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Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

by on 2010/10/15

The late Sixties and early Seventies must have been an interesting time, the cusp of great change for the ur-geek theatregoer.  Science fiction still had a few years to go before Star Wars changed its game, but there had been hints of things to come in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Horror, for its part, got a slight head start.  Camp and exploitation steered some projects away from B-movie territory and closer to Z.  Rare other efforts brought a more literary sensibility to the proceedings and, in so doing, added some legitimacy to the genre.  The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining . . . all successful in their own right, but arguably eased into the mainstream by their forerunner, Rosemary’s Baby.  It’s not a perfect piece of work, but remains a decent step.

Its story concerns a young couple — housewife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) — beginning a new life in a notoriously storied apartment building.  After a warm welcome by the neighbours, they’re quickly drawn into a mire of separate lives:  Guy preoccupied by his sudden fame, and Rosemary dealing with her equally-sudden pregnancy.  In addition to the usual matters of impending parenthood, our protagonist struggles with other physical and psychological issues.  Her weight drops dramatically, and she becomes convinced that her unborn child may be the focus of a sinister conspiracy.  The point of the story appears to be, “Blend every parent’s top five fears, and simmer ’til the house burns down.”

This picture is rich and immediate, but undoes its illusions over time.  Guided by musical cues, an iconic cast of the era, and the stories they have to tell, we find ourselves in New York City.  For the sake of the plot it’s 1966, but the ambiance is one familiar to films that will stretch ahead through the Seventies:  Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, even Last Tango in Paris.  As in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), extensive location work lends a sense of “too close to home” discomfort when Rosemary suspects the emergence of some sort of ineffable horror.

Farrow, in her portrayal, begins as little more than a child herself, flitting around with an intoxicated lilt, in those times before the paranoia lays her low.  She’s surrounded by a phalanx of character actors so familiar that you might just recognize them from . . . somewhere.  Among them:  Elisha Cook Jr. (Shane, The House on Haunted Hill) as their tour guiding landlord; Maurice Evans (Dr. Zaius of the Planet of the Apes series) as the couple’s friend Hutch; Charles Grodin (Midnight Run, So I Married an Axe Murderer) plays a doctor; Ralph Bellamy (Twilight Zone, Trading Places) plays another; and the recently-deceased Tony Curtis literally phones in a cameo as one of Guy’s less fortunate acting rivals.  Needless to say, the cast is outstanding.

In a manner similar to Open Water, this work is driven by an odd oscillation.  Long takes unwind organically and lend a sense of space.  Our minds fill the silence in ways no special effect could do, or allow for the possibility that the darkness is imagined.  The perspective of Rosemary’s tale, the subjective point of view, the uncertainty of a handheld shot . . . these techniques serve to draw us in, yet feed our own uncertainty.  Then, all of a sudden, conventional dramatics will intercut with tangents and deviations that may or may not be real.  Director Roman Polanski takes the commonplace and patiently, subtly, warps it into something extreme.  Like the slow boiling of a metaphorical toad, it happens so gradually that overt evidence is less ammunition than the sign of an escape left too late.  When our heroine sloughs off her hair, cosmetics, and good cheer, our subliminal fears are confirmed.  Whatever the outcome for Baby, we know that Rosemary has changed.

All of which makes her ultimate fate a bitter disappointment.  To be more specific would be to tell all but, given the production’s general elegance, its ending is obvious, even crass.  An early scene foretells the stunt, but I know I had hoped for more.  And by “more” I mean “less”.  For a spare tale so well told, it sadly overreaches and stumbles.  The quality of craft throughout has led us through, and to, something unpleasant.  Even worse, it feels untrue to much of what’s gone before.  We get a surprise, but nothing transcendent, an unsatisfying ending to suggest we’ve been watching for the sake of the journey, not its end.  Still, given the whole is less a tone poem than a slow crescendo — or perhaps a diminuendo — the climax should matter.  Ambiguity might have been a better way to go.

As I watched, it slowly dawned on me that everything here felt familiar.  Not because I had seen it before — which I had — but because its sense of a place, its focus on home, its betrayal of interdependence . . . it almost foreshadows Pacific Heights inverted, inside-out.  Slower, though nearly as suspenseful, Rosemary’s Baby somewhat disappointed me, but it was time spent I didn’t regret.  While I fail to understand either the mainstream appeal of this “boring” a movie, or the critical success given some of its exploitative gimmickry, I do see a fair share of substance.  The right expectations should help mitigate any boredom or “too much too late”.

* * *

Rated 18A for nudity and violence

136 minutes

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