‘Bell, Book and Candle’ – James Stewart, Kim Novak and a touch of witchcraft on Criterion Channel

Kim Novak glows in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) as the bewitching downstairs neighbor of staid, secure publisher James Stewart in this colorful romantic comedy adapted from the lighthearted Broadway comedy by John Van Druten.

Novak is at her best as Gillian, a modern day witch in Greenwich Village, halfway between the worlds of magical and mortality, looking after her dotty aunt (Elsa Lanchester) and mischievous warlock brother (Jack Lemmon) as they keep their skills in practice. Gillian’s specialty is making men fall for her and she decides to put a spell on Stewart’s straight arrow publisher Shepherd one Christmas. But the enchantment is a dangerous game: when a witch falls in love, she loses her powers. As Stewart’s quiet bachelor tries to resist the beautiful Gillian, she finds herself slowly falling for him.

Director Richard Quine gives the witches an almost beatnik sensibility, a real Greenwich Village subculture hanging out in underground clubs and smart curio shops. Elegantly photographed in rich, glowing colors by James Wong Howe, it’s a fantasy world in New York set to a funky bongo-laced jazz score by George Duning. Quine’s gliding camera is somewhat marred by abrupt editing, but his handling of actors is superb, in particular Novak whose mysterious beauty masks inner turmoil and romantic yearnings.

It was one of two films starring Stewart and Novak, the other being Alfred Hitchcock’s much darker Vertigo. This one is much lighter and more romantic, a lark of a Christmas romantic comedy to be sure but a cool, elegant lark that is bewitching when it clicks.

Ernie Kovaks appears as a wry author whose specialty is the supernatural and Hermione Gingold is suitably florid as a witch elder with a penchant for theatricality. For once in his screen career, Stewart is actually upstaged by the slyly comic performances around him. And a generation of cats in were named after Novak’s feline companion: Pyewacket.

It earned Academy Award nominations for art direction and costume design.


Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Fandango, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Bell, Book and Candle [Blu-ray]
Bell, Book and Candle [DVD]

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On DVD and Blu-ray from Sony with no supplements. The Limited Edition Twilight Time Blu-ray release from 2012 (now out of print) features an isolated audio track with George Duning’s score and a booklet with notes by Julie Kirgo.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.