…scatters the Scrabble letters onto the floor in ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) to spell out a nightmare revelation. “The name is an anagram”. It’s a scene which never diminishes no matter how many times you watch the movie – have I run it 100 times? – or read Ira Levin’s novel which Roman Polanski films almost line by line (expertly cutting and brisking up the dialogue). After initial bafflement Rosemary pushes the counters into place as smoothly and uncannily as an upturned glass gliding over a ouija board. A sunny room full of bright summer light and Rosemary’s fluffy (baby) blue slippers add counterpoint to a horror emphasised by shrieking music on the soundtrack and the uncanny coincidence of the leading man’s¤ name being almost an anagram of that of the devils in the adjoining apartment. Have you not noticed the similarity between ‘Cassavetes’ and the ‘Castavets’? The more you think about it the more disturbing it becomes, especially in the context of this scene.
Which is always terrifying, every single time. It has the implacable recitative ritual of a fairy tale, it plays on our atavistic reverence for the power of words and the magic of secret names which may not be spoken. THIS time, will the words come out different? No – once again the letters fall into the same order. Like a girl in a fable, a fairy – or, of course, a witch – Rosemary transmutes the mundanity of a board game into a revelation of Satan. Director Roman Polanski has Farrow made up and coiffed like a Vidal Sassoon elf, a sick changeling like the baby within her. Her huge slippers are like paws. Whereas John Cassavetes as Guy – “he’s so good looking” – is saturnine and far more like most folks’ notion of Satan than the scaly lizardy creature we see crawling over the flowery mattress during the Black Mass rape sequence.
Nothing in ROSEMARY’S BABY is what it first seems; the jumbled letters are a metaphor for the whole film. Guy, the terrible actor who can give a good performance only when lying to his wife. The apparently idyllic apartment with its concealed passages¤¤; the chocolate mousse/mouse with the chalky undertaste; the dippy old couple next door and their frumpy friends; the bouncy girl in the basement who we next see smashed to pieces on the pavement. Rosemary’s dreams – “I told Sister Veronica about the windows and she withdrew the school from the competition…”. And, of course, both the doctors: Hollywood’s stock symbols of respectability and normality subverted. Is “dream boy” Dr Hill really another witch after all, just like jovial bluff Dr Sapirstein*? Could well be – but by the time Hill betrays Rosemary to her captors we are as paranoid as the poor girl herself so it is hard to say for sure.
Polanski’s camera and microphones insinuate themselves through doorways and around corners, using shots and set-ups to make the viewer feel like an excluded eavesdropper, seeing and hearing only a part of what is actually going on; and (until the film is seen again and again) probably misunderstanding, as eavesdroppers often do. The director also uses ingenious aural clues – one might almost say aural puns – to enlighten the more alert members of the audience. Wait for the moment when Rosemary is writhing in bed with terrible stomach cramps and Guy pops out to fetch ice cream cones: then listen up. You may learn something to your advantage.
There’s a memorable sequence when Rosemary goes downtown to the Time & Life Building during the Christmas rush and gazes into a dim window display of something bleak and weird as a banshee wail on the soundtrack makes us jump out of our skins. Then our collective minds clear – we are looking at a Nativity tableau and the shriek is “only” Minnie Castavet doing her shopping. But then there’s deeper ambiguity here – for Minnie is a coven leader, expressly sent out like The Childcatcher to bring Rosemary ( the fattened festive lamb) home under escort.
Now think about Rosemary absently chewing raw liver and then throwing up as she catches sight of her reflection in the side of a toaster: the primitive mirror (traditional witchy accessory)revealing the truth. Food is everywhere in ROSEMARY’S BABY: mundane canned goods, picnic fare, sandwiches, crisps, party canapes and eggs, but also sinister under-done steaks, creepy cakes and mousses plus of course Minnie’s freshly-made herbal vitamin drinks. Food – the staff of life, the nourishment of growth – becomes something evil and ( like the crack in W.H. Auden’s teacup ) another banality that opens up “a lane to the land of the dead”.
As does smell: we are continually being reminded and prompted by mention of odours and our instinctive response to them. Polanski and Levin lead us back to the animal response that what smells bad is likely to do us harm. Stinking tannis* root may be encased in exquisite silver filigree and (like Rosemary) the viewer may fleetingly persuade himself that it really is a lucky charm – but when Rosemary hangs the tiny pomander around her neck# we cannot help but remember it comes to her washed clean of a suicide’s blood. She recoils at the stench but – fatally – ignores her own instinct to have nothing to do with it. By the time she drops the dainty horror down a drain it’s all too late, things are entirely out of hand.
Even then, Rosemary tries to right herself with perfume; to claw her way back to normality with fragrance: something we all do from time to time. She sprays herself heavily and refreshingly with Revillon’s 1953 silky aldehydic Detchema. I wonder why such a point is made of this. Do you think it’s the scent of her absent mother, back in Omaha? As she approaches parturition, Rosemary maybe seeks a kind of vicarious maternal comfort. Or is this lush floral, originally intended to complement the wearing of furs, a symbol of the worldly wealth and prosperity brought by Satanic intervention? “The sweet smell of success”. More straightforwardly, maybe it was simply author Ira Levin’s favourite scent. LW had his own funny little experience with Detchema some 20 years ago. Emerging with a bottle from a Nice parfumerie and radiating ylang ylang and iris, LW was at once propositioned by a very homely and traditional (shall we say?) fille de joie: “Allo, cheri!” It brought to mind a well-known advertising campaign for another fragrance – sex workers can’t help acting on impulse…… If only Rosemary had followed hers, right from the start.”
MIA FARROW b. 1945
ROMAN POLANSKI b. 1933
IRA LEVIN 1929 – 2007
¤ John Cassavetes – and of course ROMAN Castavet/ ROMAN Polanski. It’s unsettling: no wonder Mr Mia Farrow (cradle catholic Frankie Sinatra) forbade his wife to do the picture. Her defiance contributed to their eventual divorce.
¤¤ and inexplicably moving furniture.
* highly imaginative casting – dear old Ralph Bellamy: so safe and solid.
** “are you sure you don’t mean anise or orris root?”
# once again, listen to the gasps on the soundtrack.