Monday, November 24, 2008

Bell, Book and Candle

Bell, Book and Candle is a fanciful, charming, lightweight love story, a low-key comedy about magic and love, and whether there's really any difference at all between the two. The witch Gillian (Kim Novak, sporting the most ridiculous painted-on eyebrows in cinematic history) is growing bored with her life and wants something different, which for her means hanging out with ordinary mortals for a change. Naturally, she takes a liking to her new upstairs neighbor, the publisher Shep Henderson (Jimmy Stewart), and she becomes determined to make him hers when she discovers that he's engaged to marry her college rival Merle (Janice Rule). The set-up is an obvious one for a romantic comedy — what are the odds that Gillian falls in love with the guy she's only using for revenge and cheap thrills? — and the only real wrinkle is a light dusting of magic, which is used sparingly and with not much flash or impact.

Still, despite its obviousness there's a lot to like here. Novak and Stewart worked together on two films in 1958 (the other probably doesn't need to be named), and their chemistry is obvious. There's something inherently appealing about throwing together Stewart at his most "aw-shucks" with the icy, glib Novak, a perfect Hitchcock blonde if ever there was one. Sparks fly just putting the two of them together, and there's something urgent and believable about their kisses, an uneasy passion that Hitchcock would channel into something sinister and gripping in Vertigo, and which here director Richard Quine uses to much more prosaic effect. It's a good thing that the stars are so good together, because in some ways they're the film's primary pleasure. The script lacks the crackle and punch of the best romantic comedies, and there's little enough truly engaging patter — a stray quip here and there elicits a smile, but the film is more amusing than actually funny. Jack Lemmon, as Gillian's brother Nicky, gets most of his laughs from physical comedy. You'll rarely find a more natural comedian than Lemmon, but he doesn't get many choice lines; he's hilarious anyway at times, and it's hard not to enjoy his introduction, looking stoned out of his mind as he bangs on a pair of bongos at a nightclub. His goofy smile and rolling eyes define a character who otherwise doesn't have much to do.

Even Stewart does his best work with his face rather than with the rather generic dialogue. He gets a lot out of pure nervous energy: a self-conscious stammer, manic pacing and arm motions, eyes popped so wide they look they're going to fall out of his head. On anyone else it'd look like hammy mugging, but Stewart manages to make this kind of over-the-top awkwardness seem natural to the character. Stewart's characters in this mold — which is to say, when he's not working with Hitchcock or Mann, two directors who tended to roughen up the actor's edges — are charming and kind of naïve, genuine nice guys who have a real down-home appeal even in their darkest moments. This certainly describes Shep, who is sympathetic even when he's dumping his fiancée for Gillian, a woman he met only yesterday. He tells Merle that he's "a cad," and smiles politely as she slaps him. That's a Jimmy Stewart nice guy, alright.

In addition to Stewart and Lemmon, the film is graced with several fine comedic bit turns: Ernie Kovacs as a perpetually disheveled, alcoholic writer drawn to New York by one of Gillian's spells, in order to write a book for Shep; Elsa Lanchester, the Bride of Frankenstein herself, as Gillian's lovably dotty old aunt; Hermione Gingold as a powerful rival witch. But again, the writing doesn't seem to be on par with the quality of the cast, and most of the fun arises from seeing these great comic actors inject bits of physical humor and small visual touches into their performances. Gingold doesn't have much to say or do, but she's fun to watch, all done up in thrift-store rags and almost constantly lit from above by a diffuse green light, puttering around her old haunted house, mixing occult ingredients with a bemused smile on her face.

Quine also graces the film with a light touch behind the camera, an unobtrusive but nevertheless strong perspective as a director. The credits sequence, in which the camera moves around Gillian's antique shop from one relic to another, pausing for a few moments on each, foreshadows a technique that Quine will employ several times throughout the film. He likes to move the camera gently within a scene in order to shift from one point of interest to another. A shot outside Gillian's store, as her things are packed away into a truck outside, slowly tracks in, edging around the truck, so that Gillian and Nicky can be seen through the store's front window. In other scenes, Quine's playful sense of framing elicits eccentric effects: Kovacs, Lemmon and Stewart outside Gingold's house, clustered on her steps like ersatz Christmas carolers; a long shot of Gillian and her aunt walking through a beautifully artificial snowy city set; a shot of Stewart distorted through the lens of a crystal ball. There is nothing, though, that can quite match the startling, haunting closeup of Gillian as she casts her love spell on Shep, holding her cat familiar Pyewacket under her nose, her deep blue eyes and the cat's both staring into the camera, her face lit with an otherworldly glow. It's the film's most exciting image, and the only one that truly probes the magical, mystical quality that is really at the story's core. This is the only moment where it feels like anything magical is happening, in either cinematic or narrative terms. It's a masterful shot. The curve of the cat's black ears mask the lower half of Novak's face, letting her eyes shine intensely in isolation, mirrored in the lower half of the frame by the cat's own blue eyes.

The rest of the film doesn't have anything quite as tingly or evocative as this sequence, but even by itself it's almost enough to elevate this otherwise rather middling romantic comedy to something of a higher level. As it is, this is an intermittently enjoyable and amusing fantasy, a cute picture but with just enough substance to prevent it from being completely disposable. It's about the magic of love, how falling in love is so inexplicable, so mysterious and resistant to logic, that it might as well really be magic.


Joel Bocko said...

Have you seen I Married a Witch, and if so what did you think? I haven't seen Bell, Book, and Candle but I love the earlier film - though I think Veronica Lake probably makes a better witch, I could see Kim Novak as a witch too, albeit a different kind of one.

Ed Howard said...

Haven't seen that film, no. Sounds good. Then again, this one sounded like more of a delightful premise in theory than in practice. I sought it out primarily because I'd seen the image I chose as the first screen capture above, and indeed that's the film's most striking, haunting scene. It's well worth seeing just for that, and there are other small pleasures to be found in it as well. Maybe I'll seek out the Clair film eventually too. Thanks for recommending it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Just looked at this again on TCM last night, and I think you underrate it. Kim Noval spiriting James Stewart to the top of the Flatiron building is an inspired idea. The Zodiac club is a perfect rendering of a Greenwich Village gay speakeasy in the 1950's. A very deluxe one of course. The line about Jack Lemmon's Nicky using his ability to turn off street lamps "for his love life" is extremely telling in this regard.

I can't recall Jacques Rivette ever writing about this film -- or Quine -- but L'Histoire de Marie et Julien seems very much influenced by it. Not to mention Celine and Julie Go Boating.