The stars of Hitchcock’s Vertigo reunite for a romantic comedy with a supernatural twist. Kim Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a Greenwich Village witch; James Stewart is Shep Henderson, the mortal publisher whose personal life she decides to wreck – initially to settle an old score with a former enemy – by casting a spell to make him fall in love with her.
This was Stewart’s last romantic role, and he does seem a little mature for it; the 25 year age gap that worked perfectly within the context of Vertigo’s romantic obsession seems off-kilter here; we’re asked to believe an unconventional young woman of independent means would be attracted to someone not just old enough to be her father, but whose very demeanour is altogether quite fatherly. (Of course it might be precisely this fatherliness to which she is attracted, but that’s another matter entirely, and one for another kind of film.)
One might conceivably have accepted an equally mature Cary Grant in the role; Grant has the sort of ageless insouciant appeal that Stewart lacks, dapper and personable though he is. I’ve been trying to think of other actors I might have cast, ones adept at light comedy, but nearer Novak’s age. Rock Hudson? James Garner? Tony Randall? It’s tricky, and of course the other light comic actor of the era par excellence – Jack Lemmon – is already in the film, playing Novak’s warlock brother Nicky.
Some SPOILERS coming up after the picture.
What is incontrovertible is that Bell Book and Candle is a Major Cat Movie, and quite possibly a key proto-feminist film as well. Despite the presence of warlocks such as Nicky and the owner of the Zodiac Club, the world of the Greenwich Village witches is very obviously a matriarchy, presided over by the magnificently batty Hermione Gingold as Bianca de Passe, who charges Shep $1000 for a love charm antidote.
Gillian’s Siamese cat, Pyewacket, is not just her familiar – she casts her spells with its help – but also a symbol of her power. (I won’t make the obvious “pussy” references, but you know they’re there.) When she falls in love she loses her powers and Pyewacket deserts her. Love is not presented as a positive force but a negative one, an emotional state heralded by the first tears Gillian has ever shed. When her unrepentantly spinster Aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) asks what it’s like, Gillian replies, “It’s awful.”
Yes, Gillian gets her man, but has there ever been another romantic comedy in which the climactic clinch felt quite so melancholy? It’s the flipside of screwball; instead of a repressed male character loosening up, the female character must learn to repress her free-spirited urges in order to live in a world without magic.
In other words, Gillian has had to give up her identity, and the film itself (directed by Richard Quine) can’t seem to get over this; in the last scene, we leave the not-so-happy couple embracing in Gillian’s shop, and instead go outside into the street to latch on to Nicky, Queenie and Pyewacket, all no doubt destined for the further witchy adventures that Gillian herself has renounced.
PS It’s clear the cat playing Pyewacket loves Novak – whenever she’s fondling it, it gets so blissed out it’s hard to find a moment where its eyes are open.
- Bell, Book, and Candle (mysteryarts.typepad.com)
- Hitchcock’s blondes: 6 of the best (weheartvintage.co)
- Turf Wars: Film Buffs Not Happy with Owners of Vertigo House (sf.curbed.com)
- Historic Bell Witch Cave (pcsing2fortcampbell.wordpress.com)