The perfect Halloween movie: Bell, Book and Candle

Lucy Scholes

Lucy Scholes explains why Bell, Book and Candle has become her go-to Halloween movie

29 October 2018 10:18

I know the purists amongst readers will argue that technically Bell, Book and Candle is a Christmas film. To a certain extent, I agree, inasmuch as it falls into that rather particular category—along with Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960)—of films set during the season of goodwill that aren’t strictly about Christmas. Nevertheless, in recent years it’s become my go-to watch for Halloween. I must confess that I’m not a fan of horror films. I don’t mind being scared, but throw in the sort of blood-drenched slaughter that abounds in many of the features that score highly in plenty of best films for Halloween lists and you can count me out. I do, however, have a soft spot for on-screen witches (the coven of Suspiria obviously not included), from Veronica Lake in I Married a Witch (1942), through Angela Lansbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), the holy trinity that is Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon in The Witches of Eastwick (1987), and Anjelica Huston in The Witches (1990), to Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in Practical Magic (1998). My favourite of them all though is Kim Novak in Richard Quine’s Bell, Book and Candle (1958), a film that’s decidedly more glamour than gore.

Set in then-contemporary New York City, Quine’s film opens in snowy Greenwich Village on Christmas Eve. Gillian Holroyd (Novak) is mooching about her shop—where she sells Oceanic “primitive art”—the pieces on display the perfect companions for her distinctive Christmas tree, a strikingly modern sculpture constructed from concentric brass rings and gleaming gold baubles. She’s in a funk, and looking for something new, she tells her beautiful Siamese cat Pyewacket as he leaps onto her shoulders, entwining himself around her neck. Perhaps he can get her something special for Christmas, she suggests, what about the man who’s recently moved into the apartment upstairs: the handsome salt and pepper-haired publisher Shep Henderson (James Stewart).

Gillian is a witch, and although not a practitioner of black magic, she’s not afraid to use her powers to wreak a certain kind of havoc. Shep, it turns out, is all set to marry his fiancée Merle (Janice Rule) on Christmas morning, but when Gillian realises that the woman he’s about to wed is her old college nemesis, she conjures up a love spell and takes Shep for her own.

Variety described the film as a “whimsical comedy with hilarity and romance in equal portion,” but there’s more to Bell, Book and Candle than meets the eye. For a start, it’s the second film released in theatres in 1958 starring Novak and Stewart as the romantic leads. The first was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which Stewart plays Scottie, an ex-cop undone by his fear of heights. Hired by an old pal to shadow his beautiful, mysterious wife Madeline (Novak), Scottie, of course, falls in love with Madeline himself, and is thus reduced to a wreck of a man when, shortly thereafter, he fails to prevent her apparent suicide. Haunted by his lost love, he becomes obsessed with a girl named Judy Barton (also Novak), who bears a striking resemblance to the dead woman. In the most famous scene in the film, set in a room in a cheap San Francisco hotel that’s bathed in an emerald green glow emanating from the neon sign outside the window, Judy—her hair dyed platinum blonde and pinned up just so, wearing an elegant grey suit, all according to Scottie’s meticulous instructions—emerges from the bathroom surrounded by what looks like a gauzy, green-tinged fog. Scottie sees exactly what he wants: Madeline brought back to life. He’s bewitched by an enchantment of his own making.

Taken at face value, this glimpse of counterculture provides a frisson of naughtiness, but probe a little deeper and you’ll uncover a fabulous queer subtext.

Bell, Book and Candle might lack the complexity of Vertigo—Hitchcock’s film isn’t just a highlight of the director’s illustrious career, but also considered one of the very best psychological thrillers ever made—but the two films present us with a curious case of cinematic intertextuality. Both eschew standard romantic narratives and the associated love-at-first-sight myth making, instead presenting stories dependent on disguise and trickery that expose rather than obscure the process of transformation inherent in the creation of an object of desire. The plot turns on Novak’s duplicity in both, and Stewart’s duping in Bell, Book and Candle—“I feel spellbound,” Shep tells Gillian shortly after her witchcraft takes effect—is the slapstick version of the much more psychologically damaging con Scottie make a victim of in Vertigo. But perhaps most evocatively, the eerie emerald green glow from Vertigo reappears in Quine’s film as a visual signifier of magic; it’s the colour of the flame that burns when Gillian conjures a summoning spell, the hue that bathes her, her aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) or her brother Nicky’s (Jack Lemmon) faces when they’re casting spells, and it infuses the lighting of the scenes set in the Zodiac Club, the dive bar where the witches and warlocks of New York City spend their nights.

The Zodiac is one of the most beguiling elements of the film. Reminiscent of the smoky, cave-like Parisian nightclub seen on screen in the previous year’s Funny Face (1957), its beatnik, boho vibe is a far cry from Manhattan’s uptown bars and restaurants. “Let’s go back to El Morocco,” Merle whines while Shep’s searching for the club, referring to the Midtown nightspot that was a favourite with the rich and famous from the 1930s through the early 1960s. But Shep isn’t easily deterred, he wants to see the Zodiac for himself after Gillian and Queenie spoke so intriguingly about it earlier that day. Once inside, the Waspish Merle is immediately out of her depth, and even the more open-minded Shep isn’t convinced. “Somehow it seemed more like Halloween than Christmas,” he tells Gillian when their paths cross again later that night. Taken at face value, this glimpse of counterculture provides a frisson of naughtiness, but probe a little deeper and you’ll uncover a fabulous queer subtext. The original play, which premiered on Broadway in 1950—with Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer playing the leads—was written by John Van Druten (the subsequent screen adaptation was the work of Daniel Taradash), a gay man who knew first-hand what it was like to hide in plain sight in a society unprepared to accept anyone who resisted the status quo. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to understand that the “world of separateness” Bell, Book and Candle’s witches and warlocks are describing is a reference to a specifically queer counterculture. It’s a reading that adds a layer of pathos to Gillian’s early rumination, “Don’t you ever wish you weren’t what we are?”, not to mention the ultimate loss of her powers, which is the fate of any witch foolish enough to fall in love.

From Lemmon’s enthusiastic bongo playing, through Ernie Kovacs’ star turn as a liquor-soaked writer researching his book on the witches of New York (with a little help from Nicky), to Novak’s envy-inducing wardrobe—her off duty black cigarette pants and turtle necks with bare feet; the slinky deep red (almost to the point of black) velvet, long-sleeved, floor-length, backless cocktail gown; or her leopard print coat and black figure-hugging, pencil-skirted dress and spiky stilettos, all the work of costume designer Jean Louise, the man responsible for Rita Hayworth’s show-stopping black strapless gown in Gilda (1946)— I adore everything about Bell, Book and Candle apart from its ending. Spoiler alert—Shep, who after discovering he’s been the victim of Gillian’s sorcery, enlists Nicky’s help to undo the spell, calling it off with Gillian in the process. Unbeknownst to him, however, she’s fallen love with him for real so is left both bereft and incapacitated. In the final scene, Shep (who’s also moved to a new apartment) stops by Gillian’s shop to deliver Pyewacket—the cat having mysteriously appeared in his office—only to discover a woman transformed. Not only has Gillian swopped her “primitive” art for a selection of delicate, entirely kitsch and tasteless coral and glass ornaments (she’s renamed the shop ‘Flowers of the Sea’), but so too her previously stylish attire has been replaced with an insipid pastel-coloured diaphanous full skirt and blouse ensemble. It’s as bad as when Blake Lively’s character reappears in the final scenes of A Simple Favour having exchanged a collection of badass pantsuits and waistcoats to rival those worn by Cate Blanchett earlier this year in Ocean’s Eight for a 1950s Stepford Wife-inspired flower-patterned, cornflower blue dress. At least Lively’s character is being ironic; she’s still a cold-blooded murderess and arsonist. Gillian, meanwhile, has completely lost her edge.  

That Shep falls in love with Gillian all of his own volition this time round provides the movie with its happy ending, but this is a Gillian not just stripped of her essential self, but with it her vitality, charm and sex appeal. She’s a mere shadow of the cool, classy seductress who was such a treat to watch at the beginning of the film. In line with the Hollywood Production Code of the era, which decreed that “No plot should present evil alluringly,” rather than embracing the transgressive potential—in terms of both femininity and sexuality—that witches have to offer, Bell, Book and Candleis ultimately forced to submit to conventional, dull heteronormative rules: in order to get the man, Gillian must renounce her sorcery and with it her “alternative” lifestyle. Turns out it is a horror story after all!