Bell, Book and Candle has three problems. The first involves Kim Novak and James Stewart’s May-September romance, which I’ll take couple jabs at in a bit. The second two problems are with the plotting, either in John Van Druten’s original stage play or Daniel Taradish’s screenplay. In the third act, Candle forgets its supporting cast had real arcs. Then there’s the matter of the pat romantic comedy ending, which isn’t a surprise but could definitely be better.
Other than those three problems, however, the film’s a charming Christmas movie. Literal Christmas movie—the present action starts on Christmas Eve, and the film came out on Christmas Day in 1958. It quickly jumps ahead a few months and then a few more months, so it ends somewhere in April, but Christmas kicks it off.
See, witches can’t go to church and listen to carols on Christmas Eve, so cultural art dealer Novak is in a mope. She’s sick of being a witch, something aunt Elsa Lanchester doesn’t understand—Novak could be a super-witch if only she’d try, but she’s been refusing to use her powers. Maybe because the other example is her brother, Jack Lemmon, who apparently uses them all the time for his love life. And to turn off street lights.
We never see anything about Lemmon’s love life. For a movie about witches and their powers, Candle’s very limited in the hijinks. No nose twitching here.
Novak watches new-to-the-building Stewart come home from work and muses—to her adorable cat, Pyewacket (who seems to have been tranquilized to achieve such filmic mellowness)—how she wishes she could meet a man like Stewart: just a normal, professional non-magic dude, twice her age.
Even for 1958, Stewart’s clearly too old for Novak or his fiancée, Janice Rule. My friend pointed out if they’d just dyed his hair from grey to brown, it would’ve been less constantly noticeable. Because Novak really gets interested in Stewart after discovering college rival Rule is going to marry him. Stewart’s got a line about watching Rule grow up and then—when she went off to Wesleyan and came back—really grow up.
But also, Novak can stop talking about Stewart being so hot, which is even more of a disconnect when it turns out he’s doing a silly physical comedy performance for the film’s second half. He mugs at the camera a bunch; does a great job of it, but it’s a strange romantic comedy lead.
It could be worse; they could specify he’s friends with Rule’s dad.
Novak casts a spell to make Stewart fall in love with her instead of Rule. So Novak’s got this very complicated arc—she likes Stewart, but as a witch, can only play with him naughty-like and wants something different; she hates Rule, which helps her get over the hesitation in playing with Stewart’s brain chemistry; she doesn’t want to be a witch anymore—magic folks like brother Lemmon and Greenwich Village witch society matron Hermione Gingold have made it cheap. So Novak’s got a lot going on, with no support from Lemmon or Lanchester.
Worse, Lemmon teams up with author Ernie Kovacs to write a book about the actual Greenwich Village witch scene. Without Lemmon, Kovacs would be writing a hack job, but Lemmon wants it real. In addition to not wanting the world to find out about witches, Novak doesn’t want Stewart to find out she magicked him in love with her (and out of love with Rule).
Stewart’s a book publisher, and Kovacs is writing the book for him, so it’s all neatly tied together.
Despite the age difference—or because of it—Stewart’s spellbound interest in Novak works, as does her growing (problematic) resentment of it. Lemmon and Kovacs are a great duo; Lemmon’s pretty good on his own, just a little thin since his apparently important Casanovaing is absent on screen, not to mention entirely losing his narrative arc at the finish.
But Kovacs is a revelation. He’s a fidgety, perpetually confused drunkard. Despite being brought to New York by magic, it’s just as believable he would’ve come on his own in the middle of a drunken musing. He’s great from his first scene, something the film seems to acknowledge and showcase, but then chucks him for the finish. He was just an excisable subplot, after all.
Lanchester’s delightful. No heavy lifting, but delightful.
Rule’s fine. It’s a tricky part from any angle. We never find out if we’re supposed to be at all sympathetic to her, but all signs point to no.
Stewart’s good. He’s better at the transfixed romance or the dad jokes. He’s supposed to be aloof the other times. Only he’s Maugham’s New York publisher; he can’t be too aloof. Plus, he’s hipper than Rule.
And then Novak. She’s terrific. It’s her movie (other than when Kovacs is onscreen), and it’s a solitary one. She’s got no real confidants, not even the cat. Everyone wants something from her. Great fodder for an arc. Not a great resolution for the character; it’s not necessarily a reductive one, but it’s also very potentially a reductive one. The film’s missing the right punchline.
Bell, Book and Candle’s cute, funny, well-acted, and well-produced. Quine’s direction is fine—he’s rather good with the actors—and James Wong Howe’s photography is fantastic. It’s an all right showcase for Novak (though it’s all about Kovacs, obviously), but it needed a bit more oomph in the third act.