Innocent Catholic Wife Unwittingly Used as Satan-Incubator in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

I admit it: Part of the thrill of watching Rosemary’s Baby (1968, newly released in this stellar Criterion edition) lies in hearing the young and beautiful Mia Farrow (as Rosemary Woodhouse) say my name over and over, especially in the film’s penultimate line, “Guy’s eyes are normal!” When she says it, the camera enacts a swift pan to Rosemary’s husband, Guy (played by iconic independent director John Cassevetes, another thrill), whereupon Guy covers his eyes.

That gesture characterizes the film as a whole: Clear views of and from characters are often obstructed or restricted, kept just out sight behind doorframes or other objects and characters. Such concealment works perfectly for this tale of an innocent Catholic wife unwittingly used as a Satan-incubator by a coven of urban witches. Or is she just paranoid?

Ambiguity informs the entire film, particularly upon a virgin viewing. Like director Roman Polanski’s previous film Repulsion (1965) — wherein a young pale woman trapped in a labyrinthine apartment descends into a twisted malevolent world she may or may not be imagining — it’s unclear initially whether Rosemary is just paranoid, or truly carrying the Anti-Christ.

Polanski never shows this off-kilter quality explicitly, for example through repeated, exaggeratedly skewed or lop-sided angles, but instead renders distortion through implication. Often the camera moves or lingers just past the point where the conspirators might wink at one another or exchange knowing glances behind Rosemary’s back, thus giving themselves away to the audience.

These conspirators are led by Rosemary’s “neighbors from hell”, the Castevets (brilliantly portrayed by veteran character actors Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon), who lure husband Guy, a struggling actor, into a Faustian deal promising stardom in exchange for the use of his wife’s womb.

With this film, Polanski, a transplanted Pole, inaugurated not only a slew of demon-related films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), but ’70s New American Cinema, as well. Rosemary’s Baby contains naturalistic performances, fairly complicated perspectives on such topics as religion and women’s rights, and an ingenious, auteurist use of the camera, which always seems to be creeping or spying just like Rosemary’s witches. Polanski and veteran cinematographer William Fraker also partake of extremely effective handheld camerawork, with slightly-off point-of-view shots, or over-the-shoulder forward and backward tracking. The camera works as hard as the actors.

With her wide-open baby-eyes and mousy voice, Mia Farrow, in her film debut, is ideally innocent. Somewhat gangly at the film’s opening, Rosemary becomes even more so as the Beast inside her siphons off her life force. As one character remarks to Rosemary, “You look like a stick of chalk,” and Farrow was already frail and powdery. In a supplemental documentary, Farrow explains how her then-husband, Frank Sinatra, was against her taking the role, and served her divorce papers on-set. Such a transaction can only have benefited Rosemary’s sense of unmooring from her marriage. As her suspicions grow in conjunction with her belly, she continually retracts her arms in self-defense or waddles determinedly around New York City with her suitcase like a transient goose.

As Guy Woodhouse, John Cassavetes is, by comparison, more contained and non-committal. Cassavetes was, of course, a formidable director himself (his film Faces was released around the same time), and the documentary reveals the tensions between Polanski and Cassavetes, as each had opposite ways of approach. Polanski preferred rehearsals, with every movement timed to perfection, while Cassavetes encouraged physical if not scriptural improvisation.

Even without knowing of these background tensions, one feels a certain distance or diffidence in Cassavetes’ role. It’s a preoccupied performance, which, of course, suits the material and the highly ambivalent character as well. In many ways, Guy is the most evil of all the characters, the one who performs the deepest deception. The other cult members act, lie and delude Rosemary, but Guy has the most pliant sense of integrity. He is the worst kind of sell-out: one who thinks he is above selling-out, but can’t wait to do it. He truly warrants the spit Rosemary hocks in his face near the film’s end.

As scary as the film is, it’s also a black comedy — pitch black, with sinister bits of humor throughout Guy retracting his hand in a panic when Rosemary pressures him to feel the baby’s kicking; an Asian Satanist who stereotypically cannot resist snapping photos at the baby’s “christening”; another cult member hissing at Rosemary, “Oh, shut-up with your ‘Oh God’ or we’ll kill you, milk or no milk”; and most especially Ruth Gordon, as Minnie Castevet, a garish, garrulous philistine who looks like she would pluck Rosemary’s eyes out, given half the chance.

The film is also fiendishly self-reflexive: “Roman Castevet” is a combination of the director’s first name, and a near-anagram of the leading man’s last; the decidedly non-commercial Cassavetes cast as a commercial actor; or Rosemary reading Yes I Can by Sammy Davis Jr., Farrow’s soon-to-be-ex-husband Sinatra’s fellow Rat-Packer.

Extras include a booklet essay by Ed Parks, along with excerpts from author Ira Levin’s Rosemary notebooks; and a second disc with some truly heavenly supplements: the documentary featuring interviews with Polanski, Farrow, and the film’s producer, the hugely-entertaining raconteur Robert Evans, he of the Original George Hamilton tan and a voice that sounds as if half his throat has been ripped out by the devil; a 1997 radio interview with author Levin, discussing the release of his sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, Son of Rosemary, a millennial apocalypse (the baby was born in 1966, making him 33 years old — Jesus’s age when crucified — in 1999); and a feature-length documentary on the film’s musical composer Krzysztof Komeda, just one of whose contributions is the muted horn imitating a woman’s hysterical shrieks when Rosemary first sees the baby; she doesn’t have to make a sound, as the music does it for her.

The interview documentary reveals that co-producer William Castle was also set to direct. Castle was famous for creating such novelty tie-ins as that for his film The Tingler (1959), for which spectator’s seats were wired to give off small electric charges throughout the showing. What would have been his gimmick for Rosemary’s Baby? Wafting the smell of the film’s devilish herb, Tanis root, through theater heating vents? Some sort of artificial insemination? Thank God, or Whomever, Polanski signed on.

RATING 10 / 10