Friday, July 18, 2014

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

USA, 136 minutes
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Ira Levin, Roman Polanski
Photography: William A. Fraker
Music: Krysztof Komeda
Editors: Sam O'Steen, Bob Wyman
Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Patsy Kelly, Ralph Bellamy, Maurice Evans, Angela Dorian, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles Grodin, Tony Curtis, William Castle, Hope Summers

Devil worship in the heart of Manhattan was not exactly a new idea in 1968—producer Val Lewton had already taken a turn at it with The Seventh Victim some two decades before. But Rosemary's Baby is a series of contradictions at multiple levels, mixing old and new, outlandish and pedestrian, fashionable and homely, into a heady brew. It starts with the contradiction of stylish European film director and screenwriter Roman Polanski at the helm of a William Castle production. Castle, whose legend is lampooned in Joe Dante's 1993 Matinee (worth seeing), was famed for his horror movie promotions in the '50s and '60s: The House on Haunted Hill ("filmed in Emergo"), The Tingler ("filmed in Percepto"), and 13 Ghosts ("filmed in Illusion-O"). The words ending in "o" refer to stunts such as vibrating motors attached to the undersides of theater seats for The Tingler.

Castle even makes a cameo in Rosemary's Baby, grinning and honking on a stogie while he waits for Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) to free up a public phone. Rosemary's Baby, both the movie and the novel it was based on, was very much of its particular moment, come swirling out of the mid-'60s and the year of the beast, 196-6-6, long hot summers and deepening of the Vietnam War, etc., when Joan Didion first began to embrace dread as a critical aesthetic and Time magazine dedicated one of its covers to the question, "Is God Dead?" That very Time magazine cover puts in an appearance at one point in Rosemary's Baby in a doctor's waiting room. Blood and fantastical images are used sparingly, but Polanski is working very self-consciously in the realm of horror, with these devil worshipers and a celebrity appearance by Satan himself. At one point, the gnawing physical pain Rosemary experiences in her pregnancy suddenly vanishes and she feels it kicking inside her. "It's alive," she cries with joy and relief, echoing the famous lines from Frankenstein. "It's alive!"

More often, Rosemary's Baby is full of low-key scenes and characters of New York City life—in many ways Farrow's audition for Hannah and her other roles in Woody Allen movies. There are times I'm convinced the best performance in the whole thing is by Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castavet. Listen close and you can hear where Christopher Walken picked up some of his tricks. Minnie is a frumpy wizened aging housewife, a wall-sharing neighbor of Rosemary and Rosemary's husband Guy (John Cassavetes). Minnie is married to Roman Castavet, the son of a notorious diabolist of another era. She worships Satan but as a wifely duty, much more relishing her time gossiping with the girls (who are also devil worshipers—this movie has more than one connection with The Seventh Victim).

Rosemary doesn't like Minnie, describes her as nosy and pushy, and it's true enough Minnie really belongs in Queens more than the midtown Manhattan Dakota (called the Bramford in the movie). Like any good New Yorker, and unlike Rosemary who is easily buffeted about, Minnie remains flinty and unmoved in the face of everything, another sharp contrast that adds to the movie's effect. At the scene where the Angel of Darkness is having his way with a drugged Rosemary, and the rest of the coven stands around the bed naked (and unattractive) and chanting, Guy is worried Rosemary may be coming to. "As long as she ate the mouse, she can't see nor hear," Minnie hisses, brushing him off. "Now sing." She pronounces "mousse" as "mouse."

Polanski balances new and old in other ways as well. Rosemary's severe Vidal Sassoon haircut, which comes midway, or trendy '60s New York in general and its easygoing, pervasive focus on youth and energy, is set off with a phalanx of old-time Hollywood players: Gordon, Elisha Cook Jr., Ralph Bellamy, Sidney Blackmer, and more, pros one and all. Tony Curtis makes a wonderfully chilling uncredited appearance in a phone call as the disembodied voice of Donald Baumgart, an actor who wins a part Guy covets and then is mysteriously blinded.

"Blinded"—nice detail. It sounds like the kind of thing midtown Satanists would ask and receive from their dark lord. Rosemary and Guy skirt the other extremes. She is from Omaha and he is from Baltimore and they are in New York for Guy to start his career as an actor. Rosemary is the classic loyal helpmeet, content to stay at home and fix up their apartment, eager to start a family. She is not really of Manhattan, just passing through. Guy is a little more complex, or at least a little more easily corrupted, as he is effectively turned the second night after meeting the Castavets. His betrayal is rapid and thorough, scoring Rosemary's isolation. "I dreamed someone was raping me. I don't know, someone inhuman," she says the morning after her night with the devil. "Thanks a lot!" Guy yells from the next room.

The name of Alfred Hitchcock is often invoked in relation to Polanski movies, which is hardly surprising because they both work the terrains of anxiety so diligently. In Rosemary's Baby, the parallels are as obvious as they ever have been. Rosemary and Mia Farrow stand in as the classic Hitchcock blonde woman, warm and giving yet framed and shot as icy-cold, the better to become the objectified focus of a kind of sublimated rage of impotence, victimized every which way and up and down, continually. It's bad enough that Rosemary is raped by the devil, but the hardest scene to watch is when she turns to her original obstetrician for help. Even though Rosemary has added up all the elements of her situation pretty accurately, she inevitably sounds insane when she tries to explain it. She is almost perfectly pitiable in that moment.

Mia Farrow gives a fine studied performance, playing best I think at the most hysterical levels, as late when she reacts to first sight of the baby. Her quiet moments are often blank and empty, worked out carefully with Polanski. She feels impossible to read sometimes, out of synch and disconnected, though on the surface clean and pleasant and all convention. There's something not right about her even as she explicitly becomes the victim. The subtle horror of the ending—"You're trying to get me to be his mother," Rosemary says to the mollifying Roman Castavet as they stand before the black crib. "Aren't you his mother?" he responds—has shifted subtly over the years, thanks in part to Mia Farrow's deeply ambiguous performance, and the way the role was written. It's harder than ever to make out in the end whether she is a monstrous mother or a victim to be pitied, even as her next actions are transparent.

Top 10 of 1968
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2. Rosemary's Baby
3. Night of the Living Dead
4. Salesman
5. Once Upon a Time in the West
6. The Swimmer
7. The Party
8. Pretty Poison
9. Hour of the Wolf
10. Shame

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