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Rosemary's Baby

Entry updated 28 December 2020. Tagged: Film.

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Film (1968). Paramount Pictures presents a William Castle production. Directed by Roman Polanski. Written by Polanski from the novel Rosemary's Baby (1967) by Ira Levin. Cast includes Ralph Bellamy, Sidney Blackmer, John Cassavetes, Patricia Ann Conway, Elisha Cook Jr, Tony Curtis, Maurice Evans, Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon. 136 minutes. Colour.

Paranoia pervades the Inner Space of a woman whose actor-husband sells his soul for worldly success [see Pacts with the Devil in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

Where stories on a planetary scale might reveal the magnitude of human folly, Cities obscure the private degradation of human motives; both venues, however, allow for the interrogation of the relationship between Identity and civilization. Rosemary's Baby is in many respects as New Wave as anything that appeared in sf magazine New Worlds or any of the Original Anthologies of the 1960s: rarely can have the mutual indebtedness of the nouvelle vague in Cinema and the new wave in Genre SF been so clearly demonstrated. That the film also reveals the continuing importance of Horror in SF to the emergence of Fantastika as a cornerstone of popular culture is instructive: there is little so cathartic to the human imagination than watching one's unspoken fears about the malevolence of human society rendered as entertainment.

Rosemary's Baby achieves this by the way it merges its slow, almost predatory, portrayal of human Psychology under supernatural pressure with its mastery of surrealistic filmmaking techniques: here the razor from Un chien Andalou (1929) by Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí is exchanged for the kitchen knife in the hand of postpartum mother Rosemary Woodhouse (Farrow), the keyhole voyeurism of Le Sang d'un Poète (1930) by Jean Cocteau repurposed as the neighbourly manipulations of Roman (Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (Gordon) and the clandestine marital set-up of Les Diaboliques (1955) by Henri-Georges Clouzot recycled as the selfish ambition of Rosemary's flaky and avaricious husband Guy (Cassavetes). Les Diaboliques, released as Diabolique in the United States and sometimes translated as The Devils or The Fiends, also influenced the Freudian terror of Psycho (1960). Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho (1959) on which Alfred Hitchcock's seminal thriller is based, cited Les Diaboliques as his favourite horror film. It is the way director and screenwriter Roman Polanski fuses the oneiric force of Rosemary's inner life to the interior of the New York apartment block to which she and her husband have moved that causes the viewer to identify so closely with her predicament.

"La-la-la ..." sings Farrow lullaby-like (and uncredited) over the movie's smoothly lingering and sinister opening frame of the spires of Manhattan and Central Park, a panning shot which lurches to take in the Gothic arches and protrusions atop the ornate Victorian architecture, before settling on the entrance of the Dakota building on Manhattan's Upper West Side, at the very spot where John Lennon would later be shot dead. The Dakota is renamed "the Bramford" in Rosemary's Baby, and is, like every other real-world extrusion into the imagined space of the movie, very carefully considered. "I can no longer associate myself ..." reads an entry from the diary of former tenant Mrs Gardenia as newly-weds Rosemary and Guy are shown around her apartment by building superintendent Mr Nicklas (Cook Jr). The phrase foreshadows the theme of the film precisely. A dresser has been moved to conceal what seems to be a simple closet containing a vacuum cleaner and towels – instruments, on a surrealist, symbolic level at least, of Rosemary's subsequent bondage to the marital environment. Secret doors in a typically new-wave inversion of physical and emotional space and tend to signify psychological danger. The Woodhouses' friend Hutch (Evans) tries to dissuade them from taking the apartment by relating the Bramford's lurid history of murder, cannibalism and witchcraft but Rosemary has already begun decorating the place in the colours of her future happiness.

And this, in its first ten or fifteen minutes, is the whole of Rosemary's Baby; the next two hours is spent drawing out these creative implications in excruciating detail: suspense, in the Hitchcockian tradition – Hitchcock himself tried a similar set-up in Suspicion (1941) – is married to a wholly-convincing psychodrama in which, for once, the plot does not make marionettes of the characters. A large part of this is down to the acting of Ruth Gordon, off-hand, manipulative, somehow as sincere as she is absurd, and Mia Farrow, who almost bursts out of the frame with the intensity of her performance, but it is also derived from the way Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby (1967) is both faithfully adapted – large parts of the dialogue from the novel were simply lifted and dropped directly into the events of the film – and yet rendered utterly ambiguous in its implications. Levin's novel treats the reveal of the satanic plot as a kind of "twist in the tale"; Polanski, like Hitchcock, understands that letting the audience what is going to happen but constantly calling Rosemary's version of events and point of view into question creates a greater affect: we can barely stand to watch what is about to happen to her. Not a single frame is wasted and the pictorial composition of Polanski and director of photography William Fraker is as suggestive as any painting by Giorgio di Chirico or Rene Magritte. "You have a most interesting inner quality, Guy – it shows in your television work too," Roman Castevet (actually the witch "Steven Marcato", as any amateur crossword-buff might have deciphered) flatters Guy at the dinner table, and the very next shot is of the two men unseen and unheard in the next room, with only the drift of smoke from Guy's cigarette moving across the open doorway in the direction of Castevet/Marcato to signify Guy Woodhouse cutting a deal to allow his wife to be raped by Satan [see Satan in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] in return for winning a part in a Broadway play. When Rosemary begins to suspect her husband's complicity with the witches in their midst, she phones the actor Donald Baumgart whose sudden blindness allowed Guy to take the lead in the play, and Polanski closes in on Farrow's momentary confusion and hesitation, as she, the actor, struggles to place the voice of Tony Curtis, who is, unbeknownst to her, playing the part of Donald Baumgart. Everyday activities such as cooking, cleaning and making telephone calls are charged with an extraordinary menace but it is during the hallucinatory dream sequence as Rosemary is raped after being drugged by the Castevets with Guy's cooperation that Rosemary's Baby most clearly announces its creative agenda – which is, in essence, how occult practices seek to shake loose the grip of Religion on Sex. Rosemary visualizes her mattress adrift on an ocean, then sees herself as the passenger on a presidential yacht. John F Kennedy – the first Catholic president of the United States – dons a sailor's suit and cap before pointing out to sea. Guy undresses a shivering Rosemary as images of Michelangelo's Birth of Man paintings from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel swirl and Rosemary is surrounded by naked figures in the fiery hold of the ship as Minnie Castevet assures everyone in her distinctive accent: "As long as she ate the mousse, she can't see nor hear. She's like dead now." A woman closely resembling Jackie Kennedy (Conway) suggests Rosemary's legs are bound "in case of convulsions" and Guy begins to make love to Rosemary, becoming ever-more bestial in appearance as he does so, with clawed, hairy hands and yellow, animal eyes that resemble popular representations of the Devil as Rosemary exclaims: "This is no dream! This is really happening!"

It is impossible to reconcile a masterpiece made by a convicted rapist. Roman Polanski was charged by a Grand Jury on 10 March 1977 with the rape by use of drugs of a child under the age of fourteen and became a fugitive from justice in 1978 before being arrested on the same charges in Switzerland on 26 September 2009. Two further accusations of rape have since surfaced. Polanski's then-wife Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson family on 9 August 1969, barely a year after Rosemary's Baby was made. "Sharon's death is the only watershed in my life that really matters," Polanski wrote in Roman by Polanski (1985). "The reporting about Sharon and the murders was virtually criminal ... I could not believe my eyes! They blamed the victims for their own murders."

It is the way in which Rosemary's Baby reveals the origins of Fantastika in the Enlightenment while balancing very few explicitly paranormal elements with the tropes of a psychological thriller that makes it truly exceptional. Modern life can be as psychologically alienating as any misty Carpathian castle, particularly for a woman who is pregnant (see Feminism): Rosemary's environment is her point of view, much as it had been for Catherine Deneuve's Belgian protagonist Carol in Repulsion (1965) – the film that first attracted Paramount executive Robert Evans to Polanski's work – and for male protagonist Trelkovsky (played by Polanski himself) in the last film in Polanski's apartment-dwelling trilogy, The Tenant (1976). A similar approach – though one without any supernatural connotation – was taken in High-Rise (2016) by Ben Wheatley, adapted by Amy Jump from the novel High-Rise (1975) by J G Ballard. "For me, the Kennedy assassination was the catalyst that ignited the 1960s," wrote Ballard in his memoir Miracles of Life (2008). And: "The nuclear family, dominated by an overworked mother, is in many ways deeply unnatural, as is marriage itself, part of the huge price we pay to control the male sex." Horror films featuring demonic children that were influenced by Rosemary's Baby include The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and Demon Seed (1977). Oscar-winning Ruth Gordon reprised her role as Minnie Castevet in the poorly-received tv film Look What Happened to Rosemary's Baby (1976), but Ira Levin's sequel Son of Rosemary (1997) has never yet been made into a film. The US Television network NBC aired a four-part Rosemary's Baby miniseries in January 2014. [MD]

further reading

  • Michael Newton. Rosemary's Baby (London: BFI, 2020) [nonfiction: in the publisher's Film Classics series: pb/]


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