By Alan Hurst
From a first viewing in the late 70s and then multiple viewings since, no other film of the horror/suspense genre has ever had the impact on me that Rosemary’s Baby (1968) has. It was a big hit when it came out in 1968 and it sill holds up today. It’s the perfect horror movie with the perfect horror movie heroine, a perfect supporting cast set in one of the most perfect settings ever. Everything works – right down the line.
This was Roman Polanski’s first major foray into North American films after the critical successes of Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-Sac (1966) – all excellent films. But Rosemary’s Baby is a huge step forward for him as filmmaker and storyteller. It’s a relatively straightforward story, but well structured with a strong screenplay based on Ira Levin’s novel and filled with subtle layers and clues that become clear with additional viewings.
It tells the story of Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse – a young married couple who decide to move into a wonderfully atmospheric old New York apartment building (the Dakota was used for the filming). It’s filled with a dark history and a bevy of eccentrics. Guy (John Cassavetes) is an aspiring actor and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) a stay-at-home wife. They soon become friendly with the older couple next door (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). The couple are not what they seem – and the ever-increasing threat of Satanism and modern-day witches begins to consume Rosemary as she becomes pregnant with her first child.
Produced by B Horror movie maven William Castle, Rosemary’s Baby could easily have been another B film. But thankfully Paramount Studios put some money behind it and brought in Polanski and a cast of lesser known but wonderful actors. There are so many reasons this film works as well as it does but these are the key drivers:
- Roman Polanski: There’s something dark, cold and sinister in everything Polanski does – Repulsion (1965), Macbeth (1971), Chinatown (1974). The same is true here. There is really nothing warm about anybody here except for Rosemary. Polanski knows how to take his time and he builds the suspense very slowly and deliberately from the start. He makes the ordinary – a old elevator, an apartment closet, tiles missing from the floor – unnerving. He is also responsible for the film’s realistic (and frightening) dream sequence – one of the most effective ever filmed.
- Mia Farrow: This was Farrow’s first big feature film after a run in TV’s Peyton Place. She defied then husband Frank Sinatra in taking the role and it ultimately ended their marriage, but she was right to accept it (after it was turned down by Jane Fonda and Tuesday Weld among others). Her waif like appearance fit the character perfectly, but underneath Farrow shows a strong will and a brain that’s always working. As Farrow’s Rosemary discovers what’s happening, so does the audience. You don’t think she’s losing her mind – Farrow makes what’s happening to her seems very real. She deserved (but didn’t get) serious Oscar consideration.
- New York and the Apartment: The locale is ideal. For whatever reason, a tale of Satanism set in Manhattan and a gothic building in 1965 just before the visit of the Pope is brilliant. New York was starting to spiral downward at that time – the perfect metaphor for what’s happening in the film. And the Dakota apartment building (known in the film as the Bramford) is at once both imposing and gorgeous.
- The Title Credits: Using a slow moving panoramic shot of New York that finally settles in on the Dakota, a pink swirling font for the cast and crew names and underscored by an incredibly eerie lullaby sung by Mia Farrow, you know you’re in for something unsettling. Polanski completely establishes the mood of the film in those first few minutes.
- The Photography: Cinematographer William Fraker adds to the feel of the film with just the simplest of effects. Whether it’s highlighting small sedatives Rosemary has hidden in her headboard, the imprint of a dresser on a rug or the transition from Rosemary’s bright apartment to the neighbour’s dark and foreboding space, Fraker’s work makes you feel like you’re there. There’s both a harshness and a beauty to everything.
- The Supporting Cast: Ruth Gordon won a well-deserved Oscar in 1968 for this film, but she’s one of many veterans in the cast who do stellar work and all are key in contributing to the genuine feeling of unease. Other standouts include Sidney Blackmer as Gordon’s husband, Maurice Evans as an unfortunate friend of the young couple, Ralph Bellamy as Rosemary’s doctor and Patsy Kelly as a dimwitted but evil friend of Gordon’s.
There were other great horror/suspense films of the sixties (The Haunting, The Innocents, Repulsion, Wait Until Dark) but none had or continues to have the impact of Rosemary’s Baby. If one of the traits of a great film is the fact that you can watch it over and over and still see something new, then this one achieves that.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.