Columbia Pictures // 1958 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // May 30th, 2012
A bewitching comedy about an enchanting subject!
A truly ahead of its time. Before movie goers went gaga over Harry Potter and his coven of witches, warlocks, and swimming pools filled with money, there was Bell, Book and Candle. Although Hogwarts is nowhere to be found, movie fans do get the sultry Kim Novak as a cunning witch and James Stewart as her personal victory lap. Bell, Book and Candle is now available on Blu-ray in a limited edition from Twilight Time and Screen Archives Entertainment.
Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak, Vertigo) is a Greenwich Village shop owner who lives inside her store, a place filled with interesting curios and knickknacks. Living above her is Shep Henderson (James Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life), a popular and successful publisher. Gillian's third floor neighbor is her Aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester, Bride of Frankenstein), who also happens to be a witch...just like niece! Gillian has an eye for Shep, but finds out he's engaged to the upper crust Merle (Janice Rule, The Swimmer), Gillian's nemesis from her school days at Wellesley. With the help of her brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon, The Odd Couple), Gillian decides to use her supernatural powers to cast a love spell over Shep that causes nothing but trouble for everyone involved!
Bell, Book and Candle may not be instantly recognizable to modern movie audiences, but its offshoot will most certainly ring a bell (pun intended). The film was the inspiration for the classic 1964 sitcom Bewitched. If you recall, Bewitched was about a modern day witch trying to settle down in the suburbs with a husband, home, and family. In a way, Bell, Book and Candle is bit of a prequel to the series; though the characters are different, the situation is the same with the film showing how this witch's domestic lifestyle came into being.
I am going to admit something that might be seen as heresy for classic film fans: I found Bell, Book and Candle to be slow, middling, and often quite boring. My anticipation for the film was one of true excitement; how could I not love a movie starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, and Elsa "The Bride of Frankenstein" Lanchester? Talk about a fantastic roster of actors! Although Bell, Book and Candle is certainly not a bad movie, it's nowhere near the caliber of many other classic films of this ilk. Nostalgia might offer a rose colored view for some, but for others (like myself) this will be a chore to get through.
Bell, Book and Candle never engaged me in the same way as other classics of its day. The film never seems to know exactly what it wants to be. Is it a comedy? Sort of, although the laughs aren't very extravagant or hearty. Is it a romance? Sure, but the story never transcends its "supernatural" roots to become anything special or lovely. Is it beatnik-hipster propaganda? Possibly, especially after witnessing a scene in a nightclub with a weird mime-like artist who moves and grooves to a bouncy jazz score. Bell, Book and Candle is often all things to all people, a somewhat schizophrenic experience with a few fun moments and some rather dragging plot lines and characters.
James Stewart and Kim Novak are the best things about the film. The two actors would show up in not one but two films in 1958; Bell, Book and Candle and the classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller Vertigo. There's no denying these two superstars have chemistry, and watching them on screen is often electric. Novak exudes sexual charm, as she pouts and purrs her way through the role (although her eyebrows, painted on like lacquer, leave something to be desired). James Stewart is also a treat, even as he was showing signs of moving into an age where most men are collecting social security. Stewart was also a master at being an everyman, and his delightfully funny pratfalls make him an endearing actor to watch.
Disappointingly, Jack Lemmon (a personal favorite of mine) seems to wander through the film as Nicky, Gillian's daffy brother. Bell, Book and Candle came right before Lemmon's career exploded with such hits as Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. Although his role seems rather superfluous, it's fun to watch the actor right on the cusp of become one of Hollywood all-time great leading men. Far more amusing is Elsa Lanchester as Aunt Queenie, who surprised me with her comedic chops; she spends much of the film garnering the biggest laughs. Oddly, Ernie Kovacs -- known as an outlandish comedian before his premature death in a 1962 auto accident -- plays Sidney Redlitch in such a low key manner he almost disappears into the background. I'm not sure why Kovacs chose such an unassuming performance, but it seems rather out of place in a movie that never takes itself very seriously.
Richard Quine -- who would team up with Lemmon years later in How To Murder Your Wife -- directed this outing and was also romantically linked to Novak at the time. Although the screenplay isn't great, many of the locations are. Greenwich Village looks like a fabulous place to live, with all its hustling and bustling, mellow booze filled nightclubs, and the fact that everyone lives in apartments the size of small mansions. The jazz-infused music score from composer George Duning (From Here to Eternity) offers up a fun, light musical background that works in the film's favor.
For my money, Bell, Book and Candle is more of a curiosity than a fleshed out classic. I don't feel like the film was a waste of time, but I don't need to sit through it again any time soon.
Presented in 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen, Twilight Time's restoration of this Columbia Pictures release should please fans. Though there is some heavy film grain, the image retains a sharp and colorful look, clear of any major defects or issues, making this a worthwhile upgrade from DVD. DTS-HD 2.0 Mono mix is uniformly excellent, especially considering the film's age and source. The track certainly won't give your surround sound system a heavy workout, the dialogue, jazz score, and effects are all clearly heard and rendered. English subtitles are included for the hearing impaired.
Twilight Time has tacked on a few bonus features, including a ten minute featurette that's essentially an interview with Novak ("Bewitched, Bothered and Beautiful"), a short retrospective featurette about one of Novak's other films ("Reflections in the Middle of the Night"), an original theatrical trailer for the film, and Duning's isolated score in DTS-HD 2.0 stereo.
Anticipating something different, funnier, less oddball, I was surprisingly disappointed by Bell, Book and Candle. Fans will most certainly be happy with HD upgrade, though at only 3,000 available units, it may be worth getting your copy before they disappear for good.
Worth a look for classic film fans. Just don't except too much magic.
Review content copyright © 2012 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Columbia Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score
* Theatrical Trailer