Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Roman Polanski

Spoiler Alert!

Ira Levin’s novel “Rosemary’s Baby” was a major best seller back in 1967 and became an extraordinarily popular movie by Roman Polanski in 1968. Read the book and see the movie, they were interchangeable at dinner conversations. Like most products that become a phenomena, timing and luck play an important role in its success. Levin’s novel struck some kind of cord with the public that was hungry for something dark. Also, in the mid 1960’s there was the  “God is Dead” faction, a theological movement that surfaced in some academic circles and became a national controversy after a cover story in Time magazine.

Low budget horror producer/director William Castle brought the novel to the attention of Robert Evans at Paramount who purchased the film rights for Castle with the understanding that he would produce the film but not direct. Evans wanted a class production and Castle was known for his artless low level though entertaining productions like “House on Haunted Hill”, “The Tingler”, “Macabre” and “Homicidal.” According to Christopher Sandford in “Polanski” his biography of the director, Castle wanted to film “Rosemary’s Baby” in the “Illusion-O 3-D” process he pioneered in the 1950’s and have Vincent Price star (by the way look for Castle’s cameo appearance standing outside a phone booth when Rosemary is desparately calling a doctor for help). Evans instead presented the novel’s proofs to Roman Polanski a director he admired for his work in “Knife in the Water” and “Repulsion.” Polanski would write the screenplay sticking closely to the novel.

Polanski opens the film with a long panning shot of the New York City skyline settling on the foreboding Bramford Apartments (The Dakota). Like D.W. Griffith pioneered in so many of his films Polanski will close the film with a reverse panning shot moving away from the Bramford across the City skyline. The plot is a woman’s living hell, literally and figuratively. Rosemary’s world quickly turns into a nightmarish downward free fall. After moving into a new apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called The Bramford (in reality The Dakota) with her unemployed actor husband Guy, they set out to start a family and have a baby. The bright sunny atmosphere soon darkens as their elderly new neighbors, the Castevet’s take an interest in the Woodhouse’s. Guy’s struggling acting career suddenly begins to get some breaks when a rival actor for a part in a play mysteriously goes blind (Tony Curtis, his voice heard only on the phone). Odd noises are heard in the Castevet’s apartment next door, and a young tenant Rosemary becomes friendly with  unexpectedly commits suicide.

Rosemary is impregnated after a hallucinatory nightmarish dream, raped by the devil aboard JFK’s yacht. Some weeks later Rosemary, pregnant and under the care of Dr. Saperstein (Ralph Bellamy) a demonic obstetrician who despite her losing weight, abdominal pain and cravings for raw meat tells her that there is nothing wrong. Rosemary’s suspicions grow but it is too little too late, she is soon in labor. When she awakens she is told the baby died. Days later she hears a baby crying next door. Soon Rosemary will come face to face with a coven of devil worshippers praying to a new born child, her child, the son of Satan. They urge her to come see the baby, a mother’s instinct wins out as the film ends with Rosemary rocking the cradle.

“Rosemary’s Baby” is a great horror film for anyone, but it can also be read as a feminist woman’s nightmare, after all it is her career struggling husband who arranges to have her impregnated by the devil and then forcing her to be left in the hands of a demon doctor and strange neighbors, all to advance his career.  The fear of rape, an unwanted pregnancy, and the fear of an abnormal deformed childbirth are also filtered in. Rosemary becomes isolated, trapped with no family or friends to confide in or help her. Her husband who should be her most trusted ally is in on the dark plan. Unlike most horror films that build up to a fright and relieve the tension before starting again, Polanski continuously builds the tension never letting the pressure  loosen for one second.

Though Polanski did not consider “Rosemary’s Baby” a personal film but more as a gateway into Hollywood, he did find themes or motifs that he could relate to, alienation, paranoia (Repulsion, Knife in the Water, The Tennant), apartments as a refuge from outside dangers (The Tennant, The Pianist, Repulsion), sexuality (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Chinatown, The Tennant) and isolation (Frantic, Cul-de-Sac, Repulsion, The Tennant). Black humor is also a common thread in much of Polanski’s work (Cul-de-Sac, Chinatown, The Fearless Vampire Killers) here clearly demonstrated in the parody of the birth of Christ (most likely the scenes for why the film was condemned by the Catholic Church). Also in the “Is God Dead” Time magazine cover Rosemary browses at in the doctor’s office.

Polanski at first wanted a more full-bodied woman than the elfish Mia Farrow for the role of Rosemary, Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld were names that came into play. Farrow whose claims to fame were the success of the TV show “Peyton Place” and her marriage to Frank Sinatra instead got the job. It was a fortunate choice. Her waif like little girl innocent look, part of which came naturally and part the way Polanski dressed her up contributes enormously, offsetting the dark mood that surrounds her throughout the film. Interesting enough Polanski’s slow meticulous work habits caused the film to over run its shooting schedule. Farrow was supposed to begin work on husband Sinatra’s new film “The Detective” right after finishing “Rosemary’s Baby.” When the film over ran its schedule conflicting with Mia moving on to “The Detective”, Sinatra demanded she walk off the Rosemary set which she refused to do. Their marriage ended soon after. Jacqueline Bisset replaced Mia in the Sinatra film.

John Cassavetes was not the best choice for the role of Guy Woodhouse, not that he is bad, he is an interesting actor and has an obvious demonic look in some scenes, maybe just a little too obvious. Possibly an actor with a more innocent though egotistical look would have fit the part better. The supporting cast is fine, Ralph Bellamy is perfectly devilish at Dr. Saperstein and Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the next door neighbors look as kindly crazy as they do scary. Elisha Cook Jr. has a small part as does former Playboy Playmate of the Year (1968), Angel Dorian who plays the neighbor Terry Gionoffiro who meets an untimely suicidal death. There is an inside joke with Dorian in one scene where Rosemary tells her she looks like the actress Victoria Vetri, Dorian’s real name which she eventually went back to when she made “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.”

“Rosemary’s Baby” was greeted with mostly rave reviews and a large public willing to wait in long lines at theaters to see the new born child. “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby” became a common chant. The film was part of the New Hollywood that began to emerge in 1967 with “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde”, the youth audience had discovered the film. “Rosemary’s Baby” became another notch on the belt that killed the production code with its nudity and triumph of evil over goodness.

The film also ignited the popularity of horror films with satanic or occult themes. It is questionable as to whether films like “The Exorcist”, “The Omen”, “Don’t Look Now”, “The Other” and many other lesser rip offs would have made it to the screen if not for the monumental success of Ira Levin’s book and the Polanski film.

The 1980 death of John Lennon in front of The Dakota subconsciously now adds another level of eerie darkness to the scenes that take place early in the film in front of the infamous gothic building.

****1/2

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17 comments on “Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Roman Polanski

  1. Kitty says:

    One of my favorite NYC films. The movie had an underlying creepiness from the very beginning, thanks to (what sounds like) Rosemary humming that eerie lullaby as the camera is panning over the Dakota.

    I never considered the feminist angle. And John Cassavetes was so convincing that I despised him in everything he did after that, even Tempest, which I loved.

    I remember there was a huge controversy when Mia impulsively cut her gorgeous blonde hair during the shoot. (I heard it was to spite Sinatra.) They worried how it would affect the film. However, the severe hair cut worked because it made Rosemary look very sickly and pathetic. It came at a turning point for Rosemary, when she was just about to seek help from another doctor. But that night, the pains ceased and Rosemary became a happy pregnant camper. From that point on, the hairstyle looked cute on her gamin features and cool in the NYC heat. Btw, it was a style made famous by the model Twiggy and the hair stylist Vidal Sassoon.

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Kitty,

      yeah, tha humming certainly adds to the overall creepiness of the film, it almost sounds like a sick child.

      The femmist angle I noticed when watching the film and Rosemary tells Guy she wants to get a second opinion by going back to her original doctor and Guy starts ranting on how this would be so unfare to Dr. Saperstein (Bellamy). He just keeps on and on about how is Saperstein going to feel and poor Rosemary is there crying out “what about me?” Here was a man who sold his wife and child to the devil for a career!

      Mia’s cut locks worked well for the film that along with the pale makeup made her look sickly for sure.

      Ha! I remember Twiggy and that hairdo very well. Thanks Kitty for your wonderful input!

    • eric hughes says:

      John Cassavetes was better known as a great director than actor. He acted in films to finance his movies.

  2. Kitty says:

    I’m not a feminist, which is why I didn’t see it through the prism of women against men. I saw her as someone who needed to grow a pair of something other than boobs.

    However, I see your point. It was 1968, and the Women’s Liberation was kicking into high gear about that time.

    It’s still one of the creepiest movies I’ve ever seen because the special fx are in her hallucinations — I didn’t realize the yacht was supposed to be JFK’s — and the story seems plausible. It’s easy to get drawn into the story, so by the time the devil appears, you can almost believe it. I watch it each year on Halloween.

    • John Greco says:

      Good point on that the story seems plausible and I think that was part of the uniqueness of the film at the time. Stories like this did not usually take place on NYC, on the Upper West Side. They were reserved for eerie looking castles in transylvania or somewhere not in modern day NYC. I think that cosmopolitan atmosphere is part of what makes it so effective.

  3. I haven’t seen this since it came out. Needless to say, don’t remember any of the controversy.

    As an aside, I saw Mass Appeal with Jack Lemmon, based on the fact the Catholic Church denounced it. There were about 5 people in the theater as I remember, and it’s an outstanding film with a great message as to the hypocrisy of the “love thy neighbor as thyself” often repeated with all religions. Of course, The Last Temptation Of Christ was a circus when we saw it in SF when it came out, for the same reasons, although this one was packed for weeks with so many protests outside the theaters, it was crazy.

    Will have to seek it out again, looking at it with an eye toward what you’ve pointed out.

    BTW, I don’t think it would have worked as well either with any of the other ladies mentioned.

    Cheers!

    • John Greco says:

      Have not seen MASS APPEAL but need to seek it out. I do remember the controversy over LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. It was a circus wherever it played. I remember as a teenager going to church and once a year having to make a pledge not to go see any “Condemned” films. I would stand there and not repeat the pledge. When the church condemned a film it went on my list to go see.

      You right I don’t think it would have worked as well without Farrow.

  4. [...] Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)****1/2 – Polanski’s excellent exercise in modern day witchcraft in New York City. A masterful stroke of intense filmmaking with no let up. A full review is currently up at Twenty Four Frames.  [...]

  5. R. D. Finch says:

    John, I’ve just read your excellent post on “Rosemary’s Baby.” I saw this when it first came out (twice) and still consider it one of Polanski’s key films, and one of his several masterpieces. (For the record, the others are “Knife in the Water,” “Repulsion,” “Chinatown,” “Tess,” and “The Pianist”–a pretty impressive group of movies!) To me, Mia Farrow’s failure to get an Oscar nomination for best actress is one of the great oversights in Oscar history.

    I found the idea about the feminist angle quite intriguing, also the running motifs in Polanski’s work that you identify in this film. The one running theme I find that dominates all of his films is his preoccupation with the process of the corruption of innocence. I remember that Pauline Kael complained when he changed the ending of “Chinatown” (my favorite of his movies) from a hopeful one to a downbeat one. But not to do so would have been out of character with the rest of his work. How could the daughter/granddaughter possibly escape her grandpa in Polanski’s world, where innocence is systematically worn down and ultimately corrupted? This world view also explains the ending of “Rosemary’s Baby.”

    An interesting point about Cassavetes. I’ve always thought he was the weakest element of the movie. For one thing, he was sixteen years older than Farrow! I wonder who would have been a better choice. Keir Dullea immediately comes to my mind as someone who might have looked innocent but been able to convey an inner ambition that would lead him to sell his soul to the devil for career success.

    • John Greco says:

      R.D.,

      Keir Dullea, that is an intriging choice. He does convey an innocent look though behind those eyes there always looks like something “evil” is going on.

      I think you named just about my favorite Polanski films except I have yet to see “Tess.” I too saw “Rosemary’s Baby” twice when it came out. I just remember being blown away by “Repulsion” when I saw back in the mid-sixties and soon after the local PBS station in NYC had “Knife in the Water” on and I was hooked on this guy’s work.

      Polanski best films generally end on a dark note, how could they not?

      Farrow deserved a nod from the Academy. She grows on you as you watch the film and it is hard to think of someone else who could have competed with her.

  6. Sam Juliano says:

    There’s no doubt that a career appraisal of Polanski’s work would include this popular horror film, one that you rightly note is even more resonant now with the murder of John Lennon. It’s an altogether spooky and unsettling film, with the resonance of a nightmare with a liberal dose of morbid humor injected into the proceedings. It’s rather though, an unpleasant film, and for me doesn’t rate with the likes of KNIFE IN THE WATER, MACBETH, REPULSION and THE PIANIST in the Polanski catalogue – most would add CHINATOWN – and I prefer THE TENANT, which bears some atmospheric and textual similarities. But it’s well-crafted as you note in this impressive and exhaustive review, and there are some excellent performances among the supporting players particularly. There is some truth there in what you say about the casting of Cassevettes, who was much too obvious a choice.

    • John Greco says:

      THE TENNANT is a favorite of mine. MACBETH I liked also but not as much as the others you mention. If I listed my favorite Polanski films it would go something like this..

      Knife in the Water
      Repulsion
      Rosemary;s Baby
      Chinatown
      The Tennant
      The Pianist
      The ghost Writer
      Death and the Maiden
      Macbeth
      Bitter Moon
      Cul de Sac
      Frantic
      The Fearless Vampire Killers
      What?

      Still need to see Tess, Oliver Twist and Pirates

  7. CMrok93 says:

    Polanski will always be one of the best directors especially when it comes to pacing, and suspense level. It just sucks that his personal life is what keeps him down.

  8. Shane9 says:

    I just saw last night rosemary´s bab, it is my 4th time watching it, and i just cant get tired. The music by kriztof komeda it is so perfectly done, that match pretty well with all the movie, is a perfect combination of music and image, none of them interfears with the other. The camera angles, is just perfect, it is so Polanski, the structure of the building the halls everything just help that feeling all the time of claustrophobia. it is a suspense movie so different, because it is true, Ploanski is not scared of experimenting new shots, moving the camera everything, and it is so perfect, because as a spectator you actually kinda feel, what she is feeling and you get really involved, you feal that you are actually part of the story.

    BTW Mia Farrow just do it perfect she looks so natural, and what i loved the most from the movie, Ruth Gordon`s acting, as Minnie castavets…have you seen when Rosemary and Guy visit as a first time the castavets house, when ruth is not talking our anything is a houl conversation between Guy and Roman, she is just eating, our she actually eats as she eated on screen (LOL) our, she really got involved on the character, because it seems really authentic the way she ate that cake, i must say i love the movie…and this blog

    • John Greco says:

      Shane09, I am a huge fan of this film also, one of my all time favorite films. It is one of those films that you find something in it each time you watch it. Glad you are enjoying the blog.

  9. [...] Baby (1968) Roman Polanski twentyfourframes.wordpress.com [...]

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