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Remember a time when the screen still had the power to shock?
Roman Polanski's Hollywood debut Rosemary's Baby is unusual in that it was both a blockbuster success and a horror movie, an upscale anomaly in a genre dominated by cheaply made, commercially marginal product. Robert Wise's The Haunting and Jack Clayton's The Innocents were earlier "class" horror efforts, but to find another major blockbuster one must go back to 1960 and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Rosemary's Baby was one of the first projects green-lit by Paramount production chief Robert Evans, whose 'New Hollywood' modus operandi consisted mainly to revitalize old genres by bringing new blood into the game. Evans championed the Polish film school wunderkind Roman Polanski, who had made three films in England. His reputation attracted top technical artisans like editor Sam O'Steen and designer Richard Sylbert. The chosen star was Mia Farrow, a TV name recently married to Frank Sinatra.
Ira Levin's source novel dealt with a subject that just a few years before would have been stopped cold by the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency: a coven of witches in New York City schemes to arrange the birth of a human Son of Satan. Two of Polanski's pictures had been horror films, the psychological shocker Repulsion and the fanciful horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers. Polanski's witchcraft tale is not a fairy tale and certainly not a comedy. It is also a far cry from the genteel coffee 'n' cake Greenwich Village coven pictured in Val Lewton's 1943 film The Seventh Victim. By the 1960s, the existence of a group of fanatic devil worshippers on New York's west side seems entirely plausible.
Aspiring actor Guy Woodhouse and his wife Rosemary (John Cassavetes & Mia Farrow) move into an old building called The Bramford and are soon befriended by their next-door neighbors, the elderly eccentrics Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon & Sidney Blackmer). The self-absorbed Guy suddenly accedes to Rosemary's desire to have a baby, and Rosemary conceives during an 'unusual' night of lovemaking: she's unconscious and experiencing weird dreams of a scaly monster. Like substitute parents, the influential Castevets become very excited. Roman secures the top obstetrician Abe Saperstein (Ralph Bellamy) at a low rate and Minnie concocts special herb vitamin shakes. When Rosemary's pregnancy becomes abnormally painful, Saperstein assures her that everything is okay. But the mother-to-be knows something is amiss. Guy's acting career enjoys a sudden burst of success, because a competing actor is mysteriously struck blind. Rosemary's best friend, children's author Hutch (Maurice Evans) falls into a coma soon after he warns Rosemary that Roman Castevet is really Steven Marcato, the son of a notorious warlock who lived in The Bramford fifty years before. Guy responds to these revelations by destroying a book from Hutch, "All of Them Witches", saying that it is for Rosemary's own good. He browbeats her when she talks about changing doctors. She begins to correlate suspicious events with Guy's sudden visits to the Castevets. Rosemary cannot but begin to believe that she's the target of a terrible conspiracy: the witches want her baby for their abominable rites.
"This is not a dream! This is really happening!" We share Rosemary's ordeal in the first person, through a subjective camera. Rosemary's pregnancy is a painful, slow torture; her Sassoon haircut and gaunt pallor make her look like a ghoul. She's trapped not by an obvious demon or curse but by little things to which we can all relate: obnoxious neighbors, a moody husband and her own feelings of inadequacy and Catholic self-doubt. Rosemary also has a desire for status and the perfect pregnancy, so she is easily conned into changing doctors. With her pre- feminist consciousness, Rosemary is easily manipulated by Guy, whose duty seems to be to isolate her from her girlfriends and the benevolent Hutch. Rosemary is finally trapped by her own motherly instincts, perhaps the most horrifying idea of all.
Audiences were held in rapt attention. Rosemary's Baby doesn't need comedy relief scenes, as uneasy laughs are built into the characterizations. Ex-comedienne Patsy Kelly is a dowdy, insensitive member of the coven, who at one point sticks her tongue out at Rosemary. Ruth Gordon's pushy, obnoxious, grotesquely dressed Minnie Castavet is literally the neighbor from Hell, a vulgar woman who won't stop talking. She commits the housewife's worst sin, asking the price of things. Minnie is funny at first, but soon comes to represent all the ways that older people impose themselves on the young, with awkward interruptions and unwanted advice. Ms. Gordon's screen career had been all but abandoned twenty-five years before. She won a Best Supporting Oscar and became more popular than ever.
Superbly crafted and perhaps Roman Polanski's best Hollywood movie, Rosemary's Baby looks its taboo subject square in the face. If the witchcraft seems real, it is because we see no unholy altars and no sacrificial rites, in fact, no supernatural hocus-pocus at all. Suggestions of that are instead limited to Rosemary's vivid dreams, in which she sees churches in flames, exchanges small talk with John and Jackie Kennedy and perceives being raped by "The Horned One". Outside of these impressionistic dreams, a realistic treatment is strictly enforced. The coven is a mix of kooks, frumpy old folk and unpleasant types such as the white-suited foreigner who arrives as if he were one of the Three Kings. Isolated and afraid, Rosemary must interpret Hutch's warnings on her own. She finds herself on the floor rearranging letters from a Scrabble board in a game of anagrams. She discovers that Roman Castevet is to Steven Marcato, what Alucard was to Dracula in the old Universal monster movies.
In 1968 a horror film that amounted to an inversion of The Nativity was in very edgy taste. Rosemary suffers an unspeakable betrayal, and our unease grows as we realize the nightmare that lies ahead. Composer Krzysztof (Christopher) Komeda's haunting lullaby is used to great effect. Present under the titles, it isn't heard again until the moment that Rosemary is told that she is pregnant. The mysterious musical cue enters identically to composer Max Steiner's "baby" theme in the 1948 film Johnny Belinda, when Jane Wyman is told in sign language that she's going to have a baby. For Rosemary, this universal moment of happiness is darkened by sinister overtones. It's yet another of Polanski's inversions of audience expectations.
Rosemary's Baby brought accolades for its celebrity director. His camera ignores standard Hollywood coverage. Action in the Woodhouse apartment is frequently observed through doorways that limit what we can see. People talking in the next room are hidden off to the left or the right. When Guy takes one phone call in the bedroom, audiences tilted their heads to the right, if trying to see around the corner of the doorframe. This effect pays off when Rosemary locks everyone out of the apartment while she desperately calls for help. We know that there's no other way in, yet Guy and Saperstein appear in the background, as if seen out of the corner of her eye.
Polanski also uses the soundtrack to impart crucial information. We never actually see Guy's secret visits to the Castevets, but Rosemary hears a muffled doorbell right after he leaves her. Just a couple of seconds later, the same sound is heard again, when Rosemary pushes the doorbell the next day. Rosemary is slow picking up on the clues, but there is no doubt that her fears are well founded, in contrast to the ambiguous events in The Innocents. This is not a dream... this is really happening.
Roman Polanski actually altered very little from the Ira Levin original, so much so that the book practically reads as a verbatim novelization. One very surprising discovery is finding out that the large cabinet found blocking Rosemary's hallway closet was not a Polanski addition. Polanski's most famous student film from Poland is Two Men and a Wardrobe, a surreal short subject in which two men carry a large chest of drawers out of the sea. Then, in his horror film Repulsion, Catherine Deneuve uses a similar wardrobe to block a doorway. In one of her dreams, a man pushes through the doorway anyway, and rapes her. In Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers a nervous young man blocks another doorway with a large chest of drawers to secure his sleeping chamber against nighttime intrusions. The wardrobe in Rosemary's Baby is used identically: nobody knows why the previous tenant tried to cover up a closet with a large cabinet, and Rosemary finds out only after it's too late. The "wardrobe" was such a Polanski trademark that one wonders if Ira Levin knew the director and purposely added it as a favor.
Unlike the book, Polanski withholds showing the baby in the black bassinet, preferring to add a brief expressionistic superimposition of the pair of bestial eyes from Rosemary's horror dream. Realizing that any literal representation would simply not work -- author Levin even describes a tail -- Polanski gets all the shock value he needs from the sight of Rosemary's horrified expression. The last scene in Rosemary's Baby is an amazing accomplishment, riveting when by all expectations it ought to be ludicrous. It was obvious that Roman Polanski is a consummate film director.
The deeply pessimistic film seems to encapsulate Roman Polanski's persistent theme, the idea that well-organized evil will prevail over isolated do-gooders every time. The victorious witches raise their glasses in triumph and proclaim that God is Dead. The new nihilism reigns, leaving the rest of us to "Pray for Rosemary's Baby". Movies that might disturb members of dominant religious groups were once marginalized but after The Exorcist no subject was considered off limits.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Rosemary's Baby is a high-quality HD transfer of this acknowledged classic, a movie that almost nobody criticizes. Color values are excellent and the full range of contrast insures that we see shadow detail as Polanski and William Fraker intended. We also can better appreciate the almost-frightening makeup of Ruth Gordon, and shudder at Mia Farrow's sunken eyes and gaunt cheeks.
Disc producer Karen Stetler has assembled a handsome interview docu on the film, built on the reminiscences of Roman Polanski, producer Robert Evans and star Mia Farrow. The genesis of the project and the ups and downs of the filming are discussed, including the breakup of the Farrow-Frank Sinatra marriage in mid-production. We hear how the famous apartment building The Dakota was chosen to stand in for The Bramford, as well as Polanski and Evans' versions of how William Castle wanted to direct, and settled for special producer billing and a (brilliant) cameo appearance. Even more interesting is Roman Polanski's admission that he knew almost nothing about filming with a full Hollywood crew, and learned a great deal from his associates William Fraker, Richard Sylbert and Sam O'Steen. Robert Evans credits a brilliant ad campaign ("Pray for Rosemary's Baby") with launching what was an extremely difficult movie to sell.
A Polish documentary on Krsysztof Komeda is an hour long but turns out to be something of a disappointment, concentrating not on his music, but on his personal life and early years in Poland, where plaques and monuments are erected in his name. Most Komeda fans had just become aware of the talented composer when he suddenly died, at the young age of 37. Ira Levin is interviewed by Leonard Lopate on a 1997 radio show promoting the author's sequel, Son of Rosemary. The fat insert booklet contains Ed Park's essay, an Ira Levin afterward to the book and some unpublished Levin sketches of the fictitious apartments in the film.
Not mentioned is the fact that not soon after the premiere of Rosemary's Baby an annoying Ray Bradbury newspaper article appeared that declared the film's ending to be unacceptable. Bradbury offered his own conclusion, in which Rosemary bolts from the Bramford with her baby in her arms, places it on the altar of a Catholic cathedral and voices a plea for God to make things right. A year later, Polanski's wife Sharon Tate was savagely murdered, and the tabloid press used the movie connection to imply that there was something 'satanic' about the director, that he was somehow responsible for the mass killing. These unpleasant associations have dogged Polanski ever since.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Rosemary's Baby Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.