Tuesday, January 15, 2013

the devil's in the details

This weekend I re-watched Rosemary's Baby and it was as new and vivid again as Rosemary's freshly painted walls and lemony yellow kitchen curtains. I realized just how great and eerie a film it is.  When I had seen it as a teenager, I was more into the horror and the gruesomeness; as an adult, I internalized its visual and emotional encapsulation of the stress and strain of living in an unbalanced relationship, in loneliness, its parallels to other Roman Polanski movies and the blurring of nightmares, folklore, paranoia, and reality.

The plot, closely based upon a novel by Ira Levin (The Stepford Wives) concerns a newlywed couple on the eve of 1966, who move into a Central Park apartment with a storied history called the Bramford (the creepily gothic Dakota, like an urban fairytale castle).  Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes, usually a man and filmmaker of many words, quietly menacing here) is a self-centered, struggling actor, desperate for a breakout role and Rosemary (Mia Farrow, in a transfixing performance) is his sunny, somewhat naive wife.  They have odd, bossy neighbors, an elderly couple named the Castavets (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon, in her unforgettable Academy Award-winning role).  They seem harmless at first, but as Rosemary becomes pregnant, the audience soon begins to wonder if Guy made an evil pact for his rising success.

Riskily produced by William Castle, who had an old-fashioned spook show sensibility but also was interested in connecting to the modern viewer, you see and sense the turbulence and the change of the 60s: the "Is God Dead?" Time issue Rosemary picks up and the movie's graphic (though mostly subtly inferred) content and violence.  It's among the shift of sunny 60s cinema (Sound of Music, Mary Poppins) into the searing late-60s grit of Bonnie & Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, and Midnight Cowboy. With Rosemary's Baby in particular, there are bizarre pop history links: the grisly Manson family's killing of Polanski's then-pregnant wife Sharon Tate, which would occur a year after the film's release; John Lennon's--who had supposedly inspired Manson's murders with The Beatles' The White Album--1980 death in front of the Dakota.

Often in Polanski's work, the characters are terrorized both by their confines (in mind, body, spirit and brick and mortar) and also the sinister, menacing world outside.  The claustrophobia of Polanski's macabre apartment pictures (Rosemary's BabyRepulsionThe Tenant and recently, Carnage) but also the grim interior worlds of Cul-de-SacThe Pianist (Polanski was also a Holocaust survivor) and the sailboat in Knife on the Water now seem prophetic of and attuned to his eventual house arrest.

In Rosemary's Baby, Polanksi and his team create a vivid environment unsettling in its ordinary but slightly kooky details. William A. Fraker (who did a fantastic job here and with the pop car chase epic Bullitt that year) photographs it plainly and warmly, even in its the most chilling moments: the feverish dream sequence where Rosemary is impregnated by the Devil and the morning after, discovering scratches on the skin in a room bathed in sunlight. Sometimes we find ourselves slipping into Rosemary's POV, adding to the hysteria we are feeling and witnessing: eating raw meat in the blurred silver toaster reflection; a doctor (Charles Grodin) staring coldly and skeptically as he closes the door to his seemingly safe backroom of his office, rain on the window; or that famous peephole shot of Ruth Gordon.  It's reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious where dramatic irony and paranoia are infused through the use of subtle cinematic techniques.

The movie's costumes and art direction are rife with specific colors (red accents, yellow, whites, cool greens and pale blues).  I find this palate, so specific of its time, particularly ironic since it contrasts so much with the devastating social events of the sixties, including the Vietnam War.  In the film, it creates the frustration we have with blithe Rosemary and also the movie's sense of dread.  Rosemary, with pigtails, dressed in a marigold floral frock, optimistically and cheerfully makes-over their new apartment with sunny yellows and whites.  In contrast, the apartment of the Castevets is darkly-lit, cluttered and overstuffed.  There's a carefulness to the movie, everything feels in-place, while sometimes mysterious and sudden tiny details appear, often dismissed by the characters (the previous tenant's scrawl of "I can no longer associate myself" on a scrap of paper)... don't we all notice strange little details throughout the day that we may focus on, but ultimately forget by the next day?  I think it remains an interesting approach, and adds to its dreamy visual tension, to douse the film in rich peacock colors instead of washing it out--as many horror films do today--in grimy grays and greens. Sometimes I wonder what the film would have been like in stark black & white.  Would it lose a certain garish power that makes it the landmark it is today?  ****

-Jeffery Berg


  1. I enjoyed your take on this immensely. This is truly one of my favorite films and I truly enjoyed your insightful observations. Thanks for sharing!!! (Simple objects like shelving paper and old, wooden scrabble letters were never quite the same for me after seeing this!)

  2. 'Tis the month to rewatch Rosemary's Baby, it seems, and I find it as fantastic and effective and ever. This was a film school worthy analysis of a masterly movie.