Monday, June 13, 2011


Roman Polanski, 1968
Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse have moved into a nice new apartment in New York. Guy is developing his career as an actor and Rosemary is hoping to start a family. They meet their neighbors, the Castevets, and some strange occurrences begin to befall them. An actor competing against Guy is suddenly struck blind and Guy is given his first major breakthrough. Guy agrees that they can finally have a child. They celebrate that night, but Rosemary passes out for some reason. Guy, in a supposedly drunken stupor, has sex with her anyway. Rosemary has a series of unsettling dreams or visions and soon after discovers she is pregnant. The Castevets take excellent care of her, constantly checking in, making her special herbal drinks and sending her to a well-known doctor friend.

But all is not well. Rosemary is in pain and losing weight. She lives in constant anxiety, fearing for the baby. She gets a visit from an old friend, who convinces her that her fears are not unfounded. When she tries to meet with him again, he inexplicably collapses into a coma. When he dies a few months later, she receives a book about witchcraft and some clues he has left her. Her paranoia grows daily and she fights to gain control over her life, which is now completely governed by the Castevets, a very distant Guy and the dismissive doctor. When she eventually goes for help, she is suspected of being delusional and is delivered right back into the hands of her enemies. What will become of the baby?

Based on the novel by Ira Levin, Rosemary's Baby is one of those wonderful films that managed to define and transcend a genre. Like The Exorcist would do several years later, Polanski's film effectively removed American horror from the entertaining, if schlocky films of Roger Corman and put it on the map of major Hollywood cinema. Produced by the great William Castle -- speaking of schlocky horror maestros -- Rosemary's Baby was Polanski's American debut. It was the first screenplay he ever adapted himself and, as a result, is extremely faithful to the book. It's an amazing piece of filmmaking, particularly on a technical level. I think Polanski is one of the greatest living filmmakers, something I've said many times on this blog and will continue to say. You owe it to yourself to see this film more than once, because you will discover something new every time.

There's beautiful cinematography from William Fraker and a great score by Krzysztof Komeda, a Polish composer who regularly worked with Polanski. The performances really make the film, though. Mia Farrow was relatively unknown at the time, but is incredible. Halfway through filming an enraged Frank Sinatra, who Farrow was newly married to, served her divorce papers in front of the cast and crew. Allegedly Farrow broke down only once and insisted they continued with filming.

That is to say nothing of John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, and Sidney Blackmer. While I love Cassavetes as a filmmaker, he is perfect as Guy, despite his limited screen time. His presence is mostly felt in Rosemary's deep love for him. Ruth Gordon is perfect as the irritating Minnie Casetevet and Sidney Blackmer nicely rounds out the trio as a believable father figure for Guy.

The thing that strikes me about Rosemary's Baby and many of Polanski's other films is the sad, depressing atmosphere. Rosemary, a sweet, loving person, gets everything she wanted. But she doesn't realize until it is too late that there is more than meets the eye. In many ways it is an excellent allegory for spousal abuse, as everything that happens to her happens by degrees. Guy takes control of her life by persuading her that his way is the rational way, even making sense of irrational events like the rape that causes her pregnancy. She casts away her friends and her doctor out of her concern for the baby she wants so much. This allows for an ultimate betrayal on all fronts: her husband, the parental neighbors and even her professional doctor. In the end, she is persuaded to stay in her sham of a marriage, which now includes an "extended family," because of her love for her child.

Rosemary's Baby received a heap of critical praise, though it seemed to spook a lot of critics and audiences at the time. There was the craze where people were convinced this sort of thing happened in real life. As I said, it is highly recommended and you need to see it. Pick up any version you can find, though I'm reviewing the Paramount single disc, which has decent special features.

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