SPOILERS FOR VERTIGO AND BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE:
James Stewart and Kim Novak made two movies back-to-back that were released in 1958: Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo, and the delightful romantic comedy, Bell, Book and Candle. These are two of my favorite films, due in no small part to the chemistry between Stewart and Novak.
The films couldn’t be more different from each other. Vertigo is a dark tale of obsessive love, while Bell, Book and Candle is a vibrant comedy about a man who literally falls under the spell of a witch. Yet both actors are perfect in their roles.
Novak was not originally slated to play the double roles of Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo. Vera Miles was cast but had to drop out due to pregnancy. Hitchcock made a deal with Columbia to have them lend out Novak if Stewart would agree to co-star with her in Bell, Book and Candle, which is why the two films were made so close together.
Vertigo is based on the French novel D’entre les morts (Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock originally wanted to adapt their novel Celle qui n’était plus (She Who Was No More), which became the film Les Diaboliques, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. There is a legend that Boileau and Nercejac deliberately wrote D’entre les morts specifically for Hitchcock, but that has since been debunked.
John “Scottie” Ferguson, a policeman who retires after he witnesses the death by falling of another officer, is tapped by an old friend to trail his wife. The husband claims he is only worried his wife is mentally ill and may take her own life. He is convinced that she has taken on the personality of her ancestress, a Spanish woman who had her child taken away from her during colonial times in old California.
Scottie reluctantly agrees but becomes fascinated by the beautiful Madeleine. He witnesses her jumping into San Francisco bay and rescues her. From there, they become romantically involved. Scottie has a mental breakdown when Madeleine throws herself off the tower of an old Spanish mission. After a stint in a mental institution, he runs into a girl named Judy who has a remarkable resemblance to Madeleine. Obsessively, he changes her look so that she resembles the dead Madeleine. Judy is resistant but eventually agrees because she loves him. It is revealed that the woman Scottie was following was not Madeleine at all, but Judy, who had been her husband’s lover and partner in crime. The person Scottie witnessed falling from the tower was the real Madeleine, who had been murdered by the pair.
Bell, Book and Candle is about a witch named Gillian Holroyd, who has romantic feelings for her neighbor Shep Henderson. When she finds out he’s going to marry a hated schoolmate of hers, she casts a spell on him so he falls in love with her. When he realizes what she is and what she did to him, he seeks out an antidote to the spell. He meets with her months later and realizes she has lost her powers because she genuinely loves him.
The two films are certainly very different but do share at least one major theme: obsessive love. Both protagonists (Scottie and Gillian) are nearly destroyed by their obsession. However, in Gillian’s case, she at least gets a happy outcome, though it’s sad she has lost her magical powers.
I wouldn’t call Novak a great actress, but she has a unique screen presence. Along with Grace Kelly, she epitomizes Hitchcock’s “cool blond” seductress. (Honestly, I have a hard time imagining Vera Miles playing Madeleine/Judy.) Novak’s remoteness serves her well in Vertigo and makes perfect sense for Gillian’s character in Bell, Book and Candle. In both films she brings out something in Stewart that is more complex than what he showed in his earlier roles—a darkness, including a darker sensuality. He always had great comic timing, but the scene where the spell is broken in Bell, Book and Candle totally cracks me up every time I see it.
Kim Novak tells a story that she met up with Stewart years after they made the movies and tried to talk him into doing another film with her. He declined, saying he was too old to play a romantic lead.
It’s a shame they only got to make the two movies. Too bad Novak wasn’t able to cast a spell on him to make him say yes.