He has His Father’s eyes.
Has there ever been a better plotted thriller than Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby”? Or a better adaptation than Roman Polanski’s 1968 film? Everybody’s favorite satanic offspring recently received the Criterion Collection treatment, and the result proves this movie still retains its punch, 45 years later.
I remember reading the novel in practically one sitting. Levin’s pacing is phenomenal—he knows exactly when, where and how to drop just enough information to enable you to keep pace with Rosemary as the plot unfolds, yet never for one instant let you get ahead of her. Only when she becomes suspicious do you become suspicious, but not before. It’s a delight to re-read it the moment you finish just to enjoy how easily you were fooled. Although the novel falls into the horror genre, it’s not the idea of Satan’s spawn that really puts it there. Levin is more subtle—it’s poor Rosemary’s painful pregnancy and her husband’s trading her well-being for fame that create the nightmare. The suspense is marvelous, yet the book is also incredibly funny and sly, and of course irreverent. Just a terrific read.
Roman Polanski’s screenplay is as close to a word for word adaptation as possible (According to the extras in the Criterion package, Levin thought the director was under the impression he was barred from making any changes. How fortunate for us). In its movie form, “Rosemary’s Baby” not only brings the printed word to life, it enhances the experience in ways that only film can. Sometimes it’s the little things, such as the coven’s flat chant, almost a group moan, with its accompanying whistle that Rosemary and Guy hear through their bedroom wall. I don’t know about you, but it makes my skin crawl every time I see the movie. And though this is a key scene in the book, it’s Polanski who creates the hair-on-end atmosphere of Rosemary’s attempt to solve the riddle of Hutch’s anagram reference. When she finally forms the name “Roman Castevet” out of “Steven Marcato” with those Scrabble tiles, it’s impossible not to gasp.
I wouldn’t have thought to cast Mia Farrow as Rosemary, given that another character in the novel says she looks like Piper Laurie, but she makes it work. Yes, Farrow was the eternal waif at that stage of her career, but her newly-created Vidal Sassoon hair cut beautifully sets off those hollow cheeks during Rosemary’s first trimester from (literal) hell. And I love that enigmatic smile at the end of the film. The ambiguity is perfect.
Where I think the film disappoints somewhat is in the casting and depiction of Guy Woodhouse. The Criterion materials state that both Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson tested for the part, and either would have been so much better than John Cassavetes. He’s too ethnic, he’s too old and he’s too saturnine. He’s as obvious as Jack Nicholson would be in “The Shining” a few years later. In fairness, though, Cassavetes is not really helped by either the script or the direction. In the book it’s clear Guy is shocked when the coven’s spell blinds his rival actor, Donald Baumgart. But you don’t feel that watching the movie. And Levin makes it obvious that Guy is initially troubled by the proposition that he in essence trade his wife for success. There’s no such scene in the film, let alone a hint that Guy ever has a second thought—he’s all in from the get-go.
On the other hand, Polanski seems to delight in the turning points of the plot–those stages in the narrative where things could have gone so differently had the characters chosen another path. Rosemary’s quiet insistence that she and Guy have dinner with the Castevets, though he clearly doesn’t want to go. Her concern over Dr. Hill’s request for an additional blood draw, which ultimately steers her straight to Dr. Sapirstein. Her forgetting to show Sapirstein’s pills (no doubt 100% tannis root) to Hill when she tells him about the coven, only to have Sapirstein immediately pocket the vial before Hill has a chance to notice. Of such small moments are absorbing stories made.
While Ira Levin sustained his success with “The Stepford Wives” and the play “Deathtrap” in the years after “Rosemary,” his sequel “Son of Rosemary,” published in 1997, was a huge mistake. After the first chapter, it’s all downhill, and the ending is absurd. Do yourself a favor and avoid it at all cost. Instead, why don’t you just take “Rosemary’s Baby” off the shelf or pop in the Blu-ray? Nothing but nothing can beat the original.