Film Studies: It's such an ancient pitch, but one I wouldn't switch...

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The Independent Culture

The trouble with the new movie version of Bewitched, out later this month, is that not only does it have no interest in witchcraft, it can't muster any faith in those who believe or suffer from it. This may qualify writer-director Nora Ephron as a properly liberated, rational modern woman. But it's a handicap to her sense of fiction. The situation reminds me of something Steven Spielberg said when he introduced Close Encounters of the Third Kind, way back in 1977. When that film opened, a certain Dr Allen Hynek, a UFO expert, was along for the ride. So someone in the press asked Spielberg did he, too, believe in UFOs? No, said the director, but I believe in people who believe in them.

Words of wisdom to which I would only add the celebrated Cy Coleman lyrics to the song "Witchcraft": "When you arouse the need in me, My heart says, 'Yes. Indeed' in me." That song mentions Lucretia Borgia, but it has no other reference to "witchcraft" of the broomstick kind. It abides by the modern metaphor that witchcraft is a click that occurs when someone falls in love. And more or less, I hope, we all believe in people who believe in that. Which is only another way of saying that true love (as opposed to attraction) may be every bit as supernatural as witchcraft.

The movie is very cleverly conceived in that Will Ferrell plays a burned-out TV actor who chooses to do a remake of Bewitched - the sitcom that ran from 1964 to 1972, with Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha. That series was a huge hit, yet it's not clear how many teenagers today know or care about it. And the fortune of movies depends on these idiots. Well, Mr Ferrell finds an "amateur", Nicole Kidman, whose qualifications for playing the new Samantha extend from everything you know Kidman can do, to a very nice, light imitation of Marilyn Monroe (enough to remind us that Kidman has not previously ventured into dumb blonde territory before) to that old ability to transcend the laws of physics with a twitch of her nose.

Kidman does very nicely in the role, politely defying the fact that there is no chemistry with Ferrell - I suspect that, like many performers raised in TV, his chemistry is kept for himself or for the live studio audience. Lucille Ball had the same intense narrowness: put her in front of a crowd and she was just sublime, but alone, in her dream world. Put her in the real dream of the movies and she didn't seem to understand how story worked. Ferrell is just as lost.

But the worst thing is that Ms Ephron assumes that we all think witchcraft is silly. This just shows you the dangers of being smart and educated - it can divert you from that root of dramas, the determination of people to do crazy things. I couldn't help thinking of the movie of Bell, Book and Candle (made in 1958 - please remember that date). That comes from a successful stage play (by John van Druten) in which James Stewart's disastrous and imminent marriage to someone else is only prevented by his meeting Kim Novak and her cat Pyewhacket. Novak plays a witch, and the trick of the play is not just a device but a stroke of genius: the witch will lose her occult powers (which are handy) if she falls truly in love.

What made the film as delight was not just that director Richard Quine was in love with Novak at the time - silly perhaps, but understandable - so that he cannot film her without a caress; nor even the supporting cast that includes Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold (I am not making this up); but the magical vulnerability of Stewart when Novak draws near. Is that his problem, or ours?

I ask because Bell, Book and Candle was made immediately after Vertigo, which starred Stewart and Novak, and which - as you think about it - is a story about a man bewitched by a woman who was not there. I don't know whether this was chance, or someone being very smart - correction, this is the movies: it must have been chance. Still, the ways in which the tragedy and the sweet comedy interact are glorious. An obvious response is to play them as a double bill. For myself, I'd rather run them simultaneously, side by side (a ploy over which we are too cautious). I believe that the inadvertent, random rhyme scheme - of two-shots and lines of dialogue - would amount to a very sophisticated piece of criticism of the two films, but above all of Vertigo, not just one of our greatest films, but one of thousands that know witchcraft is there, waiting, a plunge down, if you just step off your edge.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'Bewitched' (PG) is out on 19 August

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