René Clair opens I Married a Witch, his second American feature, with a mordant ribbing of a distinctly American atrocity: the Salem witch trials. A large audience has gathered to enjoy the burnings of Daniel, a warlock, and Jennifer, his witch daughter, and a vendor walks around offering “hot maize” in small bags to the townspeople. Among the crowd is Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), the puritan who denounced the pair and who speaks nervously about being briefly seduced by Jennifer’s wiles. In retaliation for Wooley’s betrayal, Jennifer curses Wooley and his heirs to be unlucky in love, and with a swift comical montage of the (increasingly miserable) Wooley lineage through the years, Clair demonstrates that Jennifer’s curse wasn’t mere bitter words.
Jennifer’s true day of reckoning comes in 1942, as Wallace Wooley (March) prepares for his wedding to Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward), the daughter of his primary backer in his gubernatorial run, which is in its final days. It’s during a fundraising-cum-engagement party for the couple that Jennifer and Daniel are released from their prison underneath a tree, and they’re portrayed as talking puffs of smoke, voiced by Cecil Kellaway and Veronica Lake, and realized thanks to some lovely pre-digital compositing. Eventually, Kellaway embodies Daniel on screen and Jennifer comes to take the form of Lake, whose relationship with March on set was notoriously adversarial and flirtatious. This backstage acrimony does the film well when Lake’s Jennifer gloms onto Wooley, following a daring rescue from a hotel fire. At first, revenge is of paramount concern to Jennifer, but her flirtations switch from torturous to enthusiastically adoring when she accidentally takes a love potion meant for Wooley.
As Wooley’s wedding day collapses into calamity, drawing him closer to Jennifer, Clair captures a rare sort of barbed playfulness between his stars, and his days as an avant-gardist comes into delightful, subtle aid with his use of visual effects. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Daniel makes a taxicab fly through the air during a police chase, and there are a number of smaller visual notes: flying brooms, a slide up the stairs, a sudden windstorm, and the aforementioned hotel fire. They may seem like pedestrian images, but Clair’s gives them distinct attention, and this goes similarly with his auditory effects. The director has a way of accentuating his effects by clearly but not distractingly giving over entire parts of sequences to effects. Early on, some sweet talk between young lovers is potently drowned out by the sounds of the storm that releases Daniel and Jennifer.
Clair’s focus on the visual magic of filmmaking, the sly technical maneuvers that make the impossible possible on screen, resounds the narrative’s depiction of love as a wild, chaotic sort of spell. The inherent strangeness of the first image of Jennifer, being no more than a puff of smoke and voiceover, seems imbedded in Lake’s punchy, ecstatic energy. For his part, March conjures a beautifully modulated performance of comic panic and exhaustion. As they play off one another, Clair’s imagery breaks down the sense of a world dictated by the logics of science or anything resembling reason, and thus inventively conveys an exhilarating sense of the madness of love.
The print isn’t perfect, but Criterion’s transfer is a remarkable improvement from Warner Home Video’s 1993 VHS release. Delineation between blacks, whites, and greys are excellent, and clarity, on the whole, is stunning, bringing out various textures and detail. Shadows are generally fantastic looking. As for the audio, dialogue is crisp and out front, and crucial sound effects, along with Roy Webb’s spirited score, come through cleanly.
There’s one single extra on the disc: an audio interview with director René Clair where he discusses the production of the film and his preferred methods of filmmaking. It’s a nice listen, but not as wholly informative as one might have hoped. There’s a better interview with Clair in the booklet, conducted by R.C. Dale, which offers a small bounty of tidbits about the filmmaker’s time in Hollywood and the relationships he formed there; the bits involving his collaborative friendship with Preston Sturges are particularly interesting. There’s also a solid essay by Guy Maddin on the film and a trailer included.
The extras are skimpy, but René Clair’s delightful, creative romantic comedy looks better than ever thanks to the Criterion Collection’s excellent A/V transfer.