Roman and the devil
By Michael Roberts
“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell."
~ Oscar Wilde
Paramount lured Roman Polanski to Hollywood with the prospect of doing a film about skiing, as Polanski was passionate about the sport, but when he arrived he was also shown Rosemary's Baby as the studio had acquired the rights to Ira Levin's future best seller about a coven of witches in modern New York. Polanski never made the ski picture, it went to Michael Ritchie and became Downhill Racer, but he poured his European sensibilities into the horror film and created a classic in the process. Polanski favoured the Val Lewton method of suggesting rather than showing the monster, and the ambiguity that results gives the finished product an eerie and timeless lustre, and suggests the gap between psychotic delusion and religious ecstasies is a small one. Studio head Robert Evans insisted on casting Mia Farrow as the vulnerable young woman and independent film icon John Cassavetes as her husband after Robert Redford turned it down. Polanski sought out several Hollywood veterans to play the aging clique of devil worshippers, and gave Ruth Gordon in particular a new lease on life in her old age, directly leading to a lead role in the cult classic Harold and Maude.
Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) find an old apartment in the Bradford building and move in. Their much older friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) tells them about stories of cannibalism and witchcraft attached to the past of the renowned building and of the leader of the coven, Adrian Marcato, but they fob them off as superstitious nonsense. Guy is an ambitious actor keen on his career instead of a family, but he is not having much luck currently. Polanski foreshadows a sinister and askew view of the world when the couple uncover a hidden closet that links the old apartment next door, but the couple soon make friends with the owners Roman and Minnie Castevet. Minnie (Ruth Gordon) invites the couple to dinner and Guy and Roman (Sydney Blackmer) hit it off and soon Guy is spending a lot of time with Roman. Guy's luck with his acting career takes a turn for the better, at the expense of another actor, and the couple soon try to have a baby at his insistence, a turnaround which delight's Rosemary. Minnie organises the top Doctor in New York to take care of her, and even prepares a fresh drink of herbs and vitamins every day for Rosemary to drink. Soon Rosemary is in physical pain and struggling to get anyone to take her seriously.
Polanski builds the sense of dread to a nicely judged pitch with a series of set pieces that call Rosemary's sanity into question and never offers a definitive answer to whether the danger is all in her head or actually real. Rosemary enlists the aid of her 'normal' friends after her dramatic decline of health, but all of a sudden her pain stops. Hutch finds a clue to give her in a book called 'All of them Witches', but he mysteriously falls victim to an illness and goes into a coma. Guy has a rational explanation for most of what troubles Rosemary, as she finally finds some joy when her baby kicks inside her, "It's alive" she yelps, in a serio-comic allusion to Frankenstein's monster. Polanski drops clues as to attitudes in Roman that represent an alternative to mainstream Christianity, with his assertion that all religion is showbiz, and his deriding of the then Pope's impending appearance at Yankee Stadium. The famous 1966 cover of Time magazine is shown with it's questioning headline ' Is God dead?' and maintains the unsettling and contrary mood, the film itself seemingly asking the same question.
Mia Farrow is excellent in the lead and justifies her own faith in her career as her then husband Frank Sinatra insisted she not do the role and served divorce papers on her while she was on the set. The support cast are very fine, but honours go to Ruth Gordon for her twittering and relentless Minnie, who's crooked lipstick smile hid a dark heart indeed. Charles Grodin is seen to advantage in an early screen role and Blackmer gives his devil's adjutant just the right amount of malevolence, especially when enticing Rosemary into rocking her baby, "He has his father's eyes" is darkly comic in his measured delivery. The location building, The Dakota on Central Park and West is a huge plus, the opening and closing shot showing it in all its glory, and its subsequent association with the Lennon tragedy gives it an appropriately sombre tone these days. Lennon of course wrote his lovely Dear Prudence for Mia's sister the year the film was released when the Farrow sisters were in India with the Beatles.
Polanski showed his credentials as a top shelf director able to handle A list Hollywood assignments, but his career would also be interrupted by tragedy when his wife was a victim of the Manson family killings in L.A in 1969. Oddly another Beatles, White Album track would be forever associated with that macabre event, the manic Helter Skelter , a tune that Manson took as an invocation to unleash his demonic plan. In Rosemary's Baby Polanski helped to build a plausible, fictional case that the devil was at work in the world, with the killing of Sharon Tate he saw it for real in close up. Of course, the fact that evil and good is fully formed human activity which neither requires nor shows evidence of the supernatural, either in God or the Devil, is by the by. Polanski would recover to make several great films, and said memorably when challenged on the amount of blood he'd employed in his Macbeth, he replied, "don't tell me about blood, I know about blood". The scrappy little survivor of the Krakow ghetto would go on to glory and scandal, but Rosemary's Baby remains as one of the superior works in his varied and impressive oeuvre.