April 18, 2012
The modern strand in this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival was a celebration of Robert Evans’ tenure at Paramount, and part of the ongoing 100th birthday celebrations of the studio. The too-late punters for the first Raw Deal screening couldn’t be tempted by the empty seats in Love Story, but it doesn’t take much persuading to get a film buff to sit through Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby again. Except that after a gap of many years from my first viewing, it’d take quite a lot for me to sit through the latter a third time.
My problem with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is that it’s too straight ahead. For a start, if you don’t believe in the Devil you don’t believe in this film, which is not the case with, say, The Exorcist. A pair of scaly rubber gloves is not going to cut it. What is believable, however, is the capacity of the old couple for a deep malevolence never explicitly expressed, but given a lot of help by the fact that there’s little doubt about what’s going on. The suspense is not in whether there are Satanists next door – who else chants like that? – but what they have done to the baby. That they have evidently done something is bad enough, so basically one is encouraged to imagine the worst, and expect something worse than that. Whatever, it’s going to be bad.
The removal of doubt early on has a slightly unpleasant effect on the film. Instead of wondering whether Rosemary may be imagining things, instead of engaging with her plight, despite best efforts to appear to the contrary, the film becomes a somewhat sadistic woman-in-peril case study, with no more empathy than Polanski ever manages. Never mind the fact that, as every Jacques Tourneur fan knows, such horrific ambiguity can be manipulated for gripping swings of sympathy.
There are other missed opportunities: Rosemary’s Catholic upbringing is underplayed to the point of being tokenistic, and the traumatic mental nature of even normal pregnancy is avoided. It is also a film in which the actors seem undirected: the old-timers get along fine, and Ruth Gordon steals the movie; Elisha Cook Jr could have been anyone, however, until Cassavetes does a surprise impression of him quite a bit later. This and a couple of other fresh moments are all Cassavetes can manage with his own part. He gets away with a deadness of spirit that plays as unnatural, whether one is familiar with his other work or not. That unnaturalness plays for the character, but one suspects that Cassavetes did not regard the proceedings with much interest.
Mia Farrow, on the other hand, carries the movie with great resilience. She’s upset a lot of the time, although never in spiritual anguish, until the audaciously silly ending. She’s looking less for an explanation than confirmation, and two thirds of the way through gives up even on that, taking matters into her own hands. Quite why or how the Satanists can reduce her to a zombie-like state (nice make-up) until halfway through her pregnancy, and then restore her to blooming health is not clear (the film’s ambiguity only extends as far as this sort of withholding), but it does at least allow Mia Farrow to go through a good range of physical stages, each of which she seizes on with gusto, until she’s a wobbly doll-like thing with an off-balance belly. One of her greatest strengths as an actress, used probably never better than here, is that she always looks like this short-haired dolly about to break, or sounds like a child about to cry, yet with a deep, strong core probably tougher than most of the people around her.
Much of this is beside the point since from the moment Ira Levin’s trashy novel was optioned by William Castle, it was intended as pure box office bait. Enter Robert Evans and the Paramount machine, then Polanski, who had marginally more taste than Castle, and a massive accumulation of cynicism produced a massive accumulation of wealth. Unsurprisingly: for the most part it’s finely executed with great seriousness, tight construction, a good variety of ominous or merely possible threats, and echoes of the tight, intrusive camera that drove Catherine Deneuve mad in Repulsion (otherwise, William Fraker’s camera is as functionally professional as usual). Polanski brought in his usual composer Krzysztof Komeda, whose nightmare jazz score also ramps up the atmospherics; the title theme prepares one for a Horror Film in a nicely eastern European way, offset by helicopter views of Manhattan. For all the apartment-talk, however, it is a story that could be taking place anywhere, but the film has it both ways with the final shot’s implication that this is just one of the eight million stories (on the upper west side?). The idea was not to make a complex probing study, but from taking on the biggest baddie of them all, to making one wonder what’s in those milky herb drinks/pills etc, in a modish, real-world atmosphere, the aim was to scare the audience witless. It’s as single-mindedly manipulative – and silly – as Psycho, but without the winking humor, and there’s an inescapable air of mutton dressed as lamb.