Art shop owner Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak) is feeling lonely on Christmas Eve, chatting to her cat Pyewacket about how she wishes she could meet someone ordinary instead of all those witches and warlocks she habitually mixes with; after all, Gil is a witch herself. Perhaps someone like her upstairs neightbour Shepherd Henderson (James Stewart) would fit the bill, he is a perfectly normal publisher with nothing magical about him whatsoever and as she is secretly longing for a humdrum life, for witches cannot fall in love, Gil supposes what it would be like to enchant Shep. But even as their lives draw together, how can she really be happy?
There's something to be said for dysfunctional relationships, and Bell Book and Candle features one of the most memorable. Adapted from John Van Druten's play, Gil's hooking of Shep is supposed to be charming, but in reality provides a tiresome affair considering it's in the romantic comedy genre. It certainly has a healthier outcome than the other Stewart and Novak movie of 1958, Vertigo, but to get there you had to sit through a lot of subterfuge and cruelty on the part of both of them. In the supporting cast were such cult figures as Elsa Lanchester (as Gil's auntie) and Ernie Kovacs (as a client of Shep's) but even they didn't brighten a gloomy production.
Classy, yes, but gloomy and for a comedy there were scant laughs. Gil and Shep manage to meet when mischievous Queenie (Lanchester) breaks into his apartment to snoop around (yeah, I'm sure that's hilarious) and garbles his telephone line when he reasonably objects. He then has to ask Gil to use her phone as he has an important meeting (on Christmas Eve?) and she likes what she sees, casually inviting him to the Zodiac Club where all the witches and warlocks like to hang out. He brings his fiancée along, Merle (Janice Rule), but Gil knew her as a sneak who got her into trouble at school and victimises her with thunder and lightning effects.
Which isn't especially funny either. There have been some interesting interpretations of Bell Book and Candle and the subculture it presents; depending on who you talk to they can either represent Communists having to live in secret in McCarthy's America or the homosexual underground having to live in secret in a country where their activities are equally as illegal. But really they look much more like beatniks to me, with all the perceived pretension that went with that lifestyle, still apart from "normal" society but looking down on the straights who don't get it.
You may have Jack Lemmon (as Nicky, Gil's brother) playing bongos, but as for the fantasy side of things it isn't capitalised on: think of how Bewitched would be if they concentrated on the romance and pushed aside the casting of spells. Lemmon making street lights wink out doesn't quite cut it. It's true Novak is at her most alluring, and the film still enjoys a cult following because of her - usually among women who call their pet moggies Pyewacket - but she saddled with a character who should be enigmatic when she's really just humourless. Gil breaks up Shep's engagement and claims him for herself, but cannot commit because she cannot fall in love, at least not until he twigs what she's up to and splits with her. Dare I say that the resulting back and forth is a trifle dull? And that in the end you're not bothered if the two leads end up together or not? Bell Book and Candle seems more of a missed opportunity for fun. Music by George Duning.