Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Rosemary’s Baby Film Review

The year 2011 is quickly drawing to close. I say that because today is Halloween. While there are two full months left, is there any doubt they won’t flash by (getting out of the way for the sake of 2012)? Those of you monitoring the Mayan calendar can insert an end-of-the-world reference here. With that in mind, it is time once more for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to add another of our duo posts to the series we started last year (some would say the last decade… whatever).

For this pair, we will return to the fashionable 60s and a Satanic shocker that prefaced them all. ‘The Devil made me do it’ all began here, in other words. We’ll examine the novel/film adaptation of a classic, and up to that point, original work of modern horror. As usual, the wordy one will look at the text of a well-known novel later made in to film, which I will review. In this case, my colleague will be looking at the best known work by author/playwright Ira LevinRosemary’s Baby. The 1967 novel also sourced, almost literally, the film adaptation released the very next year. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

A brief synopsis of the film: A young, voguish couple, upwardly striving as only those in New York City could be in the hip 60s, have found what they believe is their ideal apartment in the gothic Bramford building. That their future neighboring tenants are a bit odd (and the edifice a shady, some would say lethal, history) matters not a lick. It’s got a view, plenty of room, and is on the upper westside of Manhattan, for chrissakes! Rosemary, a naïve, recovering Catholic wife to her struggling actor husband, Guy Woodhouse, settle in to their new digs. Whatever plans for enlarging their family are on hold for Guy’s acting career. That is, till things start turning the thespian’s way in a dismaying but beneficial manner. Then, the idea of having a baby (hell, “let’s have three!“) becomes all-consuming to the previously disinclined husband. What spurs this, and Rosemary’s resulting pregnancy — along with her doubts and  wifely suspicions, which grow as big as her belly — are at the crux of this devilish story.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

Roman: “I think we’re offending Rosemary…”
Rosemary: “I wasn’t offended, really I wasn’t.”
Roman: “You’re not religious, my dear, are you?”
Rosemary: “I was brought up a Catholic… now, I don’t know.”

Rosemary’s Baby turned out to be one of the ‘event’ motion pictures of 1968 for what it did to audiences, the originality of its story, and the general critical acclaim it garnered. That’s saying something for an R-rated movie (primarily for nudity and adult themes) since in the same year movie patrons had popular big studio releases — i.e., 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Bullitt.

The usual Oscar-caliber film fare, too. The Lion in Winter, Oliver, Funny Girl, along with some small, influential films that came in under the radar, Night of the Living Dead, The Producers, Witchfinder General, that went on to have a lasting impact. You’ll notice that last group included genres that elicit the most direct reaction from viewers (scares and laughter). I’d say this the first of Roman Polanski‘s American films successfully hit upon and crossed all three of those categories.

That, and it successfully conjured up Beelzebub onscreen in a way that brought the subject into conventional conversation like few before it.

Having a seemingly innocent couple become involved with a witches covenant, one specifically tasked with finding the perfect vessel to bring forth Satan’s child (at a time when even news magazines were openly wondering if ‘God is Dead’), was heady stuff back then. Like faith, it is trust that’s at the core of this story.

Taking place in 1965 (the same year the Pope came to visit New York City and spoke at the U.N.), Rosemary’s pregnancy seemed a normal and happy desire for a married couple post JFK — till it happens. Ira Levin’s tale uses what would seem a bounteous, even beautiful situation for a comely couple, only to turn it on its head. Slowly but steadily, all manner of discomfiture was used then to unsettle readers and viewers alike who’ve identified with the future young mother.

The delivery date of June the next year was the fun giveaway, 6/66. A palpable level of dread and paranoia lies in store for a woman trapped by what she desires the most… a baby. Jeff Shannon may have summed it best when he wrote in his Amazon review:

“By the time Rosemary discovers that her infant son “has his father’s eyes” … well, let’s just say the urge to scream along with her is unbearably intense!”

By today’s standards, some of which in my opinion are more interested in the permanent mental scarring of its audience members1 (any reading of the full synopsis of A Serbian Film would seem to qualify), Rosemary’s Baby was an almost quaint endeavor. Nonetheless, this movie left an impression that continues to echo. That’s especially true looking at those films that followed in the decades since — the most recent descendant of which, 2009’s Grace, is no exception (I recommend blogger Julian’s look at the film for those who appreciate the more disturbing offerings of horror).

Yet, I think Rosemary’s Baby continues to be an effective film, at least for the less hardened of us horror fans, anyways, for what Roman Polanski was able to do with it. Polanski literally translated Levin’s work to moving pictures in more ways than one. The French-Polish filmmaker did double duty on this shoot as he also adapted the novel for the screen.

This was his first attempt at a screen adaptation, and he was unaware he could alter the source material (silly rabbit). So, the result was one of the most faithful novel-film conversions like… ever. Dialogue was lifted directly from the book in many instances. Still, it was to great effect, and enhanced by the visual artistry Polanski blended in. Something he was known for from his earlier European films.

A few of those visually distinct scenes from my recent screening bear this out:

» Polanski’s birds eye view of the Manhattan skyline as it moves through the gothic-styled architecture, at the beginning of the film as well at the conclusion’s pull back away from The Dakota (which stood in for the Bramford apartment building), was an entrancing visual. It reminded me of (and likely influenced) David Lynch’s opening and closing sequences with his Blue Velvet film almost two decades later I think (showing the audience an all too familiar vista before peeling back the evil underneath).

» Rosemary’s drug induced copulation with The Devil sequence, feverishly intermixed with her good friend Hutch (Maurice Evans), the John and Jackie Kennedy look-a-likes, and the naked witch covenant (with trusted hubby in tow) witnessing the conception has a nightmarish quality that few films2 ever achieve, then or since.

» The unforgettable sight of Rosemary, at the end coming to confront the cabal and rescue her baby, armed with only a kitchen knife, really hits stands out; that image of her using the tip of the blade to still a noisy, moving rocker as she sneaks upon them was a chilling one (it’d become a descriptive trademark for this director).

The cast, too, did amazing, crafty work that provided for a palpable unease throughout. That was remarkable since there’s little blood or an act of slasher violence (though, coming soon to a theater near you) in the piece. This marked the work, like the novel, as an achievement in psychological horror. Mia Farrow (she of the hollow-eyed, waif look, and decades before she ever thought of forming the mother and wives against Woody Allen club) centered the movie with a naiveté that was the character of Rosemary. She became the symbol of vulnerability that comes with the territory of pregnancy for some (male or female).

John Cassavetes, who back then seemed to specialize in the self-centered, smarmy roles (this part and his Franko the year before in The Dirty Dozen remain memorable from this decade), was perfect casting for Guy. You really could imagine him selling his wife off as Lucifer’s incubator for a shot of actor stardom. But, the real surprise of the film was the work of its senior members (the youth and their Flower Power be damned).

Ruth Gordon received a well deserved nomination and Oscar for her supporting role as Minnie Castavet, yet Sidney Blackmer (Roman Castavet), Ralph Belamy (Dr. Sapirstein), and Maurice Evans (the aforementioned Edward Hutchins) also chewed the scenery with the best of them, even if they did it with dentures. All of them had astonishing roles in this, with Evans pulling off notable double that year with his Dr. Zaius portrayal in Planet of the Apes.

Elise Dunstan: “Why, congratulations, papa!”
Guy Woodhouse: “Thanks! There was nothing to it.”

Surprisingly, it was the perennial ‘B-picture’ director, producer, screenwriter William Castle, he of the schlock movie gimmicks used to promote his low-budget films — Emergo anyone? — who recognized the insidious and intriguing nature of Ira Levin’s second book and help bring it to theaters. He got Paramount Studios to buy the rights, before the novel was ever published in ’67 (hence, the quick turnaround to film the following year).

Wisely, their stipulation was as long as Castle only produce, but not direct, the movie, it’d go forth. Famed producer Robert Evans would entice the up and coming Polanski over from Europe to helm the picture. William Castle also made a cameo in the film (he was the guy standing ominously outside of the phone booth the near-term Rosemary used seeking help at the last.

It’s potent conjecture to think what would or wouldn’t have happened if Polanski hadn’t come over to direct this film — its subsequent success, who he’d marry that year, and the tragedy that followed in the next. Some would say Rosemary’s Baby was at that nucleus.

Rosemary’s Baby, for all its subtlety, still can play on the mind and ruffle those that view it. It’s why the movie still attracts attention all these years later. As a teen, I recall vividly my aunts coming home after seeing this in the movie theater and discussing it among themselves no end. That and looking over at their husbands for reassurance they, my uncles, weren’t secretly bargaining them away during the year of the Tet Offensive.

Between Ira Levin’s story and Roman Polanski’s cinematic conversion of it, more direct and visceral stories of horror would spring in the wake of their work. Surely, the decade of the 60s’ horror offerings started with a pop with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) followed by The Birds (1963). Yet before this motion picture, horror films remained a ghetto genre even in an era known for its revolution.

One left to those few who sought it out and enjoyed its offerings (which, usually, were a reflection of what people were anxious about at the time). However, I believe since Rosemary’s Baby was based upon a true bestselling book of the time it marked a point when this category of film (one historically made for the purposeful arousal of feelings of fear, shock, and disgust) really came into the mainstream.

There were other notable horror films that year, like those mentioned, as well as The Devil Rides Out (see J.D.’s fine review of it here). Nevertheless, Rosemary’s Baby set the criterion for what became popular with a large number of moviegoers. Rather than catching the body counts on TV that week, people found they really enjoyed and wanted to be thrilled and disturbed with the unreal.

Be it with The Devil, those they trusted, or with motherhood herself.

Note: as Rachel and I did last year, we’ll take a break from the series for the year-end holidays. We’ll return it come January 2012.

Parallel Post Series

  1.  Online discussion of this type of film continues to make the rounds. An interesting article covering what blogger Max terms as ‘The Cinema of Assault’ can be found here
  2.  Although, Michael Winner’s adaptation to the underrated The Sentinel (1977) did come close. 
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23 Responses to “Rosemary’s Baby Film Review”

  1. Rachel

    Very informative review which I’m sure we’ve all come to expect! 🙂 I always enjoy the “snapshots” you give of the years in which movies were released. (The Lion in Winter is one of my faves, btw.)

    Since I really didn’t remember much from the film when I read the book it was, character-wise, a clean slate for me. I didn’t picture the folks in the movie and, I must admit, my Guy and Minnie were better. I know, I’m such a selfish snob. Minnie is good enough for an Oscar for pretty much everyone else and there I am, with my selfish imagination and reading style, saying my Minnie was better. 😛 I can’t help it, I get so attached to the folks in my brain. But, anyway, even if mine were better I still thought they were very good in the movie. A friend of mine told me that Polanski does lots of takes and it drove Cassavetes crazy. I didn’t confirm this or anything but it would make sense to me because I found him so natural at times and so wooden at others. Maybe a disagreement in how the scene should be played?

    Interestingly, I found the first part of the movie more creepy than the book and then the second part of the book more creepy than the movie. The exception being that fantastic knife-on-cradle shot. I know you mentioned it above but holy damn and tons of shivers, that was awesome!

    So, a question, what did you think of Rosemary’s decision? Any interest in hypothesizing on Levin’s reason for making that the ending?

    Your review didn’t make any mention of the score but I thought the music was very well done. Any thoughts?

    And one more question for you: I’ve heard rumblings that Levin was considered an early feminist. Do you know anything about this aspect of his writing? If it was his intent, do you think Polanski noticed? I personally felt the ominous nature of dependency was much more prominent in the book and really not used much in the film (as I said in my review I felt the dependency and the satanism were about equal in their creepy factor). However, I really don’t know if this was a theme that was purposeful on Levin’s part or if it was/is even discussed much.

    Hope your end of the year slide isn’t too precipitous this year! Thanks for the great suggestion!

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    • le0pard13

      I understand your thinking, Rachel (especially if I read the book before ever seeing the movie). In my case, it was the film before the novel. So, I began to notice the subtle differences with the characters in the source. Polanski’s trait of multiple takes is well known (supposedly, it drove Faye Dunaway to edge on ‘Chinatown’). I wouldn’t doubt its effect on Cassavetes.

      Good point about the halves in the movie to the novel’s. I’d agree with you on the first half. The book’s second half was interesting (being more in Rosemary’s head with her thoughts), but I liked the tension better in film’s. And isn’t that “knife-on-cradle shot” fantastic? The two things from the film’s finale is that image and the wonderful lack of one for Rosemary’s baby in the crib. Leaving it all for the imagination of the viewer is what makes this film great (today, you know the filmmaker’s would have to show damn thing to gross the audience out).

      Regarding Rosemary’s decision (spoiler warning) to be the child’s mother, even in the midst of the covenant and what it could entail, seemed the right one (from a mother’s point of view). Motherhood was at the core of the Ira Levin’s novel, I believe. Even through the repellant scheme of it all, the pull to mother, even one so abominable, was a human one. That is what I found strangely touching with both the book and film.

      Excellent point about the film score, Rachel! It was pitch perfect (so much so, I guess I breathed it in so naturally that I didn’t think to mention it). Ah, Levin’s advocacy for women. Yep, I would agree his work tended that way… especially with his later thriller, The Stepford Wives (possible future duo post?), which came next. Still, your point about Rosemary’s dependency in the film compared to the book is an apt one. She is very dependent upon Guy, even Hutch for advice, her OB (both of them). I know this film creeps my wife something awful (I couldn’t watch it with her in the room) and that may have something to do it.

      This year was a great run of varying films, Rachel. I hope your year-end goes well for you and yours. Thanks.

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  2. dirtywithclass

    I am planning to watch this one soon(I may have seen it before, but if i did i don’t remember it). In my overrated horror movie post someone suggested the reason i didn’t become a fan of the Exorcist is because of its age, so i have been trying to watch a couple of classic horror movies to see if they still hold up for me

    And thanks for the pingback

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    • le0pard13

      It’d be great to hear your thoughts on this one, Julian. It’s disturbing on a subtle level, but well worth seeing. It’s the progenitor of a number of films and ideas. Re: The Exorcist, whether it works, or doesn’t work, for viewers I don’t think comes down the film’s age. Recall Beetlejuice’s take on it:

      “Ah. Well… I attended Juilliard… I’m a graduate of the Harvard business school. I travel quite extensively. I lived through the Black Plague and had a pretty good time during that. I’ve seen the EXORCIST ABOUT A HUNDRED AND SIXTY-SEVEN TIMES, AND IT KEEPS GETTING FUNNIER EVERY SINGLE TIME I SEE IT…”

      Max Von Sydow’s take of it, because of his upbringing and culture, didn’t find the story scary at all. So, it’s different for everyone. Thanks for the comment, my friend.

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  3. Novroz

    a very thorough review. I have heard the title before but never knew what is it about. It looks interesting, I might give it a try if I found it

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    • le0pard13

      If you enjoy some of the older horror classics, this is one you should take in. Even more so if you read the book ;-). Thanks, Chris.

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  4. Mummbles

    Great write up on a movie I just discovered and instantly fell in love with. They sure do not make movies like this anymore! I think the ending still shocked me even though I could guess what was going to happen. Great direction and acting make this movie a true cinematic classic.

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    • le0pard13

      Thank you and welcome, Mummbles. It was great to read that you took this one in during October and enjoyed it so much. Take care.

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  5. joegievano

    great review, love this film completely. To me psychological horror is the best kind of horror because the after effect lingers within you long after the film is done.

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