Saturday, January 30, 2010

“Bell, Book and Candle” (and George Duning)

We all have favorite movies that will never rate any critic’s 100-best-films-of all-time-list. I’m not a fan of the term “guilty pleasure” because it implies that the movie in question isn’t very good, but you like it anyway. “Bell, Book and Candle” (1958) is a delightful romantic comedy, wittily directed by Richard Quine (“Operation Mad Ball,” “Strangers When We Meet”) and adapted by Daniel Taradash (“From Here to Eternity”) from the play by John Van Druten (“The Voice of the Turtle,” “I Remember Mama,” and “I Am a Camera” (which was based on the book by Christopher Isherwood and formed the basis for “Cabaret”)).
The movie is one of Kim Novak’s two best (the other is, of course, Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” which also starred James Stewart, her leading man in “Bell”).
Novak plays a witch—a good witch who longs for a spell-less life. Enter Stewart, a book publisher about to marry a woman who, as it turns out, was unpleasant to Novak in college. Novak falls hard for Stewart, and he’s clearly attracted, but he’s not about to break off his engagement—at least until Novak casts a spell on him (it’s hard to imagine that a woman as beautiful as Novak would have to cast a spell, but as Hitchcock was wont to say, “It’s only a movie.”).
Wonderful supporting cast: Jack Lemmon as Novak’s warlock brother; the great Ernie Kovacs as a boozy writer trying to pitch Stewart a book about occultism in New York; and Elsa Lanchester as Novak’s meddlesome aunt.
This is a charming film, with fine moments, including a wonderful scene atop the Flatiron Building. And the mostly backlot-version of Manhattan is so stylish--if somewhat unrealistic--that it makes you want to settle into an Eames chair, close your eyes and imagine you're back in the Big Apple circa '58. But its biggest plus is a brilliant score by George Duning, which I’m happily listening to as I write.
The jazz-inspired music beautifully complements the action on the screen, from its memorable theme to a series of neat, sometimes droll, sometimes emotional motifs. Duning (1908-2000) scored more than 300 movies and TV shows, including “The Naked City,” “3:10 to Yuma” (the original), “Star Trek,” “The Big Valley” and the superb “Picnic." He was Oscar nominated five times but never won. “Bell” certainly merited a nomination. But 1958 was the woeful year “The Old Man and the Sea” got the nod (see entry below for “The Big Country”).
I’d looked in vain for the film’s LP in used-record stores. But the other day I stumbled upon the website Film Score Golden Age Classics, where I found “Bell.” If you love movie music, this is a treasure trove, from the famous to the undeservedly obscure. I could list all the great CDs available, but it’s better if you check out the site yourself. I guarantee there’s something there you’ll order right away.
And NetFlix “Bell, Book and Candle” for a lovely evening of entertainment.


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