Most people regard the start of a marriage as one of the happiest times in their lives. Leave it to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to unsettle the expectations of young marrieds with an unnerving and unerring glimpse into the catastrophe that will eventually become Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse’s (John Cassavetes) lives. Polanski, who wrote the screenplay based on Ira Levin’s novel, was an unproven commodity in Hollywood, despite his reputation in Europe as a consummate professional. In Hollywood, director William Castle had practically begged Paramount executive Robert Evans to snatch up the rights to Levin’s psychological thriller while the book was still in galleys. Evans, who admired Castle’s taste but felt that his skills as a B-budget director of schlock horror left something to be desired, agreed to buy the book, provided Castle remained strictly the producer on the project. Castle reluctantly agreed, then quietly resented Evan’s hiring Polanski to helm the project.
Evans first choice for Guy – Robert Redford – declined the role citing prior commitments. Polanski had wanted Tuesday Weld for the part of Rosemary; described in the Levin novel as a fresh-faced, wholesome creature of bucolic naiveté. Polanski next thought of his own wife, Sharon Tate for the role. But the studio wanted a ‘name’ and Mia Farrow – with her most recent success on TV’s Peyton Place, as well as her marriage to Frank Sinatra, fit the bill. Polanski eventually concurred that Farrow was an ideal choice. But Sinatra remained ‘frankly’ unconvinced. Ol’ Blue Eyes would eventually give Farrow an ultimatum – him or the movie - then have his lawyer serve divorce papers right in the middle of the shoot. Farrow, who had come from the traditional workman-like Hollywood family, chose to honor her career instead of her marriage – in hindsight, a very wise decision indeed.
In the meantime, the relationship between Polanski and Cassavetes curdled. The two men – both on whom had acted for other people as well as directed their own projects – started out the best of friends on Rosemary’s Baby. However, this mutual admiration was not to last, particularly as Cassavetes felt less comfortable with his part and thereafter began keeping to himself, reshaping his role according to his own counsel; creating friction and a general unpleasantness between director and star. Polanski would later muse that Cassavetes performance was solid although he was also quick to point out that by the end of the shoot the actor had become a “pain in the ass”.
Viewed today, Rosemary’s Baby remains an undeniably spooky movie. Yet its status as a horror classic is something of a curiosity. True enough the tale of a young couple’s exposure to their seemingly harmless elderly neighbors, who just happen to be Satan worshipers; their dilapidated apartment complex a New York hotspot for human sacrifice and witchcraft, does lend itself to the clichés of horror. But Polanski’s direction, and indeed the film as it exists never adhere or even come close to the time honored precepts of the horror genre. The genius of the movie, like the novel, is that it remains psychologically perplexing; offering the audience a strange dream-like dementia that gradually descends into pure nightmare and madness from which there is no escape.
Our story begins with the Woodhouse’s move into The Bramford; a Gothic inspired apartment complex first shown to Guy and Rosemary by superintendent, Mr. Micklas (Elisha Cook Jr.) who informs them that the previous tenant has died unexpectedly, but from natural causes. An old friend and writer, Hutch (Maurice Evans) informs the Woodhouses that the Bramford has a reputation; plagued by various unexplained occurrences that have resulted in several well publicized murders/deaths/suicides throughout the years. Regrettably, Hutch’s fantastic historical account does little to dissuade either Rosemary or Guy from having another look about the place.
The apartment, still furnished, is gloomy and foreboding, but yields an immediate fascination in the discovery of a rather large secretariat blocking an unassuming broom closet. Rosemary sees potential in the rooms and encourages Guy to sign the lease. A struggling actor whose previous roles have amounted to a few bit parts in off Broadway plays and a reoccurring stint as a car salesman on a TV commercial, Guy obliges his wife and the couple move in.
Almost immediately Guy and Rosemary are befriended by Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer); a pair of slightly doddering, exceptionally nosy neighbors whose paper thin bedroom wall butts up against their own. While doing her laundry in the Bramford’s spooky basement Rosemary is introduced to Terry Gionoffrio (Angela Dorian); a reformed drug attic whom the Castevets have taken in as their ward. Terry tells Rosemary that Minnie and Roman have been like the parents she never had, while Rosemary casually admires the rather odd pendant given Terry by Minnie that contains a rather odious smelling Tannis root. It seems that Rosemary has made a new friend. But shortly thereafter Terry is discovered by Rosemary and Guy lying in a pool of blood on the pavement outside the Bramford, having fallen – or perhaps jumped – from one of the open windows.
Guy initially finds the Castevets quite intrusive; an opinion about to change after Minnie goads Rosemary into accepting a dinner invitation. While Rosemary and Minnie clear the table, Guy and Roman develop a strange bond, predicated mostly on Roman’s flattery of Guy’s talents as an actor. The following day, Guy misses out on a juicy part in a Broadway show. But he is hardly forlorn. In fact, he hurries over to Roman’s apartment, leaving Rosemary at the merciless nattering of Minnie and her best friend, Laura Louise (Patsy Kelly). To express her gratitude, Minnie gives Rosemary Terry’s pendant, informing her that it is a good luck charm she should always wear.
The next day Guy receives a phone call from the producers of the play, explaining that the actor they hired instead of him has inexplicably lost his sight. Flush with success, Guy rushes over to tell Roman, returning hours later with red roses for Rosemary and encouraging her to start their family. That night, however, Minnie arrives during their romantic dinner with ramekins of chocolate mousse as a sort of celebratory dessert. Guy devours his. But after only a few spoonfuls Rosemary reasons that there is some sort of aftertaste. She becomes ill and passes out, succumbing to a series of hallucinations; imagining herself nude and surrounded by the elderly tenants, including Minnie and Roman. Raped by a demonic presence, and concluding that “this is no dream” – Rosemary awakens with a startle in her own bed the next morning, discovering scratches across her nude body. Guy sheepishly fabrics a story that he was drunk and took advantage of her while she lay unconscious, an invasion of her body that drives a wedge between Guy and Rosemary until a few weeks later when she learns that she is, in fact, pregnant.
Rosemary is encouraged by Minnie and Roman to drop her obstetrician, Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin) in favor of Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy); one of the most revered and prominent in his profession. A close personal friend of the Castevets, Sapirstein begins an aggressive regiment of vitamin drinks that he says Minnie will make for Rosemary from her fresh ground herbs that are far more potent than the usual prescription of pills other obstetricians generally prescribe. All, however, does not go according to plan. Rosemary becomes increasingly ill, suffering severe abdominal pain and extreme weight loss. Her cravings gradually veer into the grotesque consumption of raw chicken liver. Despite her gauntness, Sapirstein assures Rosemary that she is well and has absolutely nothing to worry about.
Alarmed by Rosemary’s frailty Hutch also takes notice of the pendant around Rosemary’s neck and the curious smell emanating from it. After she explains that the Tannis root within is also part of Minnie’s vitamin drink prescribed her, Hutch decides to do some quiet research. Later, he telephones Rosemary at home, setting up a luncheon date for the next afternoon. Only Hutch never makes it to their prearranged rendezvous outside the Time/Life Building. Telephoning his house after waiting for him for several hours, Rosemary learns that Hutch has inexplicably slipped into a coma. Three months later, he dies in hospital, but not before briefly regaining consciousness and encouraging his doctor to give Rosemary a book on witchcraft he had been researching on her behalf.
At Hutch’s funeral his close friend, Grace Cardiff (Hanna Landy) gives Rosemary the book with a cryptic message: “the name is an anagram”. After some puzzlement, Rosemary uses a Scrabble set to deduce that Roman Casavets is really Steven Marcato, the son of a former Bramford resident accused of worshipping the devil. Beginning to suspect that she is in great danger, and that perhaps Guy has been swayed to their witch’s coven, Rosemary also becomes suspicious when she realizes Guy has previously stolen a tie from the actor who went blind, and also a glove from Hutch. Perhaps these personal effects were used by Roman and Minnie to cast destructive spells on both men. That afternoon, Rosemary refuses Minnie’s vitamin drink and comes to suspect that Dr. Sapirstein is also a part of the coven who seeks to possess her baby.
Frantic, Rosemary packs a suitcase and escapes the Bramford to Dr. Hill’s office. He listens intently to her seemingly paranoid tale before encouraging her to lie down in one of his unoccupied examination rooms. Hill tells Rosemary that he will place her in protective care at Mount Sinai, but instead telephones Guy and Sapirstein who come to retrieve Rosemary and take her back to the Bramford. Attempting yet another escape, Rosemary is subdued by Guy and Sapirstein. She goes into labor and is sedated; awakening hours later only to be told that her baby has died.
However, in the days that follow Rosemary hears the whimpers of a child coming from Roman and Minnie’s apartment. Remembering how the secretariat had been pushed up against the hall closet, Rosemary finds a secret passage behind its walls that leads into the Castavet’s apartment. Armed with a butcher knife, Rosemary follows the sounds of a child crying into Minnie and Roman’s living room where all of the devil worshippers, including Guy and Sapirstein, have gathered to celebrate the birth of Satan’s offspring – Rosemary’s baby. Horrified, Rosemary spits in Guys face, but is lulled to the cradle by Roman who encourages her to be a mother to her child. The film ends with Rosemary gently rocking the cradle.
Rosemary’s Baby is bone-chilling, yet remarkably restrained entertainment. The true horror of the piece is not derived from special effects or gruesomeness that would progressively infiltrate and devolve the horror genre into the blood and guts offshoot it remains to this day. And even in its depiction of satanic worship, Rosemary’s Baby is genuinely self-possessed; Polanski keeping the more demonstrative aspects of human sacrifice and the occult at bay, just enough for the audience to interpret them via Mia Farrow’s character’s sorrowful self-discovery. In retrospect, Rosemary’s Baby owes much to, and is more en par with Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943) another tale of innocence lost through demonic worship, than later likeminded fare like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) where Satan becomes ‘the star’ of the story.
Yet Rosemary’s Baby does not cheat the audience from exorcising its penetrated fear. Partly because Farrow’s performance is so ‘damn good’ and efficient at extolling the inner tumult of this raped waif impregnated with the anti-Christ’s demon seed, and partly the result of Polanski’s ability to elicit genuine revulsion through a style that is rarely graphic (a la William A. Fraker’s brilliantly claustrophobic cinematography and Richard Sylbert’s spooky production design), the film mounts its suspicions in a gradual, methodical way – ever so slightly tweaking our perceptions and even playfully toying with the reality of Rosemary’s own imploding sense of self-preservation.
Take, for example the sequence when Rosemary, having discovered that Sapirstein is a part of the witch’s coven, hurriedly rushes to a telephone booth on a street corner in Manhattan, determined to telephone Dr. Hill for his counsel and salvation. Polanski stages the sequence from a vantage just outside the glass booth, with Farrow’s frantic protagonist desperately clutching the receiver – all the while exposed to passersby who infrequently attempt to intrude on her conversation.
Polanski has already primed the audience by giving Sapirstein a distinctive curly haircut. Thus, when a man comes into view from behind Rosemary with his back to the camera and a haircut similar the doctor the audience holds its breath while assuming the worst – that Sapirstein has found Rosemary. In fact, in the next few moments it is revealed that the man outside the booth is just another passerby (actually played by William Castle) who is patiently waiting to use the telephone.
But the sequence does more than elevate the nail-biting suspense of the moment. It also challenges the audience to reconsider all that has gone before it. Are Rosemary’s fears about the coven founded, or is she merely experiencing a pre-partum anxiety that has temporarily overtaken her logic and sanity? Until the final moments of the film we’re never quite sure because, on the one hand Minnie and Roman’s behavior could definitely be considered suspicious, while on the other it could just as easily be misconstrued: harmless though annoying as it is, but just a lonely old couple thoroughly fascinated by their new youthful tenants.
And Polanski’s direction has been of no help thus far to resolve the issue for his audience in any sort of concrete way. What has he given us? A missing glove and exchanged neckties to suggest a coma and unexplained blindness. Garbled chanting obscured by dense plaster walls while Rosemary suffers a nightmare that ends with only her suspicions that something out of the ordinary has occurred. A strange smell emanating from a pendant bequeathed to her as a gift by a neighbor grateful for her consolation after Terry’s untimely death. Are these omens of some paralyzing truth or exaggerated precursors suggesting odd behavior that is just that – odd, but thoroughly harmless?
Rosemary’s Baby never seems willing to tell us – not until its very last scene when we are faced with the dread of our lost heroine’s apocalyptic reality. In that moment the film arguably falls apart – or at least suffers from a sudden puncture of our collective anxiety. The mystery solve, the riddle exposed, we face the end of Rosemary’s Baby with the same sort of detachment our heroine feels as she approaches the cradle where the child she has conceived with the devil helplessly lays – defeated in her initial intent to kill it and save the world.
With the recent announcement that Paramount Home Video has all but divested itself of responsibilities where its own catalogue titles are concerned, it is gratifying to have Criterion take up the mantel on Rosemary’s Baby and give us this gorgeous hi-def transfer mastered in 4k resolution. The results are breathtaking. Colors take a quantum leap forward as does overall image sharpness – never a strong on any of the DVD incarnations. We lose that awkward green tint that plagued the DVDs; colors far more accurately represented with flesh tones that look natural for a change. Fine detail abounds throughout and contrast levels are bang on. There are a few extremely rare moments when film grain inexplicably intensifies and colors appear just slightly off and/or faded. But we’re talking mere seconds. Otherwise this is a superb visual presentation that will surely not disappoint.
The audio has been preserved in 2.0 mono, which is probably just as well. Rosemary’s Baby is a dialogue driven movie. Occasionally, dialogue sounds muddled and/or strident, but mostly this is a very well preserved incarnation of the original mono mix with all the inherent flaws expected and minimized for a pleasing listening experience. Extras include three documentaries; one recently produced with the participation of Farrow, Evans and Polanski that offers fresh insight and fascinating backstories. Good stuff all around. Criterion also pads out this offering with extensive linear notes and essays. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)