Reviewing through the Time Machine: Bell, Book and Candle

Reviewing through the Time Machine Title: Bell, Book and Candle
Cinematic release: 1968
Starring: James Stewart and Kim Novak
Written by: Daniel Taradash
Directed by: Richard Quine
Genre: Fantasy/Romantic Comedy
Awards: Nominated for two Academy Awards and one Golden Globe
Price: £3.49 on Amazon at time of posting

Gillian and Pyewacket

Just showing that no matter how good your make-up and lighting are, you will always be upstaged by a cat

Plot Gillian ‘Gill’ Holroyd (Kim Novak) is a witch, but she longs for a more normal life, and, in particular, she longs for the more normal man who lives upstairs. Shep Henderson (James Stewart) has just moved in, and he quite likes his downstairs neighbour (even if her aunt, who lives above him, is a bit strange). He is also, however, getting married.

Having initially felt quite glum about this, Gill learns that Shep’s intended is a woman she knew at university, Merle. Gill suspects that Merle reported her for walking about barefoot, and knows that Merle was renowned for stealing other people’s boyfriends. As she already hates Merle, and Merle herself is known for boyfriend-snatching, Gill has less compunction about stealing Shep from her by magic.

Late on Christmas Eve, Gill, her aunt (Elsa Lanchester), and her brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon) are setting about making a summoning spell for an author of hack books on magic, and Shep sees the fire through the window. Worried, he rushes in. The witches claim it was just a game, and Gill’s brother and aunt make themselves scarce. Gill invites Shep to stay for a drink, and sets about bewitching him, using her familiar, Pyewacket (see picture above). Shep falls for her and dumps his fiancée.

As a witch, Gill is incapable of love (supposedly, if you fall in love you lose your powers) and is surprised by the depth of Shep’s attachment. She cares for him a great deal, and feels bad for deceiving him. She resolves to tell him the truth, and give up magic, but how will Shep react…?

Is it any good?

Well, obviously I think it’s some good, or I wouldn’t be dusting off the old time machine to review it. Having been unable to resist Mr Smith Goes to Washington, I felt I owed you a Jimmy Stewart film with a bit of fantasy in it. It’s a Wonderful Life is an obvious choice, but you’ve probably already heard that that’s quite a good film, so I went with this.

Kim Novak in a red velvet dress

I'm just saying, I want that dress

This is a fun movie, and Kim Novak is stunning, both physically, and as a performer. They make her up with exaggerated eyebrows that somehow make her more catlike, connecting her visually to her familiar, Pyewacket. For most of the movie she oozes sexuality, confidence, and power. There is something interesting in the role-reversal the ‘rules’ for witches (that they cannot love, that they do not cry) allow the filmmakers to explore, a point which is highlighted when Shep accuses Gill of taking the male’s part in saying she wasn’t made for marriage.

However, the idea is only played with, and, overall, the film reinforces the gender roles with a sledgehammer. The very rules that allow this exploration make it inevitable that, should Gill fall for Shep (and the rules of romantic comedy make us want her to), she will lose all her considerable power (and her respect amongst the witch community) and become an ordinary woman. Her aunt, who has clearly retained her power, all but directly states that she is a virgin. Yet, despite the apparent gender equality and bohemian attitudes of the magical community, Gill comments that her brother uses magic for his love life. The unwritten implication: falling in love makes you lose your magic, but sex doesn’t, and women can’t really separate love and sex, leading to the ancient attitude that a woman’s strength lies in maintaining her virginity.

Check out this demure little thing with her pastel colours and shells (left) in comparison to her earlier slinky, confident self with her academically interesting shop of anthropologically significant artifacts (right).
Comparison between beginning and start of film representation
Can you guess which one Shep falls in love with for real?

But enough of that, it is a thing of its time, and although there are many things that grate with me as a modern woman, there’s also a lot that’s interesting and entertaining. I love that she genuinely bewitches him into loving her, and I love his reaction when he finds out, and how the spell continues to act on him even when he knows about it. So many films fall back on the uninteresting idea that the one thing you can’t induce by magic is love, or even the facsimile of love. I love that this film doesn’t chicken out and make it that her spell didn’t work in the first place (as I expected it would do, for a large portion of the film). I also love the sub-plot with Nicky and the hack writer where Nicky introduces him to real magic and jumps joyfully into collaboration on a book about the truth of magic. Jack Lemmon at his best.

As magically induced romance films go, this one is pretty good. It’s a classic, and a piece of our cultural heritage as writers and consumers of genre.

3 thoughts on “Reviewing through the Time Machine: Bell, Book and Candle

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