Roman Polanski’s life has so overshadowed his oeuvre and he has had the benefit of so many mini-comebacks (“Bitter Moon”, “The Pianist”, “The Ghost Writer”), it’s difficult to remember that, once upon a time, the Polish-born director was the most commercial “new wave” director of the ‘60s, the heir apparent to Alfred Hitchcock.
Criterion has been repackaging Polanski’s early career over the past few years: his debut and sole Polish feature “Knife in the Water” (1962), his post-“Psycho” art-house grand guignol Catherine Deneuve vehicle “Repulsion” (1965), his horrific black comedy “Cul de Sac” (1966), and, now timed for Halloween, his first great commercial success “Rosemary’s Baby (1968).”
One of the most influential genre movies of its era, “Rosemary’s Baby” anticipated “Jaws” as pre-sold horror—it was adapted all but verbatim from Ira Levin’s 1967 best-seller, itself a movie waiting to happen. The premise is laden with subtext: Nice young housewife (Mia Farrow, served with divorce papers on the set by then hubby Frank Sinatra) is impregnated by Satan acting through her husband from hell (John Cassavetes), an underemployed actor who has fallen in with a coven of witches, two of whom (Sidney Blackmer and the hilarious Ruth Gordon) live next door in New York’s creepy, cavernous Dakota apartments.
The pace is leisurely; the sense of dread is constant. Getting the maximum frisson out of empty apartments and isolating phone-booths, Polanski was one of the few Hollywood directors since ‘40s B movie master Val Lewton to construct a horror film around the power of suggestion—indeed “Rosemary’s Baby” is a worthy successor to “The Seventh Victim”, Lewton’s own terrific little movie about a Manhattan witch-coven. The most graphic scene appears 45 minutes into the movie when, tripped out on some magic herb, Rosemary is raped by the Lucifer.
If the scene seems a bit trippy, Polanski’s first American production was very much a movie of its moment, filled with ‘60s signifiers. Rosemary is reading Sammy Davis Jr.’s best-selling memoir “Yes I Can,” she casually suggests sex to her uptight husband (“hey, let’s make love!”), and attends a classic ‘60s party where people wear terrible clothes and dance to awful music. Despite Rosemary’s ringing declaration, “I won’t have an abortion” (possibly the first and certainly one of the very few times the a-word was used in a studio film,) the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, formerly known as the Legion of Decency, “condemned” the movie. To see “Rosemary’s Baby” was to commit a venial sin—as well as to enjoy a contemporary horror film that added Catholicism and intimations of Armageddon to the mix.
In its way, Polanski’s movie was serious. Evil was real, but so was paranoia. Rosemary is surrounded, not only by witches, but by duplicitous actors. The garishly made-up, blatantly scene-stealing (and Oscar winning) Gordon is the most outrageous but there’s no doubt that the nearly as hammy Cassavetes is the worst villain. Although resolutely on Rosemary’s side, the movie at least introduces the possibility that everything might be her delusion, even as it makes clear that the conspiracy against her is even worse than she could imagine. (Indeed, the situation and even some of the images that the movie conjured up would subsequently play out in Polanski’s own life with the Satanic cult murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate.)
“Rosemary’s Baby” confirmed Polanski as a master of the macabre. (He only needed to make “Chinatown” in 1973 to confirm himself a major Hollywood talent.) Perhaps Criterion can be persuaded to release “Waltz of the Vampires” (butchered in the US and retitled “The Fearless Vampire Killers”), the superb film maudit Polanski fathered after “Rosemary’s Baby.”