When I think of a film that showcases the New York panorama, the film that resonates in chiaroscuro black and white is Woody Allen's Manhattan, particularly the magnificent opening sequence accompanied by Gerhswin's Rhapsody in Blue. However, when I think of New York interiors that tap into the city's notorious neurotic personality, I think of Polanski's classic Rosemary's Baby based on Ira Levin's novel.

Newly married couple Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her struggling actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes) are inspecting the apartment of a recently deceased woman they want to let. However, the odd herbs growing in the woman's kitchen and a cupboard blocking a doorway for no explicable reason hint that something is not right. When the Woodhouses move in, Rosemary meets a young woman in the shared laundry who lives with the Woodhouses's neighbours Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), but then the young woman jumps to her death that night. Then, when the Castevets inveigle themselves into their lives and especially Guy's affections and Guy's career takes off, Rosemary begins to feel isolated and alone. Suddenly, Rosmeary becomes pregnant and her mind eases temporarily, but her paranoia re-emerges when she becomes permanently unwell and Guy can't even bear to look at her and both he and the Castevets insist that Rosemary be treated by the sinister Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy).

Polanski is a master at drawing his audience into bizarre worlds and making them believe. Indeed, the plot of the film is so unbelievable, it shouldn't work and it's testimony to Polanski's storytelling prowess that we're hooked. Polanski shoots the entire film from Rosemary's perspective so that the audience absorbs and identifies with her paranoia. Every scene is unsettling. We pick up parts of conversations, walk in on the end of discussions. Just like Rosemary, we know something is wrong, but we can't solve the puzzle. While most of the film is shot inside Rosemary's apartment, Polanski uses New York's massive skyscrapers effectively in the few exterior scenes as walls closing in on Rosemary accompanied by grey pallets and dim lighting to enhance the sense of dread. Richard Sylbert's art direction is a form of contemporary New York Gothic.     

Making Rosemary's Baby cost Farrow her marriage to Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was making The Detective  and asked her to quit the “little horror movie” when he found her a minor part in his film. When Farrow continued with the shoot, he served her with divorce papers. Other than her work with Woody Allen, this is her finest performance. Cassavetes, who used the money he made from studio films to fund his own personal directorial projects, is suitably duplicitous. Ruth Gordon deserved her Oscar for the magnificent grotesque Minnie, and Polanski acknowledges old Hollywood by populating the film with character actors from its golden era including Bellamy, Blackmer, child actor Patsy Kelly baring her boobs and the ubiquitous film noir loser Elisa Cook Junior (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Killing) as the landlord.

The fact that the exterior shot of Rosemary's building is the Dakota Building where John Lennon famously lived and died along with a number of other famous people enhances the creepiness of this macabre gem. Polanski himself has lived a life cursed by tragedy and controversy. However, films like Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown confirm that the tragedy blessed his art.

Rosemary's Baby screens Monday 23 Nov, 7pm

Mal Byrne


  • Director: Roman Polanski
  • Year: 1968
  • Run Time: 136 mins
  • Country: USA
  • Rating: M