Slouching Towards Dakota To Be Born
Rosemary’s Baby had built-in box-office from critical praise, name cast and crew, and the bestsellerdom of its source in Ira Levin’s Satanist thriller. Reputation grew greater and more macabre from the following year’s Sharon Tate murders and, a dozen years later, the John Lennon assassination at the West Seventy-second Street entrance where the film opens as Mr. Nicklas (Elisha Cook, Jr.) welcomes apartment-hunting Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow, who with her brood would live in a building adjacent to the unnamed Dakota; and John Cassavetes).
Director-writer (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination) Roman Polanski’s first American film figures in the Museum of Modern Art’s complete retrospective of his work, but while it has its merits and, to this day, defenders, it proves one of those talked-about cinema experiences that has not dated well. The print exhibits creaks, tics and tricks, though one can plead that that reflects mid-‘sixties yuppie Gotham and that the dark-wood interiors serve as sinister comparison with sanity in sunny exteriors and the couple’s pastel redone 7E flat and expectant nursery.
Polanski scripts often stretch things out, and this two-and-a-quarter hours is no exception, for Rosemary takes long to catch on to what viewers figure out early on or already know from the novel or word of mouth. Still, despite hokey nightmare sequences, it nicely leaves unsettled until -- or including -- the last frames whether the constantly on-camera woman is a victim of others’ modern evil and Guy’s egotism or of pre- and post-partum dementia. Superior to The Exorcist, which goes for the effects jugular and loses the ambiguity of Father Karras’ sacrifice in the source novel, RB presents the dark and the light and allows for choice: does she or doesn’t she?
Living beyond what his fledgling stage and TV-commercial earnings warrant, the new residents’ only minor annoyance is indecipherable sounds from the next apartment. In the laundry room, she learns about those unseen neighbors from Teresa, (Victoria Vetri), an addict they have taken in, weaned and cleaned up. Terry’s leap to death occasions a first, casual meeting with those Castevets, Minnie and Roman (Oscar-winning Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer).
To their consternation, that older couple invade their lives, garrulous nosey Minnie with outlandish outfits, motherly advice and odd homemade goodies, and he surprisingly familiar with Guy’s slight public exposure. Guy goes back for more, coincident with a fortuitous tragedy that furthers his professional prospects.
Rosemary feels neglected, and contrite Guy suggests having the first of three planned children, put off until now because of his work. Sick-drunk (or drugged), the unconscious Catholic-schooled wife hallucinates, dreams or sees him usher in a dark, clawed devil who mounts and impregnates her with demon seed, which callous sex Guy lamely explains away along with the scratches on her back.
The delighted Castevets take over the pregnancy, too, bringing herbal drinks and pastries for strength and convincing Rosemary to drop obstetrician C.C. Hill (Charles Grodin) in favor of their famous practitioner friend Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy). She goes along despite the persistent internal pain, drawn face and weight loss that alarm the female friends kept at arm’s length by the new acquaintances and that concern avuncular boys’ adventure writer Edward “Hutch” Hutchins (Maurice Evans).
The ploy of a book from beyond the grave begins an awakening or a descent into paranoia. Old World witchcraft immigrated to the New and fear of a coven’s need for baby’s blood, drive Rosemary back to Dr. Hill, after a cheapshot fright at a pay phone. That man of science takes the rational of the two alternatives of reality or delusion and, from sunshine to the dark apartment building, precipitates the dénouement.
One bloody face barely glimpsed, there is no gore. Time asks whether God is dead or not, but the ambiguity remains. Events real or not, this Rose-Mary Mother of God’s Adversary or not, maternal instinct prevails. Subsequent more graphic considerations of Year One of the Antichrist are mostly too silly to have eclipsed Rosemary’s Baby. All of them are up against unthinkable deeds come into living rooms with the nightly news and in games, so the insanity and banality of evil are today cheek by jowl with the mundane everyday.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "R" by MPAA. )