Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel was one of those rare pictures that until very recently had escaped me, not for any reason other than the opportunity to watch it properly hadn’t presented itself. Aside from the fact that it’s a very good film indeed there was a certain fascination for me in watching a film intended for an audience of more than 40 years ago for the very first time, particularly one that really hasn’t dated that much.
We all know the story by now but here it is again anyway. Shy, fragile, nervous little Mia Farrow is married to boorish wisecracking actor John Cassavetes. They move into the building in New York where John Lennon was later assassinated to come under the influence of neighbours Minnie & Roman Castavet (Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for her immense skills at portraying an annoying old woman, and Sidney Blackmer). Mia does her best to make friends with young ex drug-addict Terry in the laundry room. Mims comments on Terry’s likeness to ‘the actress Victoria Vetri’ in a rather odd exchange because the girl actually is Playboy model and movie star Ms Vetri acting under her real name of Angela Dorian.
Angela’s in denial mode, however, presumably because she knows that this is a classic film and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH, in which she will be appearing next year, is not. Angela / Terry / Victoria plunges to her death, but did she jump in a drug-fuelled frenzy or was she just pushed by an evil elderly person? Either way Mia inherits Angela’s smelly fungus-filled neckwear (according to friend Maurice Evans who is on the side of Good and Reason and so isn’t going to last long in this film). After consuming just a spoonful of Mrs Castavet’s evil chocolate mousse Mia has a dream where a nude stand in of her is painted with satanic symbols and mauled by hairy hands, and wakes up to find she’s pregnant. Nice obstetrician Charles Grodin is dispensed with to make way for top-notch-but-nevertheless-suspicious obstetrician Ralph Bellamy while Mrs Castavet keeps popping in with a health drink that looks suspiciously like those natural yoghurts that are meant to help bowel function. Of course all these measures are actually designed to ensure the Second Coming of Satan’s child but the horrors here are not so much anticipated ones as those derived from everyday mundanity. It’s interesting that ROSEMARY’S BABY came out more or less at the same time as Hammer’s THE DEVIL RIDES OUT – another adaptation of a popular novel. I saw the Wheatley adaptation when I was twelve years old and Polanski’s film only recently and I think I’ve seen both at just the right times in my life. The Hammer film is a rip-roaring adventure story with spectacle, monsters, moustache-twirling villainy and noble heroics that you almost need to be a boy of a certain age to get the most from.
But you need to be an adult to appreciate what’s best about Polanksi’s film, because it isn’t the devil worship stuff, or the implications about the second coming of Satan being responsible for the cultural climate of the late 1960s, it’s Polanski’s ruminations on what evil actually is. Ultimate evil isn’t Dennis Wheatley’s Mocata in a cape, it’s the annoying old couple who live next door, the obstetrician who wants your baby for his own devices, the best friend who kills themselves and leaves you alone again just as you thought you were managing to settle into your strange new environment a tiny bit. It’s the empty corridors that always look as if they’re hiding someone or something threatening around the next corner. It’s those individuals in our society (spouse, neighbour, doctor) that you should be able to trust but you can’t.
Despite the exploitation pedigree of some of the participants the film was hardly likely to have been advertised as from the director of THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS and the producer of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, HOMICIDAL and THE TINGLER, but it should nevertheless be remembered that Polanski had already chalked up a track record of working with exploitation film producers with commendable results. Both REPULSION and CUL-DE-SAC were made for Tony Tenser (Tigon) and Michael Klinger (GET CARTER), and I suspect that William Castle had a hand in keeping Mr Polanski under control and on schedule to ensure that ROSEMARY’S BABY was the success it turned out to be. In fact there is very little to complain about here, although Ms Farrow’s drastic ‘save the day’ Sassoon haircut really does occur at a fairly unbelievable point in the proceedings, even if being able to wash it more quickly probably meant more minutes in the day for Rosemary to worry about everything else that was happening to her. And would even the mother of Satan have wanted quite such a preponderance of yellow in her furnishings?
Actually, thinking about it, the sofas of hell probably are upholstered in yellow nylon.