian's aunt) and Ernie Kovacs (as hack writer Sidney Redlitch), who play two very broad characters very sincerely. Fans of Jack Lemmon may recall that Mr. Lemmon considered his role as Gillian's brother Nicky as one of the most disappointing of his career. That having been said, one would not know it by watching the movie. Mr. Lemmon pulls off a feat that would be difficult for many actors, playing a hip, bongo playing, self indulgent warlock, and making it look easy while he does it.

Bell, Book, and Candle is a movie whose strength is its subtlety. In offering a more subtle, more realistic portrayal of witchcraft, the film is set apart from other fantasy comedies. Indeed, while some fantasy comedies (I Married a Witch and the TV series Bewitched being exceptions) concentrate more on broad humour created with special effects, Bell, Book, and Candle concentrates on its characters. Because of this I rather suspect that even those who hate fantasy comedies might well enjoy Bell, Book, and Candle. The film should be known for more than just being one of the sources of inspiration for Bewitched. It should be known as one of the classic fantasy comedies of all time.


grandoldmovies said...

Excellent post; you make an interesting point on how the film makes its witchcraft 'believable' by being able to explain it away by coincidence, luck, etc. (only the witches know for sure). Another actor to mention in the cast is the great Hermione Gingold, who's hilarious as the witch with the antidote for Jimmy Stewart. And don't forget Pyewacket!

Mercurie said...

Oh, yes, Hemione Ginggold is fantastic! It's great to see both her and Elsa Lancaster in the same film. They were two of the best character actresses ever. And I have to say Pyewacket did a great job too. Very bright cat and so expressive!