Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Richard Quine | Bell, Book and Candle

lightning strikes
by Douglas Messerli

Daniel Taradash (writer, based on the play by John Van Druten), Richard Quine (director) Bell, Book and Candle / 1958

The same year that James Stewart and Kim Novak starred together so brilliantly in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, the two were paired up again in the film version of the hit play by John Van Druten, Bell, Book and Candle. The director, Richard Quine clearly is not one of the most brilliant auteurs of film history, but he is often a good craftsman, and along with his sometimes collaborator Blake Edwards, had a good sense of music and comedic timing, himself having worked as a musical performer in films.

      His 1958 film, however, with several of actors with whom he worked many times, including Novak—with who he was having an affair—Jack Lemmon, and Ernie Kovacs, is well worth viewing again; for, although the somewhat silly plot involves witches and magic—with wonderful character actors such as Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold cackling up a storm of good laughs—there is something darker in this work, and some of its images, captured by the brilliant cinematographer, James Wong Howe, pulls this film in directions away from a witch-crafting spoof in the manner of the earlier I Married a Witch and the later television serial, Bewitched.

    Yes, publisher Shep Henderson (James Stewart) lives in an apartment surrounded by a family of witches and warlocks—Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak), who also runs a traditional African sculpture gallery, warlock Nicky Holroyd (Jack Lemmon), a young man of adolescent behavior who uses his powers to switch off streetlights and improve his luck with love, and a daffy aunt, Queenie Holroyd (Elsa Lanchester) who ineffectually snoops on their new neighbor, Henderson, scrambling his phone system when he complains of finding her in his locked apartment room. And there are also a whole room  of others who bring to life the local bar, the Zodiac, including the gifted Bianca de Passe (Hermione Gingold), and a French singer who might well remind one of Charles Aznavour.

      But these might almost be seen as metaphors for what one might describe as a shadowy group of "fellow travelers"—if nothing else "beatnik outsiders" (Nicky plays the bongos, Gillian goes barefoot)—who do not strictly fit into the normative America Shep inhabits. His vision of the US, replete with his painterly soon-to-be wife, Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule), who in imitation of the cubists and surrealists paints muddled images throughout, is a righteous, self-serving social world which is determined to inhabit. At least, the straight and far too serious Shep is willing to try out the new nightclub he has heard about from the Holroyd's, whereas Merle complains of its "scrabbyness" and discovers therein, to her horror, Gillian, whom she had known in college. We soon discover that Merle was just as singular-minded then as now, reporting to authorities Gillian's shoeless jubilation and getting her expelled. In revenge, Gillian arranged for a whole season of lightning storms, replete with thunder in order to terrify the thunder-fearing tattletale. And she now arranges, in her territory, for Nicky and his music making friends to ring out the night with a rousing version of "Stormy Weather" which speeds off Merle into the Christmas Eve cold.

      Returning home, Shep discovers Gillian and her outsider family busy summoning up the author Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs), and she, employing Pyewacket, sets out to seduce Shep. It is an easy task, given her facial beauty and her backless gown. By morning the couple have been swept away in love, usually defined as a kind a magic, as they look down upon a New York square from the Flatiron building, reminding us of photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn's "The Octopus."

      Of course, complications must arise as Mr. Corporate America, a book publisher willing to publish any book that sells—even one on witchcraft (which Gillian justifiably prevents from being published)—must come to terms with his suddenly volatile love interest. Having come into contact with true American outsiders—Taradash even jokes with the possibility that Gillian and her family may be "unAmerican," she assuring him that they are very American, "early American"—Shep must ultimately cleanse his bodily system, with the help of Mrs. de Passe, from the infection! Gillian, on her part, loses her "powers," presumably giving up the political eccentricities her life symbolizes. She transforms her native African art shop into a calmer repository of pretty shells.

     Gillian, so Shep now discovers, can even blush (she is now able to be embarrassed by what had previously no effect upon her) and even cries, vulnerable clearly to the vagaries of not only love but everyday American culture! So can the two now come together, denying all the "magic" that they previously embraced, but ready to live out a more ordinary romance.

      At film's end, only the loud purr of the cat suggests that there may be something more in store—if nothing else, the occasional memory of Gillian's powerfully "dark" family roots and her outsider involvements.  

Los Angeles, July 17, 2012

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