The Smoke in René Clair’s ‘I Married a Witch’ Is More Wispy Than Ominous

René Clair’s ‘I Married a Witch’ is a delightful film rather than an epochal one.

It’s become a near-standard horror film set-up to reveal that a suspected witch burned at the stake at this or that time in history really was acquainted with dark magic and has returned, in some form or another, to wreak revenge. It’s a half-cautionary, half-troubling idea: through a witch’s revenge, the film can show the awful legacy of an event like the Salem Witch Trials — but also, in a weird way, the approach validates those atrocities by positing (however fictionally) that the townspeople were right to fear these women.

René Clair’s I Married a Witch, perhaps one of the earliest uses of this trope, sidesteps the moral ambiguity with comedy. It’s not particularly sensitive to those who actually lost their lives this way, but treating the whole affair as something of a farce makes as much sense as any.

The film opens on the smoldering aftermath of a Puritan-led stake-burning, but victims Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) don’t seem all that put out, even as they exact their revenge. While their ashes (and with them, their spirits) are buried beneath a tree, they cast a spell on the Wooleys, the family responsible for their fate. The curse bounces through the ages; no Wooley man, as we see in a brief series of blackout, will ever marry the right woman.

When lightning strikes the tree hundreds of years later, Jennifer and Daniel are set free. Before they decide to take human form, they appear as talking plumes of smoke, a charming if strange device that adds an extra layer of convolution to a film with a surprising amount of obscure and arbitrary witchcraft rules — especially considering its slim 77-minute running time.

Once made flesh, Jennifer and Daniel set about to further the torment the Wooley family, focusing on Wallace Wooley (Frederic March), a gubernatorial candidate poised to begin a trademark witch’s-curse marriage to Estelle (Susan Hayward), whom he appears to politely tolerate more than love. But in classic romantic comedy fashion, Jennifer’s attempts to seduce and destroy Wallace turns to what may be genuine affection, as does his upright resistance to her charms.

“Charm” is the operative word when describing I Married a Witch: it has screwball pacing but is more whimsical and daffy than outright hilarious. Lake’s enthusiasm for mischief is infectious, which in turn makes her later romantic leanings seem sweeter and less sappy; March’s straight-man work doesn’t have the charm of, say, Cary Grant, but you believe that he would be thoroughly befuddled by Lake’s beauty.

They gamely run through a story (based on a darker novel, The Passionate Witch) that plays today like sort of a Bewitched prequel — but freed from that show’s sitcom-format constraints. Though it’s less racy than its source material, Clair’s film nonetheless has notes of both darkness (Jennifer is, after all, seeking revenge for being burned alive) and sexiness — the witch’s new human form is introduced via Lake standing naked in a burning building.

Of course, Lake’s modesty is preserved by smoke — a visual motif throughout the film (much more so than the traditional witch’s broom or pointed hat) that looks especially striking in black and white. For a light and silly romantic comedy, I Married a Witch has lush production values: beautifully detailed sets and the kind of ambitious, inventive special effects whose lack of modern-day believability doesn’t diminish their effectiveness. It’s a craft often lacking in lightweight romantic comedies of recent years.

I Married a Witch, then, is a delightful film, rather than an epochal one, and the Criterion edition DVD does little to argue against this point; in contrast with its often-impressive array of extras, the new edition comes only with a Clair interview, a theatrical trailer, and a print booklet featuring another interview and an appreciative essay by Guy Maddin. But like the film itself, the disc doesn’t require a lot of time or energy to appreciate; it’s a slim packaging of an effortless little film.

RATING 6 / 10