Bell, Book and Candle is a 1958 film starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. It is a romantic comedy with a paranormal background, and at times is close to a drama. Along with James Stewart and Kim Novak, it also co-starred Jack Lemmon in an early role, as well as Ernie Kovacs. It was also one of two movies released in 1958 to star Stewart and Novak as romantic leads, the other being Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
It is hard for me, now, to watch a movie from the 1950s and pay more attention to the plot than trying to deconstruct the social setting of the time. But this film was well enough done that I managed to at times look past the occasional hokeyness and clouds of cigarette smoke and get engaged in the story. Of course, there are some aspects of that story that can't be appreciated without thinking about American culture and media in the 1950s.
Shep Henderson (James Stewart) is a well-to-do editor at a publishing house who shares an apartment building with a young lady named Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak), who runs a small shop specializing in exotic art from Africa and the South Pacific, but is also one of the most powerful witches in Manhattan. Her, along with her aunt Queenie and her brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon), are part of a coterie of witches of Greenwich Village, where they hang out in beatnik clubs. (Where we first see Nicky, playing the bongos). The film doesn't quite describe what witches are, but it does refer to them as being somehow different than humans: they can't blush, cry, or fall in love. Despite this loveless existence, Holroyd is still interested in Shep, and when she finds out that Shep is engaged to be married to her rival from college, Merle (Janice Rule), she puts a seduction hex on Shep. This being 1958, we don't see just how far this seduction hex goes, but it is enough that Shep breaks off his engagement to Merle, and is soon enamored with Gillian. But the arrival of jovial occult investigator Sidney Retlitch (Ernie Kovacs) soon leaves Gillian's facade unravelling, and she starts to feel she wants to let Shep know the truth about her. Can the romance turn to love, even when a witch isn't supposed to feel love? Will Shep find out that Gillian is a witch, and what will his reaction be?
The romance is charming, and the two lead actors are great: Jimmy Stewart really does a great deal of selling the aw shucks attitude of a man who is over his head, and Novak was a sultry goth before sultry goth was a thing. Over the years of social change, parts of the story are still instantly recognizable and funny: Merle and Gillian's animosity towards each other seems like a very realistic take on the goth/prep relationship. And when we take away the paranormal aspect, the basic relationship dynamic is something that comes up a lot in real life: a person with a "normal" life and a person with a quirkier life are attracted to each other for just that reason, but are unsure if they can actually reconcile the difference in lifestyles.
Which brings us to the next point: the witches are beings who live life for pleasure and thrills but disdain commitment, they live in Greenwich Village and other trendy New York City neighborhoods, they look the same as normal people but hide from them...is this movie a metaphor for homosexuality, as it could be depicted in a 1958 movie? It might be a bit of a stretch, but it seems unlikely that the more savvy people making the movie wouldn't have realized the connection. That also makes the movie's plot more than a bit problematic. While it is sweet to view the movie as the young Gillian maturing into viewing relationships as commitment and not just fun, it could also be seen as the view that people with alternate sexualities and lifestyles are just going through a phase before they "settle down". An alternative world is presented, and explored, but it is soon incorporated into the majority world. It also isn't a coincidence that Gillian starts as a dealer in African and South Pacific art: the movie has no non-white characters, and as much as the non-white world is depicted, it is depicted as a curiosity.
These social comments touch on a different matter: why this movie wasn't quite a horror movie. There are a few points when the movie started looking scary, such as the green glow around Gillian's face when she does magic, and the frightened look on Shep's face when he drinks a magic potion, but on the whole, the movie doesn't let the supernatural aspect become too disturbing. Part of this might have to do with the lack of visual effects technology at the time, but I think more of it has to do with the social context at the time. The fear in horror movies is often based on representing a real life "other", something that can not be integrated into the dominant paradigm. But as mentioned, this movie manages to tell a tale of how the socially unusual and paranormal is successfully integrated into the sunny optimism of Jimmy Stewart's portrayal of 1950s America. While the premise of this film could have led to some horrific, or at least eerie scenes, 1958 wasn't ready for them. Although some people might dispute it, the 1950s were not the decade for horror (especially paranormal horror), and this movie's atmosphere shows why.