Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemarys_baby_posterFrom the haunting opening notes of a lullaby to the otherworldly aerial shot floating over New York, Rosemary’s Baby is undeniably a stunning Hollywood debut for Roman Polanski.

What follows is a tale weighed down by impending doom and paranoia. But although the tone is very much suited for Polanski, it’s perhaps even more surprising how faithful his adaptation is to the original source material. Most of the dialogue if not all of it is pulled from the pages of Ira Levin’s work and the Polish auteur even went so far as getting the wallpaper and interiors as close to the novel’s imagery as he could. But that hardly illuminates us to why the film is so beguiling–at least not completely.

In an effort to try and describe the look of the film, the best thing that I can come up with is inscrutably surreal. Some of it is undoubtedly due to the lighting. Partially it’s how the camera moves fluidly through the cinematic space which is mostly comprised of interiors. But nevertheless, it’s absolutely mesmerizing to look at and it pulls you in like the wreckage of a car crash. As much as you don’t want to, your eyes remain transfixed.

Mia Farrow, with her figure gaunt and her hair short, becomes the perfect embodiment of this young wife. The progression she goes through is important. Because she starts out young, bright-eyed and cute. Still, as time progresses she evolves into her iconic image, shadows under her eyes, ruddy and covered in beads of sweat. Her state is no better signified than the moments when she walks through oncoming traffic in a complete psychological daze.

John Cassavetes brings his brand of comical wryness to the role of the husband and struggling actor. But face value gives way to more sinister underpinnings. Old pros like Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, and Ralph Bellamy are given critical parts to play as an overly hospitable old crone and her husband and the aged doctor who are all privy to this deep-seated conspiracy.

You’ll find out soon enough what that means if you watch the film. However, for me what kept coming back to me is that this is, in essence, a subversion of the Christ child narrative with a new “Mother Mary” figure.  And hidden behind this psychological horror show is something, oddly enough, darkly comic. It’s summed up by the scene in the doctor’s office waiting room where Rosemary begins to leaf through Time Magazine. The headline reads bluntly, “Is God Dead?” As a relapsed Catholic surrounded by people who scoff at religion, the world is seemingly devoid of such things. Even the film itself features more profane moments, greater sensuality, and darker themes than any film of the early 60s. Thus, that magazine headline is not too far from the truth

It’s a question that many would have undoubtedly answered in the affirmative in 1968 too, a year fraught with rebellion, unrest, assassinations, and conflict. Polanski himself would even lose his beloved wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Mansion family. Mia Farrow was served divorce papers by Frank Sinatra on set. It surely was a dark time and yet while Rosemary’s Baby is disillusioning, there’s also an absurdity running through it.

However, the bottom line is that it maintains its frightening aspects because so much is left ambiguous. We don’t see the baby. We never fully understand what’s afoot. And we don’t even know what will happen to Rosemary in the end. What choice will she make? What path will she choose? Is this all a cruel nightmare or will she wake up? Can anyone rescue her from her torment? There are no clear-cut conclusions only further and further digressions to be made.  There’s something fascinatingly disturbing about that. It ceases to grow old.

4.5/5 Stars

Knife in the Water (1962)

knifeinthewater4Inspired directors oftentimes do not make themselves known in grandiose flourishes but in the smallest of touches, and in his debut, Polish newcomer Roman Polanski does something interesting with the opening of Knife in the Water. Perhaps it’s not that unusual, but it’s also hard to remember the last film where the camera was on the outside of a driving car, looking in. We see shadows of faces overlaid with credits and then finally the faces are revealed only to be shrouded by the reflections of overhanging trees glancing off the windshield.

Only minutes later do we hear their first words and actually get inside the car. From that point on it’s a jaunt to remember, but Polanski seems to be toying with us a bit. Getting us a little on edge for the inevitable that awaits us. And the beauty is that the film continues to be a story of intricacies rather than overbearing bits of drama and action. It works in the minutiae.

Our narrative is incited by the fact that the couple picks up a young hitchhiker, or rather the husband almost runs him over, getting out to berate the man’s stupidity, before relenting and allowing him to join their escapade. Soon enough, they are about to board their boat for a day out on the water and in this premise, it feels a little like Purple Noon. People in close confines inevitably leads to conflict, all it takes is time. Knife in the Water’s silver shades of black and white serve as a contrast to the other film, and while Alain Delon eventually leaves his sea legs behind, for all intent and purposes this is a chamber piece.

knifeinthewater3Thus, it becomes an exercise of technical skill, much like Hitchcock in Lifeboat or any other film that limits itself to a single plane of existence. Polanski’s framing of his shots with one figure right on the edge of the frame and others arranged behind is invariably interesting. Because although space is limited, it challenges him to think outside the box, and he gives us some beautiful overhead images as well which make for a generally dynamic composition. That is overlaid by a jazzy score of accompaniment courtesy of Krzysztof Komeda, a future collaborator on many of Polanski’s subsequent works during the ’60s.

Although this was Polanski’s first film, as viewers we have the luxury of hindsight, knowing at least a little about his filmography from Repulsion to Rosemary’s Baby to Chinatown to The Pianist proves enlightening. Thus, he automatically conjures up elements relating to psychological duress and personal misery. The tragic murder of his beloved wife Sharon Tate and his turbulent life following that act are obvious touchstones.

knifeinthewater2However, at this point, as a young director, he is simply sharpening his teeth and getting acclimated to the genre a little bit. Knife in the Water builds around the three sides of a love triangle, creating a dynamic of sexual tension because that’s what tight quarters and jealousy do to people. This is less of a spoiler and more of a general observation, but the film does not have a major dramatic twist. Instead, there are heightened tensions, a bit of underwater deception, and finally a fork in the road.

A husband must decide what his conscious would have him do. Call the police or ride away with his toying wife, who he thinks is playing mind games with him. It’s less of a biting melodrama and more of a slow stew, which is admittedly far more interesting in this case. Because, again, Polanski shows his prowess in working in the minutiae. A game of pick-up sticks even becomes entertaining, and the eponymous knife does not play the type of role we expect.  It’s a testament to a director not giving way to convention, but finding inspiration to subvert the established order and do something with a new level of ingenuity.

4.5/5 Stars

3 Women (1977)

3womenposterSupposedly Robert Altman’s inspiration for 3 Women came from a dream he had, as with many of the most original ideas out there. Admittedly, in some ways, the resulting project feels like his rendition of a European art-film. It has some roots in Bergman and Polanski while transposing the action to his usual locales that are inbred into the fabric of America — places like the California deserts and Texas.

The film revolves around two rather pathetic individuals who meet while working at a facility for the elderly.

One is passive and dependent, the newbie trying to learn the ropes as she becomes acclimated to her new position. The other believes she is independent and exists self-assured, but really she is an oblivious outcast in her own right. Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) becomes the teacher, in a sense, and savior of timid young Pinkie (Sissy Spacek). She offers her a home and makes countless recipes that are meant to be enlightened, but were probably even antiquated in their day.

Furthermore, Millie drinks, smokes, shoots guns, and likes to have a good time, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Except, the only problem is, no one seems to want to interact with her. All those in the apartment complex avoid her like the plague, talking about her quietly in their little enclave. Meanwhile, she likes to tell herself that all the boys are fawning over her. She’s one of those people.

Pinkie makes her seem important, but Millie also grows tired of the other girl’s constant presence. She’s so needy, so withdrawn and homey. That is until the film reaches its main turning point…

Pinkie ends up in the hospital and Millie stands by her faithfully, even going so far as getting in contact with her roommate’s parents. They come and they go. Eventually, Pinkie returns home a different person.

It is around this point where the film’s constant foreboding finally reaches its apex. Pinkie has nightmares following her disconcerting transformation. In this stretch, it’s akin to Persona and Repulsion as she simultaneously becomes a version of Millie and begins to enter psychological distress.

The film at times feels like an expansive lucid dream constantly steeped in symbolism and uneasy anxiety for no apparent reason. The narrative is constantly intercut with enigmatic underwater images of the human form lurking under the surface of the pool. It becomes a film swimming with psychological anxiety, estrangement, and identity disorder. However, it, unfortunately, deteriorates into an incoherent jumble at times. Although, if it is based on Altman’s subconscious, then perhaps he hit the nail on the head.

Its score also becomes overly theatrical, bringing to mind NBC movie mysteries like Columbo, but otherwise, 3 Women is a perplexing piece from one of the cinematic masters of subversion. We exit the film with the eponymous three women and no idea of how we quite got there.

4/5 Stars

Review: Chinatown (1974)

chinatown1Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown

The more you watch movies like Chinatown, the more you realize how much you’re still learning. I saw it the first time and I naively thought I knew everything about it. After all, it seemed fairly cut and dry. But the beauty of this film is a labyrinth-like story that can still keep me engaged after multiple viewings. There are things that I missed, things that I have to piece together once more, and more often than not details I simply forgot.

Robert Towne’s script has an intricacy to its constantly spiraling mystery plot that remains powerful and Roman Polanski — with cameo included — directs the film with a sure hand as well as a cynically bitter ending worthy of his work. At that point, he was returning to the same city where a few years prior his wife Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered and that certainly had to still be heavy on his mind.

Throughout, Chinatown has elegant visuals of a desert-dry Los Angeles circa 1930s, and it is aided by a smooth Jerry Goldsmith score made for such a period crime film as this. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), is the smooth-talking, smart-aleck P.I. with a penchant for trouble, but that goes with the business. In the tradition of all his heirs like Spade and Marlowe, the whole story is told from his point of view and we get the details at the same pace as him. That means a lot of the time we are just as confused as him, trying to pick up all the pieces.

Aside from Nicholson, Faye Dunaway’s performance is an interesting reworking of the archetypal femme fatale, because she has a different side to her. Also, John Huston’s performance is wonderfully nefarious, because he plays Noah Cross with a top layer of geniality that is ultimately undermined by his base nature. It’s wonderfully wicked.

In the story’s first few moments of being in his office, we begin to learn a little about the means Gittes uses to appease his clients. Then, his newest client walks through the door, a Mrs. Mulwray, who wishes for him to tail her husband. And so he does, just like that, and he’s pretty good at it too. Hollis Mulwray (an anagram for Mullholland) happens to be an integral part of the L.A. Department of Water and Power as the chief engineer. From what Gittes sees, the bespectacled Mulwray seems to have his scruples, but he also has a secret girl, who the P.I. is able to snap some incriminating photos of.chinatown2 Back at the office, another woman shows up, a Mrs. Mulwray, but this time the real one. She wants to slam J.J. with a lawsuit, but he realizes he got framed, and in the end, she quickly drops her case. Pretty soon Gittes former colleague Lt. Escobar digs up Mulwray’s body and the cause of death is the height of irony. He drowned during a drought, a cruel demise, and his body is joined by that of a drunk, who also was wandering around the local reservoir. It’s time for our nosy P.I. to do a little more snooping, but he is scared off by two security guards from Water and Power who give him a deadly nose job.

None worse for wear aside from a small cast, J.J. knows the department is diverting water. It’s more than a little runoff like they contend. He gets lunch with Noah Cross (The great John Huston), who is the father of Mrs. Mulwray and the former business partner of the deceased. Like J.J., he’s curious about finding the mysterious girl, and he sweetens the pot for the P.I.

A bit of detective work takes Gittes to the hall of records and then a vast acreage of orange groves where he is mistaken for a member of the Department of Water and Power. They aren’t too happy to see him, but Mrs. Mulwray is able to bail him out. They check up on an assisted living home and tie it into the whole conspiracy. Someone is buying up land under the names of the unknowing residents.

chinatown3But as it turns out, Mrs. Mulwray is hiding a major secret of her own that she’s been keeping. Another girl is murdered and since he’s found at the crime scene, Gittes is in a tight spot with the police and so he wants to get things straightened out. But he doesn’t quite understand what he’s gotten himself caught up in. At the last minute, he decides to take the hero’s path, but it’s to no avail. The good is snuffed out, the bad walk away free, and corruption still runs the streets of L.A. There’s not much the cops can do about it either.

chinatown4So many people remember the film’s final words, which epitomize this place of confusion, corruption, and helplessness. The final words of Jake are just as illuminating, however, because he repeats the words he spoke to Mrs. Mulwray earlier when she asked what he did when he worked a beat in Chinatown, “As little as possible.” It’s so pessimistic and yet it’s the truth that everybody knows. He must resign himself to doing nothing because there is no way he can win, no way to overcome the forces that be. It’s a haunting conclusion, but ultimately the most powerful one we could hope for.

Earlier I alluded to the fact that every time I watch this film I pick on things that I missed before. For instance, within Robert Towne’s script are some interesting instances of foreshadowing. The first comes in the form of a pun uttered by the Chinese gardener who is constantly muttering, “It’s bad for the glass/grass.”

Then, while they are in the car Mrs. Mulwray dejectedly drops her head on the steering wheel and it lets out a short honk. This acts as an important portent to the end of the film along with the blemish in her left eye. If you have not seen the film yet, this might sound very cryptic, but if you keep your eyes open these little details are rewarding. Chinatown is a fascinating place to return to again and again after all.

5/5 Stars

Repulsion (1965)

Directed by Roman Polanski and starring Catherine Deneuve, this British Psychological thriller is in the same vain as Psycho. Carol is a manicurist who is often absent-minded at work and she returns home to an apartment that she shares with her older sister. She passively resists the advances of an infatuated young man and at home she must live through her sister and a boyfriend in the next room. 

*May Contain Spoilers
Then, they leave and an attached Carol cannot bear her sister to leave her alone. The next days and weeks she sinks into a unstable state and slowly loses her sanity while losing track of reality at the same time. She is sent home from work, becomes even more preoccupied, and then begins hallucinating back in her home. When Colin comes to speak with her she is still unresponsive and she unexpectedly bludgeons him to death. Then, later on the annoyed landlord comes by for his money, and then makes advances on her, only to be killed by a frightened Carol. Helen and her boyfriend return to find the apartment in disarray and Carol out of sorts and concerned neighbors come to spectate. The camera closes in on a family photo and a young Carol’s perturbing face. 

This low budget documentary grade black and white film still packs a powerful punch and the best word to describe it is probably disconcerting. Unfortunately, I had never heard of the cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, but he had several wonderful films in his catalog including Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day’s Night, Star Wars, and of course Repulsion.
4/5 Stars

The Pianist (2002)

e19e4-the_pianist_movieDirected by Roman Polanski and starring Adrien Brody, the film chronicles the life a brilliant pianist named Wladyslaw Szpilman, who has his life interrupted by the Nazis. It is 1939 and Wladyslaw is living with is family in Warsaw. However, because they are Jewish they become branded by the star of David, then they are sent to a ghetto, and finally concentration camps. They stay together as long as possible but then by pure luck Wladyslaw is saved from the camp. He gains help from non-Jewish friends and desperately struggles to survive. Eventually he is found is his hiding place by a German officer who actually spares him in part because of his musical skill. The Russians march in and Szpilman goes back to being a pianist. This film was near to Polish director Polanski’s heart. He might not be thought of as a hero and his survival may have been partly luck, but this does not make his story any less inspiring or powerful.
4.5/5 Stars


Chinatown (1974)

89858-chinatownposter1Starring Jack Nicholson with Faye Dunaway and John Huston, this skillfully written neo-noir is a nod to the work of Chandler and Hammet. J.J. “Jake” Gittes is a P.I. in the L.A. area during the 30s who specializes in marital cases. When a woman calling herself Mrs. Mulwray asks Gittes to watch her supposedly cheating husband, he enters something he does not understand. Soon he meets the real Mrs. Mulwray (Dunaway), learns Mr. Mulwray is dead, and discovers Mrs. Mulwray’s father is the powerful water tycoon Noah Cross (Huston). As he tries to uncover the truth behind some odd events, Gittes meets with opposition, more confusion, and eventually some answers. The mystery is twofold and he begins to understand the plot over the L.A. water, however he does not figure out the secret kept by Mrs. Mulwray right away. When he finally does find out he is too late and tragedy ultimately comes in Chinatown. This film was enjoyable in the buildup and the ending was okay if not tragic. However, it did seem that the mystery surrounding the water was predictable.

4.5/5 Stars