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Released in 1958, this is a delighful romantic comedy starring James Stewart and Kim Novak.

Gillian Holroyd (Novak) is a modern witch. She makes her way in the world selling collectables and antiques in her shop, kept company by her familiar, Pyewacket, a siamese cat. Everything is going well in her life until she meets Shep Henderson (Stewart). They develop a guarded friendship, but that changes when Gillian learns that Shep is engaged to be married to her old college rival, Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule). Determined to have the final say, Gillian casts a spell over Shep to draw her to him and away from Merle. But there was one thing she hadn't expected: falling in love.

With a supporting cast including Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Hermione Gingold and Elsa Lanchester and an offbeat story, this is a must see for any fan of Stewart or Novak.

Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back
When gold and silver becks me to come on.

King John
William Shakespeare

The three titular objects of this node refer to the rites of excommunication and anathema within the Roman Catholic Church. Anathema can only be declared by the Pope while excommunication can be performed by lesser clergy, but the symbolic use of bell, book and candle appears in both instances.

After reading the declaration of excommunication, the officiating cleric will shut the Bible, ring the bell, and extinguish the candle by casting it into the dirt. Shutting the Bible represents excluding the anathemized from the word of God. The ringing of the bell echoes bells rung in mourning for the departed, as the sinner is now "dead" spiritually within the Church. Dousing the candle flame snuffs the light of the doomed's soul. All in all, a rather weighty curse.

Bell, book and candle are often referenced in wicca, New Age and/or other pagan and "occult" traditions because, historically, those found "guilty" of witchcraft were often cast out of Christian society via this rite. The symbolism is weighty enough to have been adopted by other magical (or magickal) systems, although it is rare in these instances that the book used is the Holy Bible.

Actually, as with many bits of "Wiccan lore" about "The Burning Times", this is semi-false. The real rite begins "Ring the bell. Open the book. Light the candle." That the witch would be considered an apostate is correct in that a witch or a warlock is defined as someone who has reneged on Baptism: that is, no Baptism, no witch. Actually, the Bible is used in historic witchcraft rather frequently, in that European historic witchcraft is a synecretic faith, that uses elements of Christian symbolism along with pagan survivals, bits and pieces of Kaballah, and, sometimes, simple invention. What made the opposite belief an urban legend was, of course, the popular film, which drawing from the "Discovery of Witches", also held that witches couldn't fall in love, cry or blush, and would inevitably float in water, as well as giving the name "Pyewackett" to a familiar (Siamese) cat, as opposed to an imp (form not described).

In short, this is on par with the complex exegeses written by people who, having been introduced to formal Astrology by listening to "Hair", try to square the Moon being in the Seventh House (thus indicating an unstable partnership) and Jupiter (the Father God) being aligned with Mars (the War God, and therefore in context shorthand for the Military-Industrial Complex) with Peace, Love, Recycling and Instant Nookie.

That said, I really enjoy the film, if only as a snapshot of the post-War Manhattan delineated in Grove Press's wicked little book, New York Unexpurgated. Back in the days before Stonewall and our present era of acceptance, the whole island was rife with weird little subcultures: walk down the right street, step into a bar or a gift shop, and you'd suddenly go down the rabbit hole. What you'd find there might be anything from a small ethnic minority's cultural center to a whole other world (Warlock Shoppe, anyone?), centered on sex, religion, drugs, music, food, or all of these, combined in any one of myriad ways. "Why yes, this is a Kurdish carpet, woven by Yazidi Satan-worshippers in Nineveh. Care for a glass of tea?" In the world of the film, witches sound rather like old time gay men, in that they can fool around, have friendships and blow off...steam, together, but can't really have long-term relationships or openly marry. Of course, it's better nowadays, but I can't help but think there's something lost...

I kind of wish the film would have ended with Ernie Kovacks, playing a William Seabrook surrogate, finding the company amenable, becoming a witch.

Someone leaves town, someone comes to town...

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.

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