It’s a lonely Christmas for Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak), who runs a shop front of exotic statues and masks from all around the world. She complains to her cat, Pywacket, that she isn’t sure what she feels, or what’s wrong with her, but perhaps she needs a man… and if he felt like it, he could bring her one in particular for Christmas – Shepherd Henderson (Jimmy Stewart), the upstairs renter.
A book publisher impressed by the recent sales of Magic in Mexico, an expose of assumed witchcraft, Shep has no idea despite the eccentricities of his neighbors that he lives with a bunch of closeted witches and warlocks. Gillian’s aunt sneaks into his apartment to find out more about him, then hexes his phone into garbled nonsense when he throws her out. Gillian has no intention of using magic to get him, until she finds out he is marrying her hated rival from her days at boarding school the very next morning. So she casts a love spell over him, never assuming her own feelings might get involved. But they do… and that can spell trouble for a witch.
This was Kim Novak’s second costarring role alongside Jimmy Stewart, whom she considered one of her favorite costars. She liked their chemistry, and it is indeed charming, although unfortunately, complaints about the age difference between them caused many audiences and critics to rebuff both this and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Subsequently, Jimmy Stewart chose to step out of romantic lead roles, which meant she never got to act opposite of him again. And it’s a shame, because there’s a certain charm between them in this, and an undeniable sexual appeal between them in Vertigo.
While the film plays around with witch tropes, it also creates a few of its own. One of the underpinnings of this approach is that it casts witches as slightly inhuman and mean-spirited, in keeping with the legends about them. Gillian tends to do whatever she wants, out of spite; her aunt is a liar, a snoop, and perhaps even a thief; her brother is a drifter and an opportunist. Gillian could not stand a girl at boarding school who ‘snitched’ on people, so she found out she hated thunderstorms and caused them daily for months at a time during their last semester. She tells her aunt gleefully that, “By the end of term, she was a wreck.” Upon meeting her again, she deliberately makes her deeply uncomfortable in the Zodiac club (a dive for witches) until she runs out in tears. She bullies her aunt into agreeing not to use magic, sets down rules for others to follow, and casts a spell to sabotage her brother’s attempts to sell his book on real magic (when Shep says he could try a different publisher, her brother looks at her and says, “No, I guess there wouldn’t be much use in that, would there?” to which she icily replies, “No, I doubt it”).
And yet, the audience manages to like her as a complicated woman, torn between her natural vindictive urges and her earnest developing feelings for Shep. She knows it’s a spell, but is gets caught up in it. She has reached a mature enough age that wandering the world aimlessly and remaining unattached is of no interest to her; she is feeling the pull of domesticity and permanence, the kind found in a stable long-term relationship. And she yearns for it, because being a witch has always felt ‘separating’ to her. She longs for a normal life, for what normal people have, but struggles to find contentment when she has it. And therein lies another interesting twist in the film—witches do not have deep feelings, which means they cannot cry. If they start to cry, it means they have lost their magical powers, and that only happens if they manage to fall in love.
You can guess what happens in this film—the witch falls in love. In the meantime, the audience gets treated to a series of humorous antics all built around the loss of free will. The likable, lovesick Shep does not believe in “any of this nonsense” until he experiences it himself. It hits him the hardest when he realizes he has no good reason to reject a manuscript that a week ago, he felt so excited about – Jimmy Stewart pulls out all his acting chops to make this scene hilarious, as he goes between expressions of befuddlement to understanding to shock and horror, then winds up visiting a witch to have the spell removed, and being forced to drink “awful gunk.”
The film is not perfect. It lags in certain scenes and places, and the cat is manhandled so much, I know it could not have been a pleasant filming experience for the animals (rumor has it one of them “never trusted humans again” after being scared so many times on set, which is horrible), but what I like most about it is it doesn’t shy away from having an unlikable heroine who experiences character development. She is neither sweet nor good-tempered, and she is unapologetic about it. Novak plays her as a secretive, withdrawn, but deeply emotional woman of many moods, who is simply herself. She changes a little, but not a lot; Gillian is never not-herself, even when she has fallen in love and lost her powers. And I like that about her. It’s not stories about perfect people with perfect lives that draw our affections, but about imperfect people making choices and living with the consequences, which is much more like real life.
As a final fun note, this movie inspired Bewitched, and it’s not hard to see why… but in that, the heroine got to keep her powers. Here, the subtle shift between witch to mortal girl comes across in Gillian’s transformation of her shop and her appearance, from sinister to lovely. She now sells “treasures of the sea” (decorative shells) and appears in a filmy light-colored dress, a far cry from her previous all-black ensemble, to represent her openness to love. And the minute Shep walks in to see her, he fall in love with her all over again—for real this time. After all, he muses, who can say what magic is.