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, see the movie, they were interchangeable at dinner conversations everywhere. 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. Evans purchased the film rights for Castle, with the understanding that he would produce the film, but not direct. Evans wanted a class production. Castle however, 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. (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 “epulsion. 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 early 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 the new apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called The Bramford, with her unemployed actor husband Guy, the couple 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 new young neighbors. Guy’s struggling acting career suddenly begins gets a break 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 befriends 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 can be viewed as just a great horror film, 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, then forcing her to be left in the hands of a demon doctor and strange neighbors. All foe no other reason than 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 devilish 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 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 and 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. It offsets 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 ran over 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 sweet and eccentric as they do scary. Elisha Cook Jr. has a small part as does former Playboy Playmate of the Year (1968), Angela Dorian, who plays the neighbor Terry Gionoffrio who soon 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. Vetri was Dorian’s real name which she eventually went back to.
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 and/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 has added another level of eerie darkness to the scenes that take place early in the film in front of the infamous gothic building.