Gillian Holroyd, a beautiful New York City art gallery owner, who also happens to be a witch, decides she wants to give herself a Christmas present, so she uses sorcery to seduce her attractive upstairs neighbour, Shepherd Henderson, away from his fiancée. Inevitably, he discovers her secret, thereby disrupting their affair. Romantic hurdles must be cleared in order to bring the lovers together again, but eventually the all but certain happy ending materializes on cue.
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NOMINATED for 2 OSCARS - Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction
This was the second pairing of James Stewart and Kim Novak, after their teaming in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, also released in 1958. This time, however, the material is very different, a light hearted adaptation of a successful Broadway play of the same name by John Van Druten. The romantic/supernatural conflict rests on the premise that a witch can’t fall in love and still retain her powers as a witch. As her opening gambit, a stunning Gillian (Kim Novak) uses sorcery, as well as her photogenic familiar, a Siamese cat named Pyewacket, to mesmerize Shepherd (James Stewart), a successful publisher, into romantic submission. However, she loses him as the result of a sub-plot which centers on Shep’s publishing a book investigating witches’ covens in New York written by witchcraft expert, Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs). Eventually, and inevitably for this genre, love makes an honest woman of Gillian and reconciliation is the result.
James Stewart was apparently reluctant to do this movie and it did turn out to be his last romantic lead. He felt he was too old to play these parts any longer. Nonetheless, he brings his unique qualities to the part, a quiet charisma and an openness and earnestness that plays well off of Kim Novak’s more cool and remote presence.
Kim Novak belongs to the great Hollywood tradition of beautiful leading ladies, which also includes such actresses as Hedy Lamar and Ava Gardner, among others, who don’t exhibit a terrific range of expression, emotional or physical. Fortunately, in this case, her emotional opaqueness works for her and the movie, accentuating the air of mystery around her character.
The movie, in general, is stylish and fun, with a lot of incidental pleasures to recommend it. James Wong Howe’s crisp, neon bright Technicolor photography makes the images pop from the screen, and is particularly effective in the Zodiac Club scenes. The witches’ hang out in Greenwich Village is just one of the film’s entertaining features, with a brief, but memorable, cabaret performance by French actor and singer, Phillipe Clay.
Jack Lemmon, as Gillian’s warlock brother, is a bongo playing bohemian and his comedic light touch is put to good use, especially when turning down the street lamps using his own brand of magic. Bell, Book & Candle was the third film Lemmon made with director Richard Quine. They had a notable comedic partnership that lasted for five films, including 1965’s “How To Murder Your Wife”. As well, the part of Nicky Holroyd would be one of his last supporting roles. “Some Like It Hot”, which featured his break out performance as a cross dressing musician, would be released within a year of this film.
The rest of the supporting cast is equally enjoyable, Elsa Lanchester as befuddled Aunt Queenie would reportedly inspire the character of Aunt Clara in the 1960’s TV series “Bewitched”. Hermione Gingold as the formidable senior witch, who enjoys a ringside perch at the Zodiac, is exactly right, even though it’s a small role, exuding a jaded veneer while missing nothing. Ernie Kovacs, as an investigator of the supernatural, adds another welcome comedic presence.