PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC
ROSEMARY’S BABY (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Roman Polanski, 1968 (Criterion Collection)
Rosemary’s Baby introduced Roman Polanski to Hollywood, and vice versa, and they proved to be a tighter match than we could have imagined beforehand. This nerve-fraying version of writer Ira Levin’s demonic best-seller about the troubled pregnancy of a nice young woman betrayed by her husband and raped by the devil — directed by a young Polish master of psychological suspense (Knife in the Water, Repulsion) — worked like a slick dream, or rather like a slick nightmare.
It became an almost instant classic of movie horror — besides spawning a whole raft of Satanic thrillers, from The Exorcist on. And it was in many ways a typical tale of that bad dream decade the ‘60s: a hellish spine-tingler of a story, which sounds at first gasp like utter lunacy, told from the point of view of a dreamy baby-faced blonde, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow, fresh from TV‘s prime time soap opera, “Peyton Place”) and for much of the movie, we may wonder if Rosemary isn’t in fact, going crazy herself.
Is her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) — an opportunistic young stage and TV actor looking for his first big break — really selling his wife to a band of Satanists so she can mother the Devil‘s child? Are the Woodhouses’ gabby, chatty, nosey next-door neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (played with kvetching blabbermouth perfection by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) really a conduit to the fires of Hell? Did the Castevets’ pretty young house guest Terry (Angela Dorian a.k.a. Victoria Vetri) fall, from their apartment window, or did she jump, or was she pushed? Is Rosemary’s high end obstetrician, Minnie and Roman’s fatherly friend Dr. Abe Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) really preparing her for the birth of a baby with horns? Is the child she’s carrying really the spawn of Satan? Or is she just nuts? Or is she…
Since Rosemary’s Baby is a horror movie, adapted from the best-selling horror novel by Levin, we may not wonder very long about any of this. But Levin and Polanski make the characters and the yarn so real-seeming (if also darkly baroque and wittily exaggerated) that the idea of Rosemary‘s possible dementia lingers almost to the end of her hair-raising movie pregnancy. Finally, when Rosemary tries to escape her friendly seeming persecutors, including the irrepressible Patsy Kelly as bossy Laura-Louise — Rosemary dashing off to a phone booth (with the movie’s genially menacing-looking producer William Castle, just outside), and with Rosemary calling and running to her first obstetrician, ironical Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin) and nervously blurting out the whole story — we call tell how he’s reacting (smiling. politely but clearly unbelievingly in a very Grodinesque way). As she tells her fantastic story with childlike open-hearted trust, we can see how every spooky detail is another nail in her madwoman’s coffin — even though by then, we know that Rosemary is trustworthy and almost everyone around her is not.
Rosemary’s Baby is shot with claustrophobic intensity and voluptuous eeriness by Polanski and his gifted cinematographer William Fraker (who also photographed Bullitt), is a great-looking, beautifully-acted, very scary show that probably affects you even if you don’t believe in the devil (as I don’t). The movie came out in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, and the student protests and the waves of political assassinations and violence that came also in its wake. And even , though Polanski, a fairly recent émigré to the west from Communist Eastern Europe, doesn’t touch on anything political, and though Levin is careful to make Rosemary a conventional liberal and Guy basically an apolitical egotist, we can sense the conflagration outside, the youth revolution so at odds with the community of aging menace we see in the Castevets’ weird community. Minnie may fuss with her Lipton tea and goodies, and gab non-stop while gingerly wiping the dust from the tables, but we know that elsewhere, away from the Woodhouses’ spooky old apartment at the Bramford — a haunted hotel according to Rosemary and Guy‘s friend, boys‘ book author Hutch (played by Maurice Evans, who was a famous TV Macbeth) — all Hell is breaking loose. The building manager of the Bramford is that film noir mainstay, Elisha Cook, Jr. and the Bramford itslef is played, in eterior shots, by John Lennon’s last home, The Dakota.
Rosemary‘s Baby is essentially a movie about the possible triumph of Satan and evil over God and good. (At one point, we see the infamous ’60s Time Magazine cover asking Is God Dead?). And it’s about Armageddon, which was much on people’s minds those days, as the young were plagued by Vietnam, and the old were plagued by what they saw as a collapse of values in the young (because, at least partly, of Vietnam). It’s both nerve-rackingly suspenseful and sardonically funny, as it describes something that we could interpret as one sort of end of the world. It’s also one of the best films of that era about New York City itself, as drenched in a funny way with the city’s special air and atmosphere (despite limited exteriors) as anything by Sidney Lumet, or later, by Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee. Or, for that matter, Cassavetes’ own New York movies, Shadows and Gloria (also a later Lumet movie.)
Polanski, who is a great director of actors, famously didn’t get along on Rosemary’s Baby with Cassavetes (a greater director of actors and actresses). Cassavetes was Polanski‘s hand-picked choice for the role of Guy and the two began as buddies, then descended into friction and some rancor. Perhaps the reason for that schism lay in their contrasting views of humanity: Cassavetes’ more earthy and humane, Polanski’s more absurdist and ironic.
At the center of the movie though, is an actor with whom the director did get along, and who owes to Polanski one of the incontestable highlights of her career: Mia Farrow. One can imagine other actors, including Robert Redford playing Cassavetes’ Guy, but no one else could have made Rosemary so completely her own. She is a sweet young thing, who often seems barely more than a child herself — though the real Mia was married at the time to Frank Sinatra. (The movie, which Sinatra didn’t want her to do, split up the marriage.) And that makes Ms. Farrow perfect for this demonic tale of the evil within, as well as an ideal denizen of the dark, fear-drenched world of Polanski, which is full of baby-faced, childlike, waiflike blondes (Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac, Sharon Tate, Nastassia Kinski).
None quite as childlike as Rosemary however, who is accompanied in the film by a lullaby, who is surrounded by wicked grandparents, who wanders though the Bramford in a nightgown, who is visualized in a green sky above a baby carriage in the film‘s unforgettable poster. Pray for Rosemary’s Baby, the poster asks. Ah, yes. Pray for her mother too. And pray for…
SPECIAL FEATURES: Documentary including interviews with Roman Polanski, Mia Farrow and Paramount production bossRobert Evans; Radio interview with Ira Levin; documentary Komeda, Komeda (Three Stars), about Polanski’s jazz composer collaborator/friend Krzysztof Komeda, who wrote the score for Rosemary’s Baby; Booklet with essay by Ed Park, Levin’s 2003 afterword to the novel, plus his character sketches of Rosemary and Guy and his floor plan of the Woodhouse apartment.