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Bell, Book and Candle

(1958) ** 1/2 Unrated
103 min. Columbia Pictures. Cast: James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Hermione Gingold.

/content/films/4310/1.jpgBell, Book and Candle will forever be known as "that other movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak." Released seven months after Vertigo, Bell, Book and Candle owes in part to a deal cut between Universal and Columbia, which lent contract player Stewart to Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo (a Universal production) with the understanding that Stewart would turn around and star with Novak in Richard Quine's witchcraft comedy for Columbia. Comparing a frothy romantic comedy to a masterpiece of psychosexual mystery is hardly fair, though; Bell, Book and Candle stands on its own as a likeably lightweight entertainment.

Novak vamps it up as Gillian Holroyd, a sultry New York City witch who laments she's "in such a rut." A glimpse of her neighbor, publisher Shep Henderson (Stewart) gets Gillian thinking how nice it would be to "spend some time with some everyday people for a change." Despite her best intention to avoid tricks, Gillian discovers she's run out of time for old-fashioned courtship—Shep's due to marry his fiancee Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule) the very next day—and so she impulsively puts a love spell on the object of her affection. Before you can say "sixties sitcom," this supernatural babe is making her man crazy (yep, Bell, Book and Candle was a direct influence on Bewitched and an indirect one on I Dream of Jeannie).

Soon, Shep gets wise and realizes Gillian is but one member of a downlow subculture of witches and warlocks, including fellow neighbor Aunt Queenie Holroyd (Elsa Lanchester, expertly crafting her offbeat busybody), Gillian's bongo-playing brother Nicky (an energetic Jack Lemmon) and grande dame Bianca de Passe (Hermione Gingold, with her famous deep British warble). They're all known to frequent The Zodiac Club, which evokes beat culture with its jazzy performances (including cameo players The Brothers Candoli) and the patrons' penchant for elicit activities. The plot thickens with the arrival of Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs, doing a subtle, wonderfully weird absent-minded-professor routine), author of the recent bestseller Magic in Mexico. Though the book repeats superstitious nonsense, Redlitch suddenly finds himself with access to the real deal.

Bell, Book and Candle isn't so much built for laughs as to raise a smile, and that it does. One must excuse how the plot (coming as it does before modern American feminism) gradually turns the strong and free Gillian into a woman who can't "have it all" but rather must choose love over any other pursuits. The picture also suffers from a somewhat flabby midsection. Still, the airy Novak makes a strong impression, Stewart's comic chops remain in fine fettle, and the distinctive supporting cast can't be beat (Howard "Floyd the Barber" McNear also pops up). The picture manages some delightful moments, not the least of which finds Shep kissing Gillian atop the Flatiron Building then tossing his fedora to the street (as legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe follows it all the way down), and in part thanks to George Duning's playful score, the comic fantasy goes down easy.

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