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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Bell Book and Candle’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, there’s real magic to be found in the subtext…

Bell Book and Candle (1958)
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Directed by: Richard Quine

Witches: They’ve frightened movie goers since the first film exhibitor set up the first nickelodeon. People watching witches in films usually saw them as malicious antagonists, casting spells on the heroes or the subjects of the film, sometimes both. When a witch would appear on screen (or, in the case of The Blair Witch Project, when they were at the edge of the frame), we were asked to show sympathy to the poor bespelled person being hexed.

With a few exceptions, including one where our sympathies lie with the spellcasters…

Please note that there will be some spoilers in this piece.

We open in the current day, panning around the African tribal art shop of Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak) as the credits pop up. Gillian is a young woman whose personal style suggests bohemian, right down to her slacks and bare feet.

It’s Christmas Eve, and Gillian has the holiday blues bad. She’s talking to her cat, Pyewacket (yes, named after the familiar witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins described in 1644), about how bored she is, and how she wants to meet people outside her social circle.

Someone like, say, Shepherd Smith (James Stewart), editor at a publishing house and her upstairs neighbor, who she sees getting out of a cab. She shares this thought with her cat, who then leaves Gillian’s place.

We watch as “Shep” enters his apartment where he finds there his upstairs neighbor, Queenie Holroyd (Elsa Lanchester). She comes up with a bogus story about why she’s there, but Shep is willing to overlook her B&E if she leaves right away. He mentions that he needs to make a private phone call, but while Shep is distracted, she incants over his telephone:

This forces Shep to ask Gillian to use her phone to call the phone company to get his line fixed. While he’s there, he’s properly introduced to Gillian, and discovers that Queenie is her aunt. At one point, the conversation turns to the book on Gillian’s desk, Magic in Mexico, and Shep notes in passing that he’d love to get the author of the book, Sidney Redlitch, to bring his next book to Shep’s house.

Before he leaves, Queenie suggests to Shep that he bring his date to the Zodiac Club, where she and Gillian are going to spend the holiday. After he leaves, Queenie reveals to Gillian that Shep is engaged to an old classmate of Gillian’s from Wellesley.

We then go to the Zodiac Club, a (literally) underground club with a beatnik vibe. We listen and watch as the house band, with Gillian’s brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon) on the bongos, give the place a swinging sound, unapologetically not playing holiday music.

Shep shows up with his fiancé Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule), and Gillian takes care of some unfinished business with her. After that bewitching scene, Shep takes Merle home while the three members of the “family coven” go back to Gillian’s. They spend a few moments with Gillian’s present, a formula that can summon people to them, just as Shep drops in.

It’s while Shep has a nightcap with her that Gillian decides to make a major move on Shep, with the best tools a witch can wield:

The rest of the night is magical, coming on very fast, ifyouknowwhatImean. That morning, Shep has to tear himself away from Gillian to break off the engagement, which Merle takes pretty badly, unsurprisingly.

After the holidays, Shep gets a visit from the author Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacks). Redlitch has a new book to pitch… about the witches of New York! Redlitch is the kind of writer we all wish we could be you see in the movies, unkempt and ready to reach for a drink. In addition to being a warlock, Nicky is the kind of bohemian musician you see in the movies, ready to work any angle he can to get more scratch, so of course he convinces Redlitch to make him a co-author…

Yes, “bohemian” is a description that gets used a lot above, and the fact that the witches (and warlocks) identify as such is no accident. The presentation of the magical community as an underground culture in contrast to the mundane “square” mainstream is central to the screenplay from Daniel Taradash, who was unafraid of penning works that nudged at the regimented thinking of the 1950s. Taradash, who as writer and director had dealt more forcefully with free thought struggling against conformity in 1956’s Storm Center, used the magical community as a stand in for those who were “othered” in those times, both for what they thought and who they were.

Quine’s direction helps reinforce this theme through his set coloring. When we’re among the magical, the rooms are painted in a soft electric blue, not in the shadows of a noir film but definitely somewhere that the light we see in the open doesn’t find its way to (the kind of normal coloring non-magical places in the film are lit in).

Program for the play during its first run in 1950

What probably allowed Taradish to get away with it was the fact that the film is an adaptation of a popular Broadway play by John Van Druten that premiered in 1950. Rights were optioned by David O. Selznick in 1953, and then picked up by Columbia’s Harry Cohn in 1956. Cohn had wanted to use the part of his deal with Paramount, where he loaned out Kim Novak to them for Vertigo, to get Jimmy Stewart’s services for one of his pics, and made sure that he and Novak were teamed in this one as well. (At one point Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were suggested for the leads, but Cohn won out on the package casting.)

Compared to Vertigo, Novak and Stewart have a healthier relationship here. Both are wonderful together and do an outstanding job in their roles. Stewart does well in his last role as a comedic leading man (he felt he was too old to ever play a part like this again), and everyone else is exceptional in their characters. It seems as you watch the movie that Lanchester and Lemmon are having the most fun with their characters.

Novak especially stands out as Gillian, a woman with a cool reserve that’s not afraid to go after what she wants. The fact that Gillian wants Shep sexually with no strings attached made her a symbol for the “othered” the film subtly discusses, someone who doesn’t want to play by the rules and would rather not be bound by them. Between her cool confidence and the rapid-fire sexual innuendos Taradish fills the script with, Novak embodies an entity not bound by our petty rules.

Among the rules she doesn’t want to be bound by is having to give up her magic were she to fall in love with a muddle normie. By film’s end, she decides on love over magic. Does she get the man in the film? Yes. Could she get the man without conforming in a film released by Harry Cohn’s Columbia? Oh. No. Way!

It might have worked out better for her in the end, had she been cast as Samantha Stevens in Bewitched. The show’s creator, Sol Saks, willingly admitted that much of the series drew from both Bell Book and Candle and I Married a Witch. In the 1960s TV series, Samantha was able to keep practicing her craft despite being in love with a mortal, even one as intolerant as Daren (both of them) were.

A 1950s movie, however, just could not allow such magic to exist…


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