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Bell, Book and Candle (October 23, 2008)

Why would anyone select this movie to show in a film series, instead of Vertigo? The same two stars, Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, had made Vertigo with Alfred Hitchcock the year before. Bell, Book and Candle today is a cult favorite among 50s movies. The film on its release did moderate business, no more than that. But Vertigo qualifies on most people’s lists as one of the very greatest films, number 61 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100.

Well, for one thing, it is Halloween. This film (along with René Clair’s I Married a Witch from 1942) qualifies as a romantic comedy about witchcraft -- the title stems from part of the ceremony of exorcism – “ring the bell, open the book, light the candle.” I didn’t want to show Vertigo, partly because we’d seen a Hitchcock movie (Rear Window) already in this series and partly because I have always felt that Jimmy Stewart dressing Kim Novak up in that film, as he does, to look like a different woman (even though Novak plays both women), was more than a little creepy.

Kim Novak was from Chicago and became a big star in the 1950s, with her roles in Picnic, Pal Joey, as well as in Vertigo. She was the most popular box office star in America in 1958, the year this picture was made. She didn’t use her Christian name, which was Marilyn, for obvious reasons. Her cool blond beauty (even without makeup) stands out in this movie. Look for the closeups in the scene where she hums to the cat.

Novak was 24 and Stewart turned 50 when this film was made, and it was the last time he’d play a romantic lead in a film. The film was made from February through April, 1958 and was released at Christmas the same year. The director, Richard Quine, was also young (28 years old). Although this film has a very distinctive look, partially due to the stunning Technicolor photography by the veteran cinematographer, James Wong Howe, Quine never put together the body of work that would allow us to remember him as a legendary director.

The supporting cast members are worthy of mention as well. Ernie Kovacs, playing the befuddled author summoned to Manhattan by witchcraft, is really very funny. His performance here is characteristic of the kind of work he was doing on television about that time. The immortal Elsa Lanchester plays Novak’s aunt with just the right combination of simplicity and cunning. Jack Lemmon, as Novak’s bongo-playing brother, has interesting comic moments. This performance precedes his great roles as a leading actor and the role doesn’t seem like good casting. Lemmon reportedly mentioned in interviews later in his life that he found his performance in this movie disappointing. In four weeks we’ll show Some Like It Hot from 1959, which could be cited as Lemmon’s breakthrough performance.

Nonetheless, this movie is a pleasant, charming comedy that looks great, as does Kim Novak, dressed by Jean Louis, who received an Oscar nomination for the costumes, as did Cary Odell and Louis Diage for the sets and art direction. I hope you enjoy watching Bell, Book and Candle.