Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Roman Polanski | Rosemary's Baby

happy house
by Douglas Messerli
Roman Polanski (writer, based on the novel by Ira Levin, and director) Rosemary’s Baby / 1968

I saw Polanski’s horror-genre film, Rosemary’s Baby when it was first released in 1968, and then again in 1970, I believe, with my companion Howard, in my hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa at the Paramount Theater (no longer in existence), during which a real bat soared over the screen. Yesterday, seeing the film on DVD after all these years, Howard and I both concurred that it seemed to be a different movie from the one of our memories.

     I remember Rosemary’s Baby as a horrifyingly tense work about great evil, in which a young innocent woman, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is introduced to a satanic coven, with whom apparently her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), has joined to better his career, determining to impregnate is wife with a child that will become Satan himself.

     Given the hundreds of movies that have made through the years (The Omen [1976] and the more recent The House of the Devil [2009] being just two examples), Howard and I wondered at the fact that, although Christ was born into the human world just once, Satan must apparently be reborn again and again, a product of depraved Satanic worshipers and accidental dates (such as the one in this movie, June 28, 1966 or 666) and lunar eclipses. And that very question, perhaps, forced me to recognize just how formulaic aspects of this movie were.

      Similarly, what appeared in my memories as a very dark movie, was closer to what Renata Adler described it upon its premiere: “The movie—although it is pleasant—doesn’t seem to work on any of its dark or powerful terms.” While early reviews, moreover, often compared Polanski’s directing style to Alfred Hitchcock’s, this time round both Howard and I perceived Polanski’s more leisurely, at times almost limpid, pacing as a far cry from master’s always taut and pre-determined approach. Frankly, this works for Rosemary’s Baby precisely for the opposite reasons than one might suspect.

      For, although the plot—closely following the story of Levin’s popular horror tale—seems to be nearly entirely focused on the evil surrounding Rosemary as she slowly comes to perceive what is happening to her through her own suddenly strange dreams (particularly her impregnation in a Satanic ritual), in her food cravings (Farrow actually ate raw liver to lend credulity to the part), through the pains of her early pregnancy, and through the warnings of her friends such as Hutch (Maurice Evans) and several party-going women acquaintances, the style of Polanski’s work is actually presented more as a comedy. Two scenes—Rosemary’s phone booth attempt to call her previous Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin) to make an appointment, and a scene where, completely disoriented, she walks into incoming mid-town traffic—create tensions worthy of the horror genre. But the rest of the film puts all of Rosemary’s growing fears into a kind of loony perspective. For the real stars of this film are not the somewhat sleazy Guy nor even the utterly terrified Rosemary, but the somewhat doughty neighbors, Minnie Castevet (the hilarious Ruth Gordon, who won an Academy Award for this role) and her husband Roman, a.k.a. Steven Marcato (Sidney Blackmer), son of a famed murderer who once lived in the same apartment house. These busybody neighbors of the Woodhouse’s, she dressed in an outrageous 1960s flowered fabrics and he in slightly outdated tweeds  topped by bow-ties and cravats, irresistibly intrude upon the young couple, bringing them mousses, herbs, and advice, changing doctors for young pregnant woman, and generally causing havoc for the would-be lovers.

      It is their bizarre extravagances, more than anything else, that begin to unhinge the clearly susceptible Rosemary, and gradually transformation from her basically realist, slightly religious (she was raised Catholic) perspective to a slightly absurd inner certainty that her neighbors and husband are attempting to take her child and sacrifice it to Satan himself.

     Carefully, Polanski stacks the deck in favor of her obsessions by killing off (through suicide) a young woman living with the Castevet’s, the sudden blindness of an actor which allows Rosemary’s husband to take on the dramatic role, the horrific nightmare I already described, and the sudden illness of her friend Hutch (whom Guy describes as a “professional crepe-hanger”) who leaves Rosemary two volumes of works on witchcraft that mentions the “tannis root” (the “Devil’s Pepper”) with which the neighbors have plied her. Along with those “intentional coincidences,” Polanski slides his camera through the vast rooms and spaces of the luxury apartment building (the exteriors being those of the grand west side New York Dakota Condominium) like a suspicious snake, while focusing on minute objects such as the necklace of tannis given to Rosemary, and the expected placement of a large chifforobe by the previous tenant against a closet—presumably in an attempt to keep the neighbors out! These and numerous other “clues” seem to give credence to Rosemary’s fears.

      But we have equal evidence that they her troubles may be delusional. When she visits her previous doctor, for example, he calls her current doctor, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) and Rosemary’s husband, apparently worried about her mental health. And even though, after the child’s birth, her husband lies to her about the baby’s survival, it may, after all, be only a way to protect her and the child. For, even though Rosemary, at first sight of the baby, is convinced they have done something to it, Polanski stubbornly keeps the camera out of the cradle (producer William Castle has insisted they show the possible devil-child) as Rosemary’s maternal instincts kick in, with the Castevets and their equally ridiculous friends approvingly looking on.     

     As in Polanski’s Repulsion, in the end we are not quite certain whether Rosemary has been justifiably terrified or simply delusional, having temporarily, at least, gone mad. And we are never sure whether the film is a kind of dark comedy—somewhat like the 1963 play by Ronald Alexander Nobody Loves an Albatross (starring Robert Preston as a con man) in which Guy has, we are told several times, appeared as an actor—or a dense epic, such as the religious-irreligious (depending upon your point of view) drama such as John Osborne’s 1961 Luther, in which Guy, apparently, has also acted.

     Each viewer may draw his or her own conclusions about what is the truth, but there can never be, the way it is filmed, one definitive answer. Although clearly drawn to such subject matter from the very beginning his career, Polish director Polanski would soon after suffer evils that were even more satanically-grounded in the “Helter-Skelter” murders of his wife Sharon Tate and others by the Manson cult; and the creators of that song, the Beatles, would lose one of their own members, John Lennon, as a shooting victim outside the very building, the Dakota, that stood-in in this film for the fictional Bramford (a building which Hutch, at one point, sarcastically describes as “Happy House”). The real satanic horrors, one might argue, lay outside the frame of this film rather than within its more ambivalent boundaries.

Los Angeles, September 16, 2013

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