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Film / Bell, Book and Candle

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C'mon, she didn't need the cat.
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Bell, Book and Candle is a 1958 romantic comedy/fantasy film adapted from a 1950 play of the same name by John Van Druten, directed by Richard Quine and starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, and Ernie Kovacs.

Shep Henderson (Stewart) is a book publisher in Manhattan who happens to live above a dealer in African art named Gillian Holroyd (Novak). Besides being an art dealer, Gillian is a witch from a family of witches that include her aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and her brother Nicky (Lemmon). Gillian takes an interest in bachelor Shep, and when she finds out that Shep's about to marry her old college enemy Merle Kittredge (Janice Rule), she casts a spell to make Shep fall in love with her instead. Complications arise when Nicky hooks up with Sidney Redlitch (Kovacs), an author of books about witchcraft, and threatens to expose Gillian's secret life.

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Bell, Book and Candle was the follow-up to a very different Stewart-Novak pairing from earlier that same year, Vertigo. It is also notable as the last film in which Stewart played a romantic lead. The TV sitcom Bewitched, which premiered six years later, borrowed some elements from this film (it didn't hurt that this was a Columbia Pictures film and Bewitched was produced by Columbia's TV subsidiary Screen Gems).


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Tropes:

  • All Witches Have Cats: Gillian has Pyewacket, a Siamese that she uses as her familiar. (Shown Their Work as that's a genuine name for a witch's familiar although the original list by Matthew Hopkins specifies the cat's name was Holt, while Pyewacket was an imp.)
  • Artistic License – Religion: Artistic License – Witchcraft? The mantra "ring the bell, close the book, quench the candle" quoted in the movie is characterized as an exorcism rite when it was actually an excommunication rite.
  • Beatniks: The setting is Greenwich Village in The '50s, so Gillian and Nicky adopt this persona as their masquerade.
  • Chekhov's Gun: It is established early in the film that witches can't cry or blush, and that falling in love results in a witch losing her powers. At the end, Gillian falls in love and loses her powers, and Shep realizes she loves him for real when she blushes and cries.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: Nicky often sports one throughout the movie.
  • Chickification: Gillian is an icily sexy witch who mainly dresses in black beatnik pants outfits or vivid red dresses, and runs a cool, vaguely spooky art dealership specializing in African and Oceanian folk art. When she's de-powered, she takes to wearing yellow or white sundresses, and she turns her shop into a seashell emporium.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Queenie is a somewhat flighty lady.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The bachelor who lives above Gillian's store is engaged to Gillian's worst enemy from college.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: The first part of the story takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
  • Disposable Fiancée: Merle for Shep. Her past as a snobbish college bully makes her less sympathetic.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: One of the first peculiarities we're shown about Gillian is that she prefers to be barefoot all the time, and when she's first introduced, the camera pans out to draw attention to her bare feet. She will wear shoes for appearances' sake only. In conversation, she mentions that she has started wearing shoes in public to avoid being criticized. She outgrows this habit after losing her powers- and after running out into a cold and slushy street full of snow.
  • Emerald Power: Magic, when visible, is depicted as green. (The particular shade is reminiscent of the kind seen in Novak and Stewart's previous film, Vertigo.)
  • Expy: As pointed out above, Bewitched was partly inspired by this film and several Bewitched characters could be considered analogues to the characters here. Aunt Queenie/Aunt Clara is the most obvious, with Gillian/Samantha, Shep/Darrin and Nicky/Uncle Arthur making decent matches. Bianca De Passe is similar to Endora, even though here she's the lead's Sitcom Arch-Nemesis.
  • Familiar: Pyewacket, the Siamese cat that Gillian uses to cast spells. In the end, after Gillian is de-powered, Pyewacket leaves her and moves in with Queenie.
  • High Class Gloves: Fashionable Hot Witch Gillian wears them with one of her Sexy Backless Outfits.
  • Hot Witch: Novak at the height of her sexiness, wearing a series of flattering, revealing outfits throughout the movie.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Shep downs one with a shaking hand when his inability to leave their building finally convinces him that Gillian is not kidding and is actually a witch.
  • It Is Pronounced Tropay: "Gillian" is pronounced with a hard G. Characters call her "Gil".
  • Love Potion: A spell, actually. Gillian might have been able to make Shep fall in love with her the regular way, because she is Kim freaking Novak, but Shep's getting married tomorrow, so she has to act quickly. She uses Pyewacket to cast a love spell on Shep.
  • Magical Barefooter: Gillian (she even used to go to her classes without shoes). In full accordance with the trope, when she loses her powers, she also loses her penchant for going barefoot.
  • Ms. Fanservice: If you were putting Kim Novak in your movie in the 1950s, you were contractually obligated to do this. Gillian wears two Sexy Backless Outfits, a series of tight dresses, and a silk robe with Absolute Cleavage.
  • P.O.V. Shot: Multiple black-and-white shots from the POV of Pyewacket.
  • The Power of Love: Will make a witch lose her powers.
  • Rom Com Job: Shep's a book publisher. Gillian owns a shop dealing in African art.
  • Salem Is Witch Country: Not directly stated but hinted at with the Holroyds, whom Queenie describes as "an old Massachusetts family". Gillian also describes her witching life to Shep as "early American".
  • Sexy Backless Outfit: Ms. Fanservice Kim Novak wears two different such outfits over the course of the movie.
  • Title Drop: Sidney quotes the "ring the bell, close the book, quench the candle" ritual, and later Shep refers to Gillian and her circle as the "bell, book, and candle set."
  • Urban Fantasy: Witches in 1958 New York.
  • Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma: The actual onscreen title is shown as Bell Book and Candle, even though the play's title officially had the comma after "bell". And there's no "bell book" anywhere in the film. Still, most people still use the comma when writing about the film. Of course, whether there should be an Oxford comma after "book" is another issue.
  • What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: Witches can't fall in love lest they lose their powers. When Queenie finds out this has happened to Gillian, she asks her what it's like.
  • Where Everybody Knows Your Flame: It eventually becomes clear that the Zodiac club where the witches hang out is also a gay bar.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Merle hates thunderstorms.
  • Witch with a Capital B: Shep's jilted fiancee Merle almost calls Gillian the b-word.
    Merle: A witch?
    Shep: Yes!
    Merle: Shep, you've just never learned how to spell.

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