Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rosemary's Baby: The devil is in the details

“He has pierced ears,” Rosemary Woodhouse says of her neighbor, Roman Castavet. “Pierced ears and piercing eyes,” says Hutch who is alarmed at his pregnant friend’s emaciated appearance when visiting her at the Bramford, the luxury apartment house where she and her husband, Guy, have moved despite its dark past.

“Are you aware that the Bramford had a rather unpleasant reputation around the turn of the century?” Hutch asks. “It’s where the Trench sisters conducted their little dietary experiments. They cooked and ate several young children, including a niece.” It was also home to Adrian Marcato who announced to his neighbors that he had “conjured up the living devil.”

Later, after Hutch’s suspicions mean he must be removed from the scene, Rosemary reads the book he had arranged for her to receive, All of Them Witches. “The name is an anagram,” he told her, the name in question being that of Adrian Marcato’s son, Steven. When rearranging the letters in the name with a Scrabble set, Rosemary learns that they spell “Roman Castavet.”

You can do a lot with names in Rosemary’s Baby, not only the names of characters but of the personnel behind the 1968 film. William Castle, the schlock merchant who produced the film from Ira Levin’s novel, but was forbidden from directing it by Paramount’s Robert Evans, called director Roman Polanski by the same name that Guy uses to address Rosemary: “Ro.” Roman is also the first name of the head witch played by Sidney Blackmer. His surname, Castavet, is not far from Cassavettes, as in John, who plays Guy. It may not mean anything, but you might suspect that it does because Rosemary’s Baby is that kind of movie: eerie, thought-provoking, and filled with quietly disturbing moments.

Of course, we know (or I do, anyway) that Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered, along with her unborn child, by Charles Manson’s gang approximately one year after Rosemary’s Baby was released in summer 1968. And the Bramford is actually the Dakota, the spooky New York apartment house where John Lennon spent his final decade and where he was murdered in December 1980. These are eerily creepy sidebars to this story of a young woman who unwittingly gives birth to the son of Satan.

Director Polanski also wrote the screenplay and was slavishly faithful to the novel even in the minor details. When Guy returns home unexpectedly to do the witches’ bidding while Rosemary is entertaining Hutch, he brings out a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes. “Loot,” he exclaims as the packs fall on the table. The scene exactly mirrors the one in the book. In the novel, Guy mentions buying an Arrow shirt that was advertised in The New Yorker. Polanski tried to hunt down the ad in back issues until Levin informed him that the ad, like the shirt, was just a detail he had invented.

Knowing that he director paid such attention to the details makes the more attentive viewer pay close attention to the details, as well. When Guy takes that book about witches away from Rosemary, he slides it on a shelf, right on top of Yes, I Can!, the Sammy Davis, Jr. autobiography that Rosemary had been reading earlier. Is it coincidence or a sly wink to the viewer who knows that Davis once dabbled in Satanism (“for the sexual kicks”)? Also on the shelf are hard copies of Alfred Kinsey’s studies of human sexuality. Kinsey was another dabbler in the Black Arts. Oh, and is that the Eye of Horus we see in the window that is given a pyramid shape when the curtains are parted?

(At least one detail is wrong. When Rosemary wanders the streets of New York after Hutch has failed to appear for a meeting, we can see Radio City Music Hall in the distance. The film at that point takes place in 1965, but the marquee advertises Fred MacMurray in The Happiest Millionaire, their Christmas attraction in 1967, the year of the filming.)

It’s said that the devil is in the details, and some of Rosemary’s Baby’s most effective moments are small ones that might escape the attention of the viewer who only focuses on the big picture.

One of the most disturbingly quiet moments in a film that is filled with them occurs after dinner in the apartment of Roman and Minnie Castavet. Minnie (Ruth Gordon in an Oscar winning role) is washing dishes while Rosemary stands nearby, her offer of help having been politely refused. Rosemary then glances uncomfortably into the doorway of the living room where the men's cigarette smoke lingers in the air. Next we turn the corner and see Guy, staring intensely, spellbound by whatever Roman is confiding in him. The sudden appearance of Rosemary and Minnie startles Guy who quickly rises to his feet, looking not unlike a little boy whose mother has entered his bedroom and caught him ogling Playboy. It’s clear that something unpleasant is in the works, and Guy is a willing participant.

Rosemary’s Baby remains one of the most effective horror films with a letter perfect cast. Mia Farrow, so sweet, so vulnerable, and sympathetic, should have won the Oscar (but failed to even earn a nomination in a year when Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand tied for best actress). Cassavettes has just the right arrogance and contrived charm one might expect in a man on the make who is willing to sell his soul, as well as his wife and their child, to further his career. Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans (as Hutch), and Ralph Bellamy as the Park Avenue obstetrician who delivers the demon child are all exceptionally cast.

The dream sequence (which isn’t a dream at all) is a knockout, a surreal nightmare that haunts the imagination. The revelation at the climax is all the more effective for what it doesn’t show. Rosemary’s Baby is Polanski’s masterpiece and one of the greatest of all horror films.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


No comments:

Post a Comment