Rosemary’s Baby, by Robert Horton
“Taking my script to Paramount’s secretarial pool, which was situated at the top of the building, I asked the elderly woman supervisor whether anything could be done to make it look shorter–like using more single-space typing. A faraway look came into her eyes. ‘The last person who asked me that,’ she said, ‘was Mr. von Sternberg.'”–Roman Polanski, from Roman
That anecdote doesn’t lead anywhere, really, except to suggest the link between the craftsmanship of exalted glory-days directors such as Josef von Sternberg and the latter-day classicism of Polanski. In a peculiar way, the casting of Rosemary’s Baby (which, adapted from Ira Levin’s novel, was the hefty script Polanski handed to the Paramount secretary) makes this link, too. The weird denizens of the Bramford and the unforgettable Dr. Sapirstein are all played by Hollywood characters whose heyday was the 1930s and 40s: Elisha Cook, Jr., Sydney Blackmer, Ruth Gordon, Patsy Kelly, and Ralph Bellamy. It’s a gallery of waxworks, people we identify as being from another time, mustily recognizable although we haven’t seen them in a while (Gordon had been making films, but not in terribly important parts–it was after her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby that she began her mostly intolerable string of pixies). Their identifiability as golden-age movie folk lends a touch of the fantastic, as though they constituted a movie colony looking for a pair of actors to play the leading parts in their (literally) diabolical plot. So they get Guy, who actually is an actor, and the malleable Rosemary, played by Mia Farrow, daughter of the old-pro Hollywood couple Maureen O’Sullivan and director John Farrow. They’re all in the employ of Old Scratch himself, who might be akin to a cruel and golden-eyed studio head.
After all, Polanski had just come from a disappointing job on Dance of the Vampires, which producer Martin Ransohoff had cut, dubbed, and saddled with a cartoon prologue. Polanski describes viewing the cut version: “Watching this, I felt the way a mother must feel when she finds out she’s given birth to a deformed child. The man had completely butchered my work.” The natal imagery can’t be casual, coming into Rosemary’s Baby.
And consider too that 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.
And this uncertainty is crucial to the film’s delicious suspense. Polanski won’t tip his hat: is the Bramford infested with devil-worshippers, or is the sickly Rosemary under the sway of coincidences and her imagination? The dynamic is so close to Repulsion: a dreamy woman brooding in a big apartment, which takes on a sinister life of its own. The whole unhealthy world is seen rigorously through the woman’s eyes, although Polanski drops in a few startling moments of normalcy, like shafts of light in a gloomy chamber. At Rosemary’s party, for instance, when she tells a friend about Dr. Sapirstein’s unusual medical procedures, the friend says, “He sounds like a sadistic nut!” Another tells Rosemary, “You look like a piece of chalk”–a faint rhyme of the “chalky undertaste” or the chocolate “mouse” that apparently cast the spell allowing Rosemary to be impregnated in the first place. Rosemary shocks herself a couple of times too–seeing her reflection in the toaster as she nibbles a piece of raw liver–but these flashes of clarity are not enough to lift her out of the oppression of the Bramford.
D-Day is October 4, 1965. That’s the day the Pope visits New York City, Rosemary eats some chalky mousse, and a visitor with long fingernails pays her a call. Polanski keeps the is-it-real-or-is-it-a-dream game intact: the crazy religious images that have peopled Rosemary’s previous dreams alternate with the sight of nude witches and warlocks inhabiting her bedroom during the vicious ceremony. The chocolate mousse, which becomes “mouse” in Minnie’s fractured speech (just as the word “pregnant” turns into the weirdly repulsive “preg-a-nant” in Ruth Gordon’s superb reading) translates into an appearance from a religious figure–the Pope or some bejeweled representative–who insists that Rosemary was “bitten by a mouse.” This sequence is bravura, as you would expect; and the violence of it hangs over the rest of the film, which contains no subsequent explicit horror.
The many shivery frissons in the rest of 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.
Now, a lot of these details, and the better part of the film’s dialogue, come directly from Ira Levin’s novel, an extremely cinematic book that hurtles through its stages of horror with uncluttered urgency. There are actually some shot descriptions in the novel that Polanski uses in their entirety, including the shot from Rosemary’s point of view just after dinner in the Castevets’ apartment. She glances in the direction of Guy and Roman talking in the living room, but they are not visible; the camera looks through the doorway into the empty room, a curl of cigarette smoke wafting through the dead space. That’s a great shot, containing the whiff of evil and the suggestion of her husband’s seduction. So credit Levin with a great idea, and credit Polanski for the good sense to carry it into the film. But Polanski does more than this. The camera looking through a doorway and seeing (sometimes not seeing) something is a repeated gesture throughout the film–Minnie calling Sapirstein, Guy getting the call about his rival actor, the two intruders tiptoeing behind Rosemary late in the movie. Polanski shoots things this way in part because it approximates the vision of Rosemary herself. She struggles to see straight, to recognize the insidiousness passing in front of her eyes.
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.”
Polanski knows that suspense can be achieved through simple means. Rosemary’s call from a phone booth after visiting Dr. Hill is treated as a single set-up, close to Mia Farrow’s face as she goes through her tour-de-force scene. Three-fourths of the way through, a tall, white-haired man slides into the corner of the frame; a slight adjustment of the camera creates the suspicion that this is Dr. Sapirstein, although his back is to the camera. Rosemary does not see him, but the audience does, and it’s impossible to imagine any cutting that might have added to the suspense of the moment. (The white-haired man is William Castle, B-movie director and expert schlockmeister, and the producer of Rosemary’s Baby.)
But the scariest moment in the film is even simpler than that. Minnie and her friend come down to visit Rosemary, who has just curled up with some relaxing music and the autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr. Minnie barges in, breaking the mood, and she and her friend sit down and start working their knitting needles. Polanski holds a shot of the two dreadful biddies, their jewelry clanking against their wrists. Rosemary looks at them with her big eyes–does she see her future? This, Polanski hints, this is terror.
(This piece was written for a program note at a Polanski series held at the University of Washington in 1986.)