Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby – 1968

Director – Roman Polanski

Starring – Mia Farrow, John Cassavettes, Ruth Gordon, Sydney Blackmer, and Charles Grodin

It is relatively rare that all of a given director’s films (of the ones that I’ve seen, mind you) are of such a caliber that each defies the expectations put forth by the last. Even some directors of what I would consider the greatest films of all time have their bad ones. Coppola has The Rainmaker, Spielberg has the last 30 minutes of everything he’s made since Schindler’s List, and Scorsese has Bringing Out the Dead. My point is…it is extremely hard to make one great film, let alone multiple ones. It seems however that Roman Polanski is one of a select few directors who, through each of his films that I’ve seen, remains consistantly engaging, provocative, and inventive.

Now granted, I certainly haven’t seen everything he’s made, but so far he’s off to a great start. But even with his talent’s as a filmmaker resolutely confirmed, there was an awful lot of lot of hype surrounding Rosemary’s Baby. Does it stand the test of time, like “The Godfather” has? Or does it suffer the same aging and loss of context as something like “The Graduate”? The news is good, it easily stands the test of time, and remains a throuroughly suspenseful, intellegent, and effective film.

The story is fairly straight forward, a young couple, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, move into a new apartment building that has a history of tragedy, and misfortune. The neighbors are strange, and manage to barge their way into the lives of the Woodhouses, pushing their homemade remedies, and decorating ideas off on the young couple, and all the while Guy is busy with work leaving Rosemary alone in the big, empty apartment a lot. Though an initial friendship is struck with their neighbors, the Castevets, they seem to surround and smother the still wary Rosemary. Guy seems to take to them more and more as they make themselves even more at home once Rosemary becomes pregnant.

The Castevet’s start seeming stranger and stranger, eventually leading Rosemary to question whether or not they have alterior motives. The suspense builds and builds, relentlessly pushing Rosemary closer and closer to the edge of sanity.

Firstly, it should be said that Polanski seems to have a real curiosity with the relationship between lonliness and ones world view. Each of his films deals with the struggle to maintain the latter while dealing with the former. Also, in each of his films there seems to be two main characters (one inanimate and the other human), the human character (often played by a waif-like, attractive, young woman), and the apartment in which the main character is living. Oh sure there are other characters that play into the story, but none of them leave the same indelible impression on the story that these two characters do.

The apartment in Rosemary’s Baby serves as a launching pad for the film’s paranoia and mistrust. It is depicted as huge, yet it always seems cramped. The ceilings are vaulted, but the apartment itself is so deep and maze-like we feel as if our characters, and the audience as well, will never escape. This place is a prison, and Rosemary is it’s prisoner.

As the film starts, Rosemary is bright and cheerful. Her relationship is strong, and she has a wide network of friends, but as the film progresses, she is consistently more and more cut off from the outside world. The apartment is equal parts sanctuary and menace. As if the neighbors and history of the apartment weren’t enough she has been getting more and more ill during her pregnancy, resulting in her staying locked away inside, under the watchful eye of her husband and their neighbors.

It is this balance which is most delicate in the film. If the strange-ness of the setting or situation was heaped on too quickly, or if it wasn’t strange enough, the crux of the conflict would have been ruined, but Polanski gets it absolutely right. He let’s us dwell just long enough to send our minds racing right towards the edge, right after Rosemary. She and the audience are together in our suspicions, not sure of what is real and what is simply paranoia.

As well as being superbly constructed, Rosemary’s Baby is also expertly cast. Sidney , and Ruth Gordon are pitch perfect as the intrusive and possibly evil Castevets. The always great, John Cassavettes is equal parts caring, strong, and yet still completely suspect at the same time as Guy Woodhouse, however the performance most central and most integral to the success of the film is Mia Farrow, Rosemary.

Farrow doesn’t play the role as the victim. Rosemary isn’t so much helpless as much as she is facing insurmountable odds. Despite the fact that she is the focus of the conspiracy (or is she?), she is actually the strongest character, not to mention the most interesting of the story.  It is a testament to Farrow’s skill as an actor, and to Polanski’s as a director that this delicate balance wasn’t lost in the shuffle.  Instead, Rosemary’s Baby was, and remains a powerful example of what can be achieved through the medium of film.

So the long and short of it is that, if you haven’t already, you should see this film. It really stands up to the test of time, and truly deserves it’s place on this list!

“Mia Farrow has a cute haircut!” – Ashley

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Roman Holiday (1953)

Roman Holiday – 1953

Director – William Wyler

Starring – Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck

In the 1950’s while the majority of Europe was struggling to re-build after World War 2, the United States was going like gangbusters.  Everything from the automotive and manufacturing industries, to the housing market, to the film industry was experiencing a general growth spurt.  This optimistic, forward-looking outlook on the future is in stark contrast to the over-all worldview of films coming out of war-torn Europe.  

Roman Holiday, set in post-war Rome, is a light and breezy fairy tale of a story.  A product of the United States, it paints a very different picture of life in Rome than to the films that came out of the Italian Neo-Realism movement of the same time period.  Those films often dealt with the hardships of everyday life.  Balancing the need for money, food, and shelter, with the morality and reality of stealing, community-interaction, and poverty.   A film like Roman Holiday seems light-years away from this awareness of the dark-side of humanity.  The highest stakes presented in this film have to do with embarrassment, and to a slight degree, greed.

The story centers around the rebellious princess of a fictional country, played with verve, and a naive charm by Audrey Hepburn, visiting Rome on a mission of friendship.  Gregory Peck plays a down-on-his-luck, two-bit, American reporter looking to get from under the thumb of his cantankerous editor.  Looking for adventure, Princess Ann sneaks away from her security detail one night to take in a few of the sights of Rome.  Unfortunately for her though, she had been given a sedative before she left, and winds up drowsing off on a park bench.  Enter Peck’s Joe Bradley.  After a few minutes of trying to get a cab to take her home, he relents and takes her back to his place.  Eventually he figures out who she is, and sets in motion a plan to get an exclusive, candid interview from the princess.

In order to preserve the ruse that she is undercover, he pretends to simply enjoy her company and offers to show her the sights of the city.  Predictably, his feelings for her begin to change as the day goes by, and by the end he is conflicted by the dual draws of monetary stability, and newfound love.

Despite presenting a completely different tone, and perspective on the post-war situation in Italy, Roman Holiday remains a rather charming, fun, romantic movie.  Mostly thanks to Hepburn’s wide-eyed optimism and energy the film stays engaging and charming, managing to avoid any weighty issues such as the war.  In truth we never believe for a minute that these two people won’t hit it off completely, and truthfully that’s okay.  More than anything this is a love letter to the city of Rome, and we spend the entirety of the film enjoying it along with our two main characters.  Completely worth the watch, but in my opinion, Charade starring Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, and the city of Paris is a far superior film and more deserving of being on this list.

Repulsion (1965)

Repulsion

Repulsion – 1965

Director – Roman Polanski

Starring – Catherine Deneuve

I came to this film knowing nothing at all about it, except for the brief synopsis on the Netflix sleeve.  If you’re going to watch this thriller, I highly recommend doing it the same way that I did.  Going in blind is by far the best way to experience it.  I wasn’t ready in the least for the ride that I was about to go on.

The story is a fairly simple one, a young, attractive, French girl, Carol (Deneuve), lives in London with her sister.  She is very shy, to the point of uncomfortability around men, and she is scared when she is left alone.  Aside from the constant attention she gets from the opposite sex, her neurotic behavior and her fears are elevated by the fact that her sister spends all of her free time giving her attention to her live-in, married boyfriend.

But that is all prologue…the story really gets rolling when Carol’s sister and her boyfriend take a two week trip to Italy, leaving her all alone with her paranoia and fear.  Carol goes from bad to worse, gradually at first, but then by leaps and bounds.  At about the half hour mark I was still feeling a little bit board and having trouble with my attention wandering.  I was sure this was going to be another run of the mill girl fending for herself, but somehow she finds the strength to overcome type story line.  As we got further and further in, the film refused to flinch, and my attention wandered less and less.  Carol’s downward spiral progressed to such a degree that I wondered aloud just how far they were going to take it.  It was at this point that I realized, I was sitting bolt upright, with tense muscles, eyes locked on the screen.  From that point forward, that is how I stayed.

The problem with reviewing a movie like this is that it works best without knowing anything, but when it’s over all you want to talk about is the stuff you can’t talk about without ruining that effect for someone else.  With that in mind, I can’t really talk to much more about the plot without spoiling something the film works really hard for, suffice to say you should definitely check it out.

Shot entirely in black in white with an almost documentary feel, the film really puts us in-between Carol and the rest of the world.  How the camera moves with her and around her is based entirely on how she sees the world.  When she is feeling comfortable and safe, we maintain a nice distance, and are able to watch her interact with those around her.  On the other hand, when she is feeling cornered or paranoid, the camera is right on top of her, shooting her eyes and face in extreme close-up.  Her fear and anxiety radiates from the screen and infects us with an unease.  We are acutely aware of our and her surroundings as we wait for the next delusion, or psychological trap to be sprung.

The set in which we spend most of the movie, is maleable in the later stages of her psychosis.  At times it seems narrow and uncomfortable, almost maliciously crowding us, and at others it is voluminous and filled with strange, uncomfortable shadows.  The bathroom changes from nice, white, tiled bathroom, to blackened, disease ridden, and threatening in a matter of moments.  Basically this warm safe place has the potential to be dangerous and wild at a moment’s notice.  The tone of the apartment is helped tremendously by the glorious high contrast light and shadow world that exists within Carol’s mind.

Roman Polanski chose a relative unknown actress for the lead role, and found in Catherine Deneuve, the perfect red herring.  Seemingly so demure and un-assuming, she really throws herself into this role, and wakes up a hidden monster inside of herself.  Though the supporting actors fill out the rest of the real world nicely, the main attraction is Deneuve giving it her all.

I highly recommend doing what you can to avoid reading about or learning what happens before you see this film, but even if you do know, watch it and enjoy.

The Pianist (2002)

Pianist

The Pianist – 2002

Director – Roman Polanski

Starring – Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann

Starting out, The Pianist had a lot to go up against.  Watching this film, I was constantly comparing it to Schindler’s List.  For a while the two movies tracked together in terms of story.  In each we are walked step by step through the lives and experiences of the Jewish people affected by the Nazi’s and the horrible events that came from Hitler’s “final solution”.  There is a point of diversion between the two films though, where our main character Wladyslaw Szpilman is spared a trip to the concentration camps but is forced to live a torturous existence in and out of hiding in Warsaw, Poland.  Where as Schindler’s List documented the horror and gritty realities of a whole group of people, The Pianist focuses on the guilt and pain, trials and tribulation suffered by one man.  The film carefully shows the depths to which our main character was forced to go, and illustrates just how hideous these events really were.  Without this crucial difference, the Pianist would have been a pale imitator of what Spielberg had already accomplished nearly a decade before.

The beginning of The Pianist didn’t have the weight or grittiness that I associate with that timeframe (granted, it’s mostly from old photographs, and newsreel footage).  Everything was almost too sterile and clean.  This could possibly be a reflection on the outlook of the main character and his family, after each new travesty commenting “…it can’t possibly get any worse…”.  This sterility gave me false expectations of what was to come, not that I didn’t expect the Nazi’s to do horrible things, only that I didn’t know quite how bad the living conditions were to get.

Adrien Brody as the tortured Szpilman turns in his best performance, both to date, and since.  Restrained and quiet, we see the atrocities play out on his face as much as we do on the screen.  His transformation from healthy, bright-eyed musician into the bedraggled, jaundiced mess that he becomes before the end of the film is intense.  If you were to look at images of both ends of the spectrum, there would be no way of knowing how he got from one end to the other.  In a seemingly constant state of free fall, his character does what actors are trained to do from day one, and is constantly reacting to what happens around him.

The cinematographer, Pawal Edelman, utilizes the color of this world to great effect.  The richness of the color is slowly being sapped out throughout the two and a half hour runtime, we don’t notice the change until one of the very last scenes where we go from a shot composed of grays and bleak browns to a shot of the setting sun with bright yellows and oranges, and rich green grass.  It must have seemed quite similar to the survivors of the holocaust when it was finally over for them.

This film has a lot of power, and while it isn’t quite as much of a master work, or as revelatory as Schindler’s List was for me, it is definitely an important piece of film which documents an important piece of history.

” Don’t be fooled by the title, The Pianist is neither a musical nor a porn. ” – Ashley