Saturday Editor’s Pick: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

by on September 4, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Rosemary's Baby 1968 Polanski
Playing Sat Sept 10 at 5:00 and Sat Sept 24 at 1:30 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]

Rosemary’s Baby back on the big screen? This is no dream — this is really happening!

Robbie Freeling for Reverse Shot:

Rosemary’s Baby is one of the few horror movies I can name that is so compelling in its minutiae, so perfectly structured, or sculpted, rather, and most importantly, such a completely realized portrait of recognizable humans caught up in a bizarre situation (from its hero to its many villains), that by the time its characters’ idiosyncrasies have been revealed as indicative of something far more sinister, we’re already emotionally invested enough that we dread rather than crave shocks.


As most agree, Roman Polanski’s effortless masterpiece perfectly mixes a paranoia thriller with the supernatural Satanic, while creating cinema’s most disturbing, persuasive pro-choice narrative (the true horror of the film comes from young Rosemary’s lack of control over her own body, which has been corrupted by nearly every person around her). What makes it special is in the telling: Polanski’s casual brilliance with narrative and space is matched by his adeptness at screenwriting here. With a few elegant strokes, entire back stories are sketched: Rosemary’s Catholic upbringing is portrayed only through abstracted dream sequences and her obvious discomfort at an anti-pope dinner party conversation; her husband Guy’s narratively crucial out-of-work-actor desperation not belabored upon but taken as a sly given; and Polanski wisely allows the creepy next-door Castavets to be almost wholly defined by the amusingly eccentric behaviors and mannerisms of Ruth Gordon (fussy, fidgety, nosy, aloof) and Sidney Blackmer (self-righteous, self-amused, with a piercing stare). These people (including Rosemary’s dapper elderly friend Hutch) are individually fascinating enough to each warrant their own film; all are utterly different in decorum, and their neuroses and needs bounce off of each other with ease.

A great suite of interviews with Polanski, production designer Richard Sylbert, and playboy producer Bob Evans (of The Kid Stays in the Picture fame)–in two parts:

Part two:


Pedro Blas Gonzalez for Senses of Cinema:

Part of what makes this film work so well is the counterpoint that takes place between Rosemary’s claustrophobic, isolated existence away from family and friends, and the few scenes of her walking on the streets of New York. Rosemary is seemingly held captive by invisible forces that do not allow her to stray away from her apartment for too long. But these forces are defused through Guy’s and the Castevets’ baleful ambitions. From the start of the film, Guy comes across as rather shallow while Rosemary seems merely naïve.


The subtlety of evil that the film presents is successful because of the exquisite timing deployed to tell the story. Rosemary’s Baby provides a measured depiction of evil within Rosemary’s day-to-day environs. Rarely are cinematic characters as sinister, yet likeable as Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon), Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) and Dr Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy). Minnie and Roman are truly black-hearted people. Seemingly quirky and nosey, they hide their true intentions behind an outwardly loving and giving veneer. The Castevets never flex their muscles or twist anyone’s arms until the very end of the film. They do not have to. Guy has made a selfish and evil pact with them, and Rosemary lacks the necessary perspicuity to see through their intentions. The Castevets work their web of deception by jabbing a path through the unsuspecting ways of moral simpletons. This is enough to debilitate Rosemary’s resistance until the end of the film, when they must explain and justify the existence, and her carriage of the devil’s son.


Rosemary's Baby 1968 Polanski


Robert Horton at his blog The Crop Duster:

Polanski, while no slavish homage-monger, does bring a sense of cinema history to his films. Rosemary’s new Vidal Sassoon haircut, for instance, invokes the cinematic memory of Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc; both films emphasize close-ups of their close-cropped heroines, their prominent cheekbones flashing in the stark lighting. Joan led her people into a new age; that seems to be what Rosemary is going to do, albeit unintentionally. Both women hear voices, too–Rosemary hears them in her dreams, through the walls, and eventually must wonder whether her witch-fancies are in her head or across the hall.


The many shivery frissons in the movie form a web of coincidence that itself feels dreamlike: the nagging mystery of that damn tannis root, for instance, which nobody can ever quite figure out; the references to herbs in general, predicting the ingredients list chanted by the Shakespearian witches in Polanski’s film of Macbeth, capped by Guy’s ominous promise of a house “in the hills of Beverly, with a pool and a spice garden”; the occasional jarring presence of the color red–in a handkerchief Hutch uses to wipe his hands, the bloody rare steak, the red of the shades and Minnie’s hat during a conversation with Rosemary, and the inferno in the painting that burns in Rosemary’s dream and later appears in the Castevets’ apartment; odd drinks, such as Minnie’s herbal milkshake and the Castevet’s unaccountably peculiar Vodka Blush; religious skepticism, from Roman Castevet’s strangely insistent debunking of the Pope to Guy’s appearance in Luther to the epochal Time magazine cover–Is God Dead?–which just happens to turn up in Sapirstein’s waiting room. The dreamy logic of these repetitions and the rhyming nature of the little details keeps the waking nightmare before us.


Lines of dialogue taken straight from the novel seem to leap in importance when set in the film. One of them is not even spoken aloud: the fragment of writing Rosemary discovers in a desk the first time she and Guy see the new place. We see only the words, “I can no longer associate myself”–again, a partly-glimpsed slice of the whole picture. In the edgy mood Polanski creates, many normal phrases become spookily charged. There’s something about the dialogue in Rosemary’s Baby that makes people remember it for years after they’ve seen the movie: Roman’s “You name it, I’ve been there,” the second-hand reporting of Hutch’s “The name is an anagram,” and of course Roman’s immortal punch line, “He has his father’s eyes.”


Rosemary's Baby 1968 Polanski

Karen Durbin for the New York Times:

When “Rosemary’s Baby” came out in 1968, starring a coltish Mia Farrow as a young Upper West Side wife who suspects she’s carrying Satan’s spawn, it ushered in a decade of hugely popular films about children who were either demonically possessed (“The Exorcist”) or the Antichrist himself (the “Omen” series). The angry Vietnam-era generation gap those movies spoke to has become a distant memory, but “Rosemary’s Baby” remains as fresh and scary as ever. Only now audiences may see it as a horror movie about marrying badly and discovering that there’s hell to pay.


“Rosemary’s Baby” is spiked with New York in-jokes, starting with the set-up: a young couple luck into their dream apartment (in the Dakota, no less), only to find that the neighbors are a predatory coven of elderly devil worshipers. What’s most frightening in the movie has little to do with the supernatural. The rape scene is shot in such a way that it could be read as the delusional product of Rosemary’s intensifying paranoia — the “pre-partum crazies,” her husband calls it, ignoring his once-vibrant wife’s chalky pallor and crippling pain. The other brilliantly conceived male monsters in this movie are a couple of nightmare gynecologists, the distinguished but sinister Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), who’s clearly in on the plot, and the young Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin), who isn’t. The movie’s most stomach-churning sequence begins when Rosemary flees to Dr. Hill for help and he agrees, only to deliver her back to the great Dr. Sapirstein. Strikingly, the movie charts its heroine’s loss of control with a loss of womanliness. Thanks to a boyish haircut and wispy maternity shifts that emphasize the adolescent thinness of her arms and legs, by the time she’s quick-marched back to the apartment to give birth, Ms. Farrow looks like a runaway 13-year-old being returned to the home for wayward girls.


Andrew Sarris for the New York Observer:

Having escaped the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust in Poland by the skin of his teeth, Mr. Polanski was well equipped psychologically to re-imagine what was, before Rosemary’s Baby, a B-picture genre into an A-picture genre. He was assisted in no small measure by a cast that rose to the satanic challenge of the story, in which Mia Farrow’s innocent wife is impregnated by Satan in the guise of her own actor husband, who connives with a coven of devil worshippers in order to get a coveted part in a Broadway play by having the already signed-for-the-part actor go mysteriously blind. Rosemary’s treacherous husband was played by John Cassavetes—to my knowledge, this is his only unsympathetic role, and he remains a culture hero to filmmakers for his pioneering efforts in cinematic improvisation.


Rosemary's Baby 1968 Polanski


Tim Grierson for the Village Voice:

Usually, tabloid tawdriness is immaterial to a film’s value, but with Rosemary’s Baby, those details feed into the film’s defiantly feminist themes—how else to read a movie about an innocent woman whose career-conscious husband arranges to have her impregnated by Satan and is then forced to suffer at the hands of patronizing neighbors who secretly view her as little more than a baby incubator? Three years earlier, with the psychological thriller Repulsion, Polanski had demonstrated an ability to dramatize the anxieties of women trapped in a male-driven society. But with Rosemary’s Baby, he and Farrow channeled that unease into a Hollywood movie that transformed the prototypical woman-in-peril suspenser into a treatise on the many ways soon-to-be mothers can feel spiritually abandoned during pregnancy—from doctors with suspect bedside manners, from husbands who grow distant and disinterested, and from a world that dismisses their fears as the by-product of raging hormones.


Horror movies provide a snapshot of the zeitgeist, from the 1970s bloodbaths inspired by Vietnam’s living-room war to 21st-century torture porn that reflects the age of “enhanced” interrogation techniques. Rosemary’s Baby echoes its time as well, responding to the 1960s’ cries for female empowerment in the wake of The Feminine Mystique’s exposé of women’s second-class-citizen status. But while many of the film’s peers fade from memory, rendered passé because their shock value has eroded or because their thematic underpinnings got swept away by some new societal concern, the elegant mind games of Rosemary’s Baby feel just as relevant today as they did back in 1968. In an election year that has seen charges of sexism leveled by the same party that wants to roll back abortion rights, Rosemary’s Baby forces us to see the world as it appears from one legitimately frightened woman’s perspective: claustrophobic, intimidating, and wearing a smile on its face when, really, it’s out to get you.


Rosemary's Baby 1968 Polanski


Ian Johnston for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Rosemary’s Baby’s distinction as a horror film is its resolute lack of any true “horror” elements — even the revelations of the film’s final sequence never grant us a single special-effects shot of the baby itself. There aren’t even the Grand Guignol moments that Polanski favours in, say, Repulsion (the hands leaping from the wall) or The Tenant (Trelkovsky’s crawl up the stairs). Instead, Polanski’s approach is very muted and underplayed, with an overriding ambiguity: for much of the film we are deliberately left in doubt as to whether there really is a witches’ coven next door in pursuit of Rosemary’s unborn child, or if it is all a product of Rosemary’s alienation, paranoia and gradual mental collapse, thus aligning her character with those of Carole in Repulsion and Trelkovsky in The Tenant.


The film’s very final shot adds a cynical twist to this black humour (a cynicism about human nature already present in the portrayal of Guy, a man willing to sacrifice his wife and potential child to the devil for the sake of his advancing his acting career) as Rosemary follows her maternal instincts to take care of her monster child, to the sounds of a Japanese frantically clicking his camera (ethnic stereotyping, anyone?). This final tone and the final sequence are all the more effective in that most of the film leading up to it has been so successfully muted, underplayed, and ambiguous.


A.O. Scott‘s video review, for the Times:

Stephen Whitty for the Newark Star-Ledger:

One of the finest horror films ever made… and unless audiences had read the best-seller it had come from, they had no idea what they were in for.The result was a wonderfully creepy nightmare that plays even better on repeat viewings (yes, that’s Tony Curtis doing the voice of the blinded actor on the phone, and the disappointed Castle doing a cameo outside the phone booth). And 40 years later it stands not only as one off the two or three best things Polanski ever did, but as a landmark of modern horror. (And real-life spookiness, too — as trivia hounds will note, neither Polanski nor his two stars had very happy lives afterward, and the composer died shortly after finishing the score.)


And here’s a new chapter to the curse: Recently, a production company announced that they were planning a remake, to update the story for a new age.


Rosemary's Baby 1968 Polanski


Jessica Winter, also for the Village Voice:

Citing “the perverted use which the film makes of fundamental Christian beliefs and its mockery of religious persons and practices,” the U.S. Roman Catholic Office for Motion Pictures slapped Rosemary’s Baby with a C-for-condemned rating upon its release in 1968. But if the church subscribed to the notion that you are either with us or you are with the satanists, then their decree was counter-intuitive. Faithfully adapting Ira Levin’s bestseller, Roman Polanski’s first Hollywood-backed feature may recast the virgin delivery as the breech birth of Armageddon, but it’s no devil’s advocate. A recruitment pamphlet would have deployed sexier minions (see Lena Olin in Polanski’s demonomanic The Ninth Gate), not Ruth Gordon escaped out of Grey Gardens (or the geriatric coven of Being John Malkovich), wielding poisonous herbal drinks and drugged chocolate mousse to pour down the vessel’s milky white throat. Catholics befuddled by the Trinity concept now understand that God simply cloned himself 2000 years ahead of the Raelians, and here’s the adversary still futzing around in the kitchen. And what of the final dish? Mia Farrow’s Rosemary (a lapsed Catholic, natch) surely won’t be the only one to blanch at little Adrian’s burning-ember eyes; if Lucifer were halfway serious about world domination, as Albert Brooks points out in Broadcast News, he’d take the form of WASP mecha William Hurt. But Daddy’s genes bode ill—he’s unkempt, hirsute, Neanderthal. Come to think of it, he bears a strong resemblance to the slithy creature haunting Mulholland Drive. Is Rosemary’s baby living behind Winky’s?

Rosemary's Baby 1968 Polanski
Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” is a brooding, macabre film, filled with the sense of unthinkable danger. Strangely enough it also has an eerie sense of humor almost until the end. It is a creepy film and a crawly film, and a film filled with things that go bump in the night. It is very good.


Polanski gives the audience a great deal of information early in the story, and by the time the movie’s halfway over we’re pretty sure what’s going on in that apartment next door. When the conclusion comes, it works not because it is a surprise but because it is horrifyingly inevitable. Rosemary makes her dreadful discovery, and we are wrenched because we knew what was going to happen –and couldn’t help her. This is why the movie is so good. The characters and the story transcend the plot. In most horror films, and indeed in most suspense films of the Alfred Hitchcock tradition, the characters are at the mercy of the plot. In this one, they emerge as human beings actually doing these things.


The best thing that can be said about the film, I think, is that it works. Polanski has taken a most difficult situation and made it believable, right up to the end. In this sense, he even outdoes Hitchcock. Both “Rosemary’s Baby” and Hitchcock’s classic “Suspicion” are about wives, deeply in love, who are gradually forced to suspect the most sinister and improbable things about their husbands. But Cary Grant in “Suspicion” was only a bounder and perhaps a murderer, and we didn’t even really believe that (since he was Cary Grant). Rosemary, on the other hand, is forced into the most bizarre suspicions about her husband, and we share them and believe them. Because Polanski exercises his craft so well, we follow him right up to the end and stand there, rocking that dreadful cradle.

And if you haven’t yet, make sure to read Tom McCormack‘s feature on the complete “Apartment Trilogy,” an art-horror trifecta which includes Baby, Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976):
Polanski Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Tenant (1976)

Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →