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Bell, Book and Candle

(1958) ** 1/2 Unrated
103 min. Columbia Pictures. Cast: James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Hermione Gingold.

/content/films/4310/1.jpgBell, Book and Candle will forever be known as "that other movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak." Released seven months after Vertigo, Bell, Book and Candle owes in part to a deal cut between Universal and Columbia, which lent contract player Stewart to Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo (a Universal production) with the understanding that Stewart would turn around and star with Novak in Richard Quine's witchcraft comedy for Columbia. Comparing a frothy romantic comedy to a masterpiece of psychosexual mystery is hardly fair, though; Bell, Book and Candle stands on its own as a likeably lightweight entertainment.

Novak vamps it up as Gillian Holroyd, a sultry New York City witch who laments she's "in such a rut." A glimpse of her neighbor, publisher Shep Henderson (Stewart) gets Gillian thinking how nice it would be to "spend some time with some everyday people for a change." Despite her best intention to avoid tricks, Gillian discovers she's run out of time for old-fashioned courtship—Shep's due to marry his fiancee Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule) the very next day—and so she impulsively puts a love spell on the object of her affection. Before you can say "sixties sitcom," this supernatural babe is making her man crazy (yep, Bell, Book and Candle was a direct influence on Bewitched and an indirect one on I Dream of Jeannie).

Soon, Shep gets wise and realizes Gillian is but one member of a downlow subculture of witches and warlocks, including fellow neighbor Aunt Queenie Holroyd (Elsa Lanchester, expertly crafting her offbeat busybody), Gillian's bongo-playing brother Nicky (an energetic Jack Lemmon) and grande dame Bianca de Passe (Hermione Gingold, with her famous deep British warble). They're all known to frequent The Zodiac Club, which evokes beat culture with its jazzy performances (including cameo players The Brothers Candoli) and the patrons' penchant for elicit activities. The plot thickens with the arrival of Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs, doing a subtle, wonderfully weird absent-minded-professor routine), author of the recent bestseller Magic in Mexico. Though the book repeats superstitious nonsense, Redlitch suddenly finds himself with access to the real deal.

Bell, Book and Candle isn't so much built for laughs as to raise a smile, and that it does. One must excuse how the plot (coming as it does before modern American feminism) gradually turns the strong and free Gillian into a woman who can't "have it all" but rather must choose love over any other pursuits. The picture also suffers from a somewhat flabby midsection. Still, the airy Novak makes a strong impression, Stewart's comic chops remain in fine fettle, and the distinctive supporting cast can't be beat (Howard "Floyd the Barber" McNear also pops up). The picture manages some delightful moments, not the least of which finds Shep kissing Gillian atop the Flatiron Building then tossing his fedora to the street (as legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe follows it all the way down), and in part thanks to George Duning's playful score, the comic fantasy goes down easy.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio Mono, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0

Street date: 4/10/2012

Distributor: Twilight Time

I'm just getting hip to the work of Twilight Time, a California-based company that's making available classic films in editions strictly limited to 3,000 units (distributed exclusively by Screen Archives Entertainment). Overseen in large part by star archivists Nick Redman and Mike Matessino, these releases all feature fresh hi-def treatment that includes isolated score tracks and excellent liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo. Twilight Time selects neglected titles and makes the studio's home entertainment divisions offers they can't refuse: let Twilight Time handle the releases and cater to an audience of devoted film collectors. So far the strategy seems to be working out nicely: as the titles move toward selling out, they become hotter and hotter collectibles.

Bell, Book, and Castle unequivocably looks its best in its hi-def Blu-ray debut. Detail and texture are excellent, with untouched film grain and rich, true color. Twilight Time has worked from a very clean source print (though the image is flat-looking, that's to be expected of a film of this vintage)—this fifty-four-year-old film gets a top-notch transfer. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix likewise remains true to its source; though there's no discrete separation of the sound elements, those elements are entirely clear: dialogue is nicely prioritized and the score gets a full-bodied treatment.

Bonus features include the aforementioned Julie Kirgo liner notes in an eight-page color booklet (including production photos and poster art), Isolated Score Track, and the film's "Original Theatrical Trailer" (2:37, HD).

"Bewitched, Bothered and Beautiful" (9:35, SD) amounts to a mini-commentary with Novak; it's an audio-based interview illustrated with film clips. Novak does not appear on screen—the better to remember her as she was—and unfortunately this 2010 interview doesn't get terribly specific in terms of anecdotes, but it's nice to hear from Novak, who strongly conveys her affection for the film, her director and romantic interest Richard Quine, and her co-star James Stewart.

"Reflections in the Middle of the Night" (15:03, SD), also from 2010, follows a similar format as Novak recalls the 1959 Delbert Mann film. Though there's no real connection to Bell, Book and Candle, it's a welcome extra all the same.

It's a treat to see this classic star vehicle make its way to Blu-ray, thanks to Twilight Time, which seems to have plenty more such releases in store (including, I hear, the fairly recent As Good As It Gets).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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