‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is a classic of unseen dread

Rosemary’s BabyRosemary's-baby
Directed by Roman Polanski
United States, 1968

Roman Polanski’s first foray into real, genre horror is a classic of mostly unseen dread.

Featuring a closely-coiffed Mia Farrow as the soft-spoken, childlike Rosemary Woodhouse, potential mother to the devil; John Cassavetes, post-Shadows, and just about to truly kick off his great directorial run; and the inimitable Ruth Gordan as a sort of Grace Zabriskie-precursor: the creepy neighbor next door, heavily made-up and eerily meddlesome, Rosemary’s Baby picks up the paranoid thread of 1965’s Repulsion. The film also anticipates the similarly – though more political – claustrophobic suspicion of Alan Pakula’s 1970’s films.

Like Repulsion Polanski puts a slender, nymph-like female at the center of the narrative, though Rosemary is endowed with more power than Catherine Deneuve’s Carol. Unlike his earlier film, Polanski externalizes the baleful forces and makes them realer. The strength of Rosemary’s Baby is that as much of the surrounding fear is viewable and material as it is in the female protagonist’s head. The film does for Scrabble pieces what Diabolique did for bathtubs and Psycho for showers.

There’s blood in Rosemary’s Baby but it’s minimal. Again – in what will continue to be a trend for Polanski, including what could be the beginnings of a modern “Apartment Trilogy” in Carnage and Venus in Furs – it’s the power of suggestion and tight, confined spaces that give him the most mileage.

What Polanski understands in his best films is the physicality of his actors and the cameras ability to peek, peer, and glance. Farrow glides and tiptoes around the newly rented apartment while Cassavetes very nearly barrels. Sidney Blackmer, playing Ruth Gordon’s husband, is staid and wise – the kind of genteel New Yorker who basks in his loquacious wife’s fussing as his better half.

Coming from the National Film School in Łódź, Polanski perhaps owes his camera to famous European arthouse forerunners: Michelangelo Antonioni, whose Red Desert and Blow-Up are far more elusive storylines than Rosemary’s Baby, but whose camera has agency and mystery, or to an older contemporary, the convention-busting Otto Preminger whose narratives, like Polanski’s, were surface-level Hollywood-stuff and dealt with ordinary people but with a slight bit of upheaval.

Polanski frequently frames characters just out of shot or partially there, sometimes giving only a hint of their body but leaving them off-screen enough as to remain elusive and just out of reach: a paranoid point-of-view.

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Other times it’s a camera move and that same obscurity that chills. As in here, where the frame quickly cranes down, just as an unknown entity slides in behind Farrow. The movement creating something off-kilter, the man’s back that of another potential conspirator.

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Where the New Hollywood types reference and punctuate with bravado, Polanski remains restrained, relying faithfully on the power of a well-designed frame. When in the same year Martin Scorsese is still in short films and Francis Ford Coppola is fresh from the Roger Corman school, the older guard and Production Code-breakers like Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols are hot off of the whirlwinds of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby stands alone. Taking neither the American New Wave approach of the former, nor the TV and stage-influenced audacity of the latter, it’s a distinctly American film made subtly non-American.

In some sense, Rosemary’s Baby is about the thwarting of the American Dream by an outside presence. Were it Blacklist-era it could easily be an allegory. The young couple, the big city, the new home, the promotion…all that’s missing is the picket fence, and of course, the baby. Polanski is the outsider to Hollywood – if he’s got a Hollywood predecessor besides Preminger it might well be another deep-focus rebel: Orson Welles.

Polanski brings his claustrophobic Polish sensibility to a film that could easily have been one of the many cheap knock-offs that immediately follow it, but is instead a sleek and ugly thing, crawling with the latent possibility of extreme violence.

 

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