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Confessions of a Cineslut: Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

I guess I should open up this new feature by explaining the title: Confessions of a Cineslut. Well, maybe not, it’s quite self-explanatory. I am a total slut when it comes to cinema. High, low; old, new: I am completely in love with cinema. I see no divides by margins of taste, era, genre — OK, there are some genres that just don’t speak to me; the Western for example, or Hollywood war films, but even those have exceptions I really enjoy — or country of origin. If I love something, I am going to love the shit out of it. I used to run a little thing on social media called Things I love Very Much, where I would post collections of stills from various films that fit this remit. But I have decided now is time to open that up and start a platform so that I can actually discuss why I love them. With that in mind welcome to the inaugural chapter of my new journey, for which I have chosen one of my favourite romantic Hollywood fairy tales of all time: Richard Quine’s Bell, Book and Candle (1958). 

I chose this film because it’s been on my mind recently. I watched it at Christmas, as I do every year, which was my third viewing of the film for 2019. Then I realised the other week it has just had a Blu-ray release in the US, so that means I am going to buy it again, and watch it again, very soon. Because honestly, I cannot get enough of this fucking film. Slipping into the frames takes me to that place of utter comfort, and pure joy. The lush colour, the sound, the cast, everything about it is perfect to me. It’s a fairy tale; a sumptuous Hollywood fairy tale, wrapped up in gorgeous artificial sets, and beautiful stars. And Elsa Lanchester and Jack Lemmon in the supporting cast are just the twinkling cherries on top of the whole delicious cake. 

The film follows the unlikely pairing of a modern day witch Gillian Holdroyd (Kim Novak), who just happens to live in the same apartment block — where she also has a store selling occult treasures — as a down to earth publisher Shep Henderson (Jimmy Stewart). Shep is new to the block, and the story begins when he finds Gillian’s Aunt Queenie (also a witch, played by Elsa Lanchester) snooping in his apartment. Queenie later pulls out some hocus pocus to mess with his phone, so he will be brought right to the attention of her niece, when he has to go and ask her if he can make a call from her store. Gillian has already noticed him though, and her desire is fuelled even more when Shep and his snooty fiance Merle (Janice Rule) unwittingly find themselves in The Zodiac Club for New Years Eve celebrations. Unknown to the two muggles — to steal from JK Rowling, but I honestly don’t know how else to describe them — every single member of the club is a practitioner of magick; including Gillian’s warlock bongo playing brother, Nicky (Jack Lemmon). After recognising Merle from school, and also recalling she was a bit of a snide bully, Gillian decides to get revenge by putting Shep under her spell and breaking up the potential marriage. The only problem is, love has other plans and proves itself far more potent than any other kind of magic spell. 

So, let’s start with Jimmy Stewart. Some people think he was too old to play the lead in this film next to the much younger, and frankly more glamorous, Kim Novak, who was literally half his age. People have asked me to explain this in the past when I have declared my love for this film. And all I can say is, well, it’s the magic of Hollywood and I really don’t care. The fact is I love them together. I loved them in Vertigo (1958), and any chance to see them together again, is just… But the thing is, take the whole age thing away and Stewart is so perfect for his role. It needed someone who was a bit of an every man character, someone who was convincing enough to play it awkward and unquestioning, in order to make you believe he would be taken in by a witch and her trickery. It needed someone who was sweet and unsuspecting; someone who would be able to stumble around in the dark, until that all-important reveal. And that’s Jimmy Stewart. He might not have been the most studly of leading men, but he often had qualities so endearing he was difficult to resist — I’m thinking George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or Alfred Kralik from Lubitsch’s  The Shop Around the Corner (1940); plus the way he kisses Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939) makes me feel like I am about to faint, so there’s also that. 

By the fifties, Stewart was fully independent and establishing a new kind of persona in film, through westerns like Winchester ‘73 (1950), or — much like his romantic leading man peer Cary Grant — the work he did with Alfred Hitchcock, Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), or Vertigo, as well as his role for Otto Preminger in Anatomy of a Murderer (1959). In a way Bell, Book, and Candle is a bit of a throwback to those yesteryear Hollywood romantic fairy tales, where all the stops are pulled out to create something exceptionally lavish, sweet, and feel good. Having Stewart there, who was actually part of that whole scene, helps. 

The film would be nothing without Novak though, who struts, broods, and oozes such a cool sense of sexuality combined with intelligence, and pure power — all helped by some gorgeous costumes — every time she is on screen (which is for most of the film). In the process she helped redefine cinematic representations of the witch, a figure which had previously been relegated to the haglike creature we know from traditional fairy tales. Here the witch is transformed into something else, something human, beautiful, complicated, empowered, feminine, and god forbid, largely pure of heart. This wasn’t the first time this had been done, Veronica Lake’s character — although not a modern woman — in I Married A Witch (1942) also did a lot for the cause. However, Bell, Book and Candle surely deserves a place in the rankings, coming slightly before Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery) in the popular television series Bewitched (which started in 1964). And honestly, talk about life goals: Gillian has a magical cat named Pyewacket at her beck and call, she has this fabulous shop, the most fun and loving family in the world, and clearly isn’t short of a penny or two if her wardrobe is anything to go by. What girl wouldn’t want to be her? 

Of course, the kicker is, she has to decide whether to give it all up for love or not. It’s something I wouldn’t normally find myself even contemplating, yet somehow here it all seems to make sense. Plus, Gillian is surrounded by magick, given her close family are all wantonly dabbling in the craft, so I find I am able to conciliate with the ending in my head as I like to believe that it won’t always stay that way.

Added into all of this is of course the whole look and feel of the piece, and Lemmon and Lanchester playing it cheeky all the way down the line. Lanchester is an absolute joy as a mischief making witch who has a childish enthusiasm toward her powers. One of my favourite moments is when Gillian gives Queenie a scarf for Christmas, she asks, “what does it do?” After being told, “nothing, I just thought it looked nice”, Lanchester gets this face on, the same face you will see on a kid if you ever give them clothes for Christmas or their birthday. And likewise, anyone who can’t take extreme joy from Jack Lemmon’s facial expressions as he bangs his bongos, really doesn’t deserve cinema at all.

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About Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger is the Editor-in-Chief at Diabolique Magazine, and the co-host of their Daughters of Darkness and Hell's Belles podcasts. She has also written for BFI, Senses of Cinema, Fangoria and Scream Magazine, and provided various home video supplements, commentary, liner notes, on camera interviews and audio essays, for a number of companies including Arrow Films, Kino Lorber, Indicator, Second Run and Cult Films. Kat is the author of Daughters of Darkness (Devil's Advocates, Auteur), and All the Colours of Sergio Martino (Arrow Films).

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