Roman Polanski was a Polish-Jewish director who had never made a Hollywood film before the Paramount executive Robert Evans gave him the rights to Ira Levin’s 1967 horror novel Rosemary’s Baby. His three previous English-language features, financed in Britain, mixed domestic drama with supernatural horror and existential dread. Polanski’s Repulsion (1962), a psychological horror tale with a female protagonist (played by French actress Catherine Deneuve), was likely instrumental in priming the director to tackle the thematic material of Rosemary’s Baby, as both films rely on Gothic narratives that revolve around women confined to domestic spaces, whose sanity gradually begins to deteriorate.
Polanski adapted Levin’s 1967 book himself, and for his work was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Levin approvingly called Polanski’s screenplay one of the most faithful cinematic adaptations of a book ever produced, given how much detail from the original novel Polanski was able to squeeze into the frame. Critics hailed Levin’s pulp mystery novel as a masterwork of plotting and suspense, ever so carefully escalating Rosemary’s entrapment until she cannot escape. Likewise, Polanski’s film is rich with “plot”—character traits, historical information about The Bramford, key details related through dialogue, gradually revealed relationships, and so forth—that slowly reveal the coven’s “plot” to Rosemary and the viewer.
What Polanski adds to Levin’s carefully plotted novel is a finely honed sense of visual storytelling. The film’s opening credits—a gilded, pink typeface suggestive of a wedding invitation—literally “invites” the viewer into The Bramford, the Gothic edifice that houses the sinister inner workings of the Marcato coven. Polanski’s cinematic aesthetic is both thoroughly modern and shamelessly baroque, capturing the tension between the timeless evil of witchcraft and its concealment within a contemporary, familiar setting (a riff on The Dakota, a real cooperative apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side). Modern domestic scenes of the couple watching television and enjoying their stately apartment contrast with unsettling, even shocking dream sequences, which use a surreal cinematic aesthetic to capture the way Rosemary’s body and mind become subject to primal fears about rape, helplessness, and humiliation.
Glamour and ordinariness are two strategies Polanski deploys to conceal the foreboding and dread of the narrative. He relentlessly infuses everyday objects with ominous import, such as the secretary Rosemary finds blocking the hall closet, the “good luck” charm Minnie gives to Rosemary, or the vitamin drinks Rosemary consumes. Contributing to the film’s blackly comic tone, Polanski occasionally pauses the action to emphasize the fussy, harmless qualities of the coven members, such as when Minnie hastily cleans the carpet after Roman spills a drink, or when Laura-Louise reads Reader’s Digest with a magnifying glass. Rosemary and Guy jokingly call the Castevets “Ma and Pa Kettle.” Glamour, too, entices Rosemary and Guy to The Bramford. A haven for actors and theater types, The Bramford’s exclusive appeal lures the couple in despite Hutch’s warnings about its sordid history. The way in which the Castevets’ must conceal the coven’s presence with misdirection resembles nothing so much as the mounting of an elaborate stage production, and Polanski routinely links the artifice and spectacle of theater/cinema with that of organized religion.