On Sunday, appropriately enough, I watched a religious double bill by Roman Polanski: Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Ninth Gate (1999). Both movies are about satanic cults, and my guess is that many have already written comparisons of the two. My big insight was that The Ninth Gate was the story of the husband in Rosemary’s Baby: the glib, ambitious asshole who is seduced into the cult.
So far I haven’t found any evidence that Polanski is familiar with the films of Val Lewton or Jacques Tourneur, but a lot of people see similarities between these two Polanski films and Lewton’s The Seventh Victim and Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. They even pair up interestingly in plot structure, with Rosemary and Seventh Victim featuring young women who discover Satanic cults in Manhattan, and Demon and Ninth Gate featuring cynical detective-types traveling to the Old World to investigate paranormal phenomena. Polanski shares Lewton’s preference for ambiguity about whether the paranormal is real or a product of mental illness or hallucination, although in The Ninth Gate the ambiguity is eventually left behind. That film in particular struck me this time through as having a stillness and mysterious fatalism at its core that I associate with Tourneur, and it has the pictorial beauty of a Tourneur film too. Polanski is more cynical than Tourneur, but there’s a dreamy, elliptical, poetic quality to The Ninth Gate, even with the standard genre materials, that makes him feel like a true heir. There’s a shot of Johnny Depp looking through an ornate cast iron gate that reminds me very much of a similar shot of Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past.
One thing that struck me again and again while watching Rosemary’s Baby, which I don’t think I’d seen before, was the way it uses Mia Farrow’s body almost like a special effect. Early on we see her skinny girl’s legs a lot, and while it may be partly a result of late’-60s miniskirt styles, I think it’s more that Polanski is emphasizing her innocence and vulnerability. He has said that when he first started working on the film he wanted a fleshier, more sensual actress in the role, specifically Tuesday Weld, but Paramount head Robert Evans insisted on the relatively unknown Farrow. Polanski proceeded to work with the materials at hand, and once Rosemary enters her troubled pregnancy we suddenly get a lot of shots of Farrow’s practically fleshless shoulders. In the context of the pain she is suffering and the shocking loss of weight her friend Hutch notices, those anorexic shoulders are terrifying. Before she was vulnerable, but now she is frail and fragile, seemingly eaten away by invisible forces. It’s hard to imagine this stick figure giving birth to a child, and the visual fragility feeds into the themes of the dangers of childbirth and a woman’s precarious position in the face of society’s demands that she be fruitful and multiply.