The Criterion edition of a great modern horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby, is just out. The picture and soundtrack have been given a new high definition treatment and from sheer familiarity from several viewings of the older studio version DVD, I could straightaway see how superior this version was.
(There’s even the pleasure of a blu-ray edition ‘with uncompressed monaural soundtrack’ — whatever that means). If the spanking digital transfer alone is not worth the price of the disc, there are highly tempting extras on disc two that a fan shouldn’t — and wouldn’t — resist.
There’s the fascinating making of documentary with cast and crew interviews, and another supplementary feature on Komeda, the film’s music composer. But the real gems are not these (as they usually are in these editions) but a radio interview with author Ira Levin (audio only) and other goodies tucked into the booklet that accompanies the Criterion editions: a note by Levin on the book’s origins and — this is what clinched it for me — the original character sketches and the floor plan of the Wodehouse apartment that Levin had made when writing the book.
Rosemary Wodehouse, a young mother-to-be (Mia Farrow), “grows increasingly suspicious that her overfriendly elderly neighbours and her self-involved husband are hatching a satanic plot against her and her baby.” Is she paranoid or is there actually a conspiracy?
As Roman Polanski says in the Criterion interview, if you look at the movie again, there is nothing that happens there that is not real, nothing happens that could not happen in real life. Making it possible for two different viewers to conclude that both could be true — it could be paranoia if you dismiss Rosemary’s hysteria or it could all be happening exactly as Rosemary sees and experiences the horrors if you believe her. That’s exactly how Ira Levin, its author, built the book, step by realistic step.
Inside the making of doc, you catch glimpses of the crew and cast on the set — footage of which is rare and probably never seen before. A young, boyish Roman Polanski, clownish and yet intense, acting out Mia Farrow’s part to show her how exactly she must do a scene.
Farrow says you couldn’t move a single thing that Polanksi had put in place, by even an inch. For example, a drink you happen to be holding in a scene: you couldn’t, she says, move the glass in your hand by even an inch if it wasn’t in the script. If you did, he would notice and ask you to move it back by an inch and retake.
The studio head, Robert Evans, takes us through the early stages of how the project came together first: sending Polanski Levin’s novel while it was still in galley proofs. Polanski, at a hotel room, reading a few pages and wondering why they had sent him some kitchen sink melodrama until he reads a little more and can’t put it down. He reads through the night, enthralled. And calls the studio in the morning to say he’ll direct it.
Polanski adapted the novel himself and he has gone on record several times to say that the book was already like a finely tuned script — so visually precise was Levin’s writing that he needed only to put in some camera directions here and there. Levin too has gone on record many times to say that the movie version is not only minutely faithful to the book, but that it is also one of the most faithful book to movie adaptations in cinema history.
Elsewhere, Levin once recalled Roman Polanski calling him while the shoot was on to ask which particular issue of the New Yorker magazine had the tie (that Guy Wodehouse says he just bought) been advertised in? Levin says he was embarrassed because he had made that up — but so respectful had Polanski become of Levin’s realistic, authentic touches throughout the story that he was convinced that detail was factual.
In the radio interview, Ira Levin talks of how unhappy he was with almost every other movie made from his book. Sliver, he confirms, was absolutely the worst. He thought he had written a good book, plotted it really finely, and they ruined it by changing several details.
He was disappointed with The Stepford Wives as well. He doesn’t comment on The Boys from Brazil but I got the feeling that he wasn’t pleased with that one as well. Levin does go out of his way to remark that he wished the movie version of his Deathtrap, the longest running thriller on Broadway, had not opened when it did.
Once the movie was out, fewer people turned up for the stage version — ‘it would have run even longer’, Levin thinks, ‘if the movie hadn’t opened just then’. (It’s a decent movie adaptation, though, and in case you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth watching). He confesses that since his initial disappointment with the 1955 A Kiss Before Dying adaptation, he has grown quite fond of it!
We also learn of Hollywood’s keen interest in making the sequel, Son of Rosemary, when the book came out. Levin was even asked to consider adapting it with the promise that he would have complete creative control. But we know now that nothing came of the project, not even a television adaptation.
If you haven’t seen Rosemary’s Baby at all, or seen it once a long time ago, this delicious print is the one to watch it in. After all these years, the movie and the book remain modern horror cinema and literature’s greatest masterpieces.