Monday, March 14, 2016

OVP: Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)

Film: Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)
Stars: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Hermione Gingold, Elsa Lanchester
Director: Richard Quine
Oscar History: 2 nomination (Best Art Direction, Costume Design)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

It's hard to watch a film like Bell, Book, and Candle without thinking about the pop cultural landmarks that would bookend the film: Vertigo and Bewitched.  The film, which stars Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, has to elicit memories of the former simply by virtue of borrowing its two stars, while the film clearly was an inspiration to Bewitched creator Sol Saks, who borrowed this particular picture's witch marries a mortal and then has her trying to live a normal life while surrounded by a bevy of crazy relatives.  Unfortunately for all of us, Bell, Book, and Candle never really achieves the genius of Vertigo nor the constant laughs that came from Bewitched, and as a result we end up with a middling movie surrounded by clearly a great concept.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows Shep Henderson (Stewart), a hapless man who lives (unknowingly) next door to two witches, Gillian (Novak) and her Aunt Queenie (Lanchester).  Gillian finds out that Shep is dating her old college rival, and as a result she casts a love spell on Shep, but after a while Gillian herself falls in love with him, but after Shep learns of her trickery he wants nothing to do with her.  Meanwhile, we have Gillian's brother Nicky (Lemmon, back when he was still doing relatively minor roles at the beginning of his career) trying to make a buck with a mortal but self-proclaimed witch expert Sidney (Kovacs).  As the film progresses, considering it's a romantic comedy, Shep and Gillian eventually fall in love, even though this means that she loses all of her powers.

The film's faults are pretty numerous, but I will counter that the supporting cast tries their best.  It's easy to see why the likes of Aunt Clara, Endora, and Uncle Arthur from Bewitched all came about as a result of such a cast, as you can't really go wrong with Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, and Hermione Gingold, who is at her loudest and most elaborate in the very broad role as Bianca de Pass, a powerful and groovy witch.  The film's best moments involve these supporting players, and you can see why Lemmon became a proper matinee idol soon after movies like Bell, Book, and Candle, as he was stealing the movies away from the likes of Jimmy Stewart.

The problem here, though, is that the script is too dry when it comes to the leads, and neither of them are particularly well-suited to saving it.  It was during this time that Stewart would start to be cast for roles that were unsuitable for his age (the wonderful Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would be another one, but there Stewart found a way to cope), and in fact he never would have the role of a solely romantic lead after this film as he felt he was too old for the part.  While I question this (I would have still bought him falling in love with someone like Greer Garson or Kate Hepburn), it does feel like him stepping once again into the cliche of a man who hasn't started life at fifty is a bit of a stretch.  It also hurts that Stewart has pretty much zilch chemistry with Novak, and they feel like such polar opposites it's impossible not to snicker at the idea that she'd fall for him.  This works in Vertigo because of the angles their characters are playing and the madness of Scottie Ferguson, but the reality is that under normal circumstances these two just don't match.

The film received a pair of Oscar nominations, and it's easy to see why one of them happened.  The movie's Art Direction citation seems appropriate as it relies heavily upon witches' decor and is meticulous in trying to call out the various personalities of the apartments.  I felt a bit like they were relying too heavily on cliches, especially in the apartments (Gillian's shop makes sense), but the movie at least has an attention to detail, even if the witch-y touches feel a tad uninspired.  The costume design is considerably better, in my opinion, though I'm shocked Oscar noticed it since it's relatively subtle.  Novak wears a series of black outfits, of course, giving into the witch-angle once more, but here it's such a glamorous variety of black dresses, hoods, and one particularly fetching backless gown (that would still feel fresh and jaw-dropping on a red carpet today) that you can see why Novak become such a star in terms of fashion after movies like this and Vertigo.

Those are my thoughts on this disappointing, but clearly intriguing movie.  What are yours?  Do you agree that the leads feel mismatched, or are you still pining for more pairings since it elicits memories of Vertigo?  Who is your favorite of the supporting cast members here?  And furthermore, who are your favorites on Bewitched?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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