WRITER/DIRECTOR ROMAN POLANSKI!
There aren't too many international filmmakers - high and lowbrow - as skilled and accomplished as Roman Polanski. There really aren't. The dude has fostered a five-decade career in and out of Hollywood, culling every critical plaudit under the sun (Oscar, Globe, BAFTA), navigating his way in and out of almost every genre imaginable, often bucking conventions of said genre in a way that redefines the term. Simply put, dude's a f*cking cinematic wizard!
Now, it's quite easy to be blinded by the off-set drama that is Polanski's personal life, I realize that, but let's not discount the man's talent in light of such. After-all, a world of cinema without Roman Polanski would be a far, far less interesting place. In particular genre flicks like KINFE IN THE WATER, REPULSION, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE TENANT...hell, even later works like FRANTIC, THE NINTH GATE and even THE GHOST WRITER...Polanski has spent over 50 years mining the depths of humanity's dark side, and given us some of the best films on the subject as a result. So let's bestow Polanski the highest honor we have around here at AITH. You know what's up. Let's DISSECT the sumbitch!
No question, ROSEMARY'S BABY is Polanski's finest example of a genre flick firing on all cylinders. It's nothing short of a tour de force. A f*cking masterpiece. The 136 minute film not only earned Ruth Gordon a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Polanski's script-adaptation of Ira Levin's novel was also nominated. In short, it's an all around A-list production, catapulting the flick among some of the best all time horror flicks to have such a sterling pedigree (PSYCHO, THE EXORCIST, THE SHINING, etc). Part of the reason for this is the aforementioned runtime. Polanksi takes his time to establish a world, a set of expectations, and never rushes too fast in how he strips away those expectations. Instead, he slowly peels back the layers like an onion, and with the eclectic cast Polanski assembled - including Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Ralph Bellamy, Charles Grodin, etc. - there's a credibility to the deliberately paced story that may otherwise not be achieved.
But even more than that, it's the semi-surreal, bizarrely off-kilter (mis)direction Polanksi achieves in the film that makes it so damn jarring. Throughout the film, you can't quite pinpoint it, but something just feels slightly off. It's almost like a magician's slowly mounted sleight of hand. And really, it's that kind of subtle nuance that accentuates the mystery of the plot, and enables the viewer to be utterly bludgeoned by the climactic revelation. At least, upon first viewing. Throw in that eerie childlike lullaby sung by Farrow herself, the indelible photography of William Fraker (btw, go see a movie he directed called A REFLECTION OF FEAR), and the stay-out-of-your-way producorial role of the legendary Robert Evans...pardon the pun, but a horror classic is born!
I'll be honest, I've never seen a Polanski film bad enough to consider his worst work. I mean, I have a sneaking suspicion that Walter Mattheau as the peg-legged lead in PIRATES isn't Polanski's finest hour, but I haven't seen it, so I can't claim it. So instead, how about we call attention to a genre movie of his that, while I personally enjoy and consider a solid piece of work, does have a number of issues, especially when comparing it to other movies in Polanski's canon. That movie would be THE NINTH GATE, which Roman made with Johnny Depp and his wife Emmanuelle Seigner in 1999. Again, on its own, it isn't a terrible movie at all. Far from it. And actually, it's the highest compliment when we're judging THE NINTH GATE not by comparing it to the rest of the field, but by comparing it to Polanski's prior work. In that regard, the man is pretty f*cking peerless!
Anyway, THE NINTH GATE follows Depp, a rare book dealer, who is tasked with tracking down one of two remaining satanic tomes, and the subsequent hellishness that occurs on his mysterious journey. It's definitely an uneven flick, overlong and overwrought, but does have a handful of vintage Polanski touches. The first half is actually a pretty damn engrossing mystery, but by the time the latent supernatural undertones become overtly expressed, the film becomes silly beyond belief. Once Frank Langella's "true character" is exposed, his performance gets way too hammy and the set pieces get way too phony to take seriously. The flick loses major steam as a result, though I still remain mystified by the final shot. It's definitely worth checking out at least once if you haven't, but again, for a Polanski film, THE NINTH GATE feels sorely lacking as a whole.
Over the course of his career, Polanski has adhered to a handful of technical and thematic trademarks. In terms of the latter, beginning with his first feature entitled KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962), water has often played a critical role in Polanski's films. Key scenes often take place around some kind of body of liquid (lake, bathtub, river basin), be it ROSEMARY'S BABY, CHINATOWN, REPULSION, etc. Moreover, Polanski's movies often avoid pat Hollywood happy endings, instead leaving the protagonist with a sense of uncertainty, unease and even unfulfilled malaise. Rarely do his films offer a neatly bowed resolution, a quality I'm sure more than a few of us admire greatly.
In terms of the technical, Roman likes to use whip-pan POV shots from his protagonists. Think of that gnarly last scene in ROSEMARY'S BABY (above) where we witness the satanic band of neighbors surrounding Rosemary's bed...that wide angle pan from side to side we get from Rosemary's terrified point of view. Well, Polanksi uses that technique often. It's a highly effective way of getting us into the headspace and perspective of his subject...as we often take in the visuals for the first time as the character does. Obviously, this creates an intimacy, an immediacy, and a way of pulling the audience into the mind of the main character.
Because of the enormous success of ROSEMARY'S BABY and CHINATOWN, it's easy to overlook the lesser known titles in Polanski's resume. But trust me, there are plenty of hidden genre gems to be excavated! For instance, if you've not seen his languid, psychosexual feature debut KNIFE IN THE WATER, it's definitely worth a look. The flick has a simple premise - a French couple picks up a hitchhiker and invites him to go sailing with them, only to find the stranger is more dangerous than first thought. Being limited to the boat's confines, there's a claustrophobia at work that ratchets up the tension, at the same time playing with issues of isolation and vast abandonment (being all alone out in the water). The flick not only portends the stunning visual cues Polanski would later develop, it also gives you a glimpse into how deft, even then, Roman was at staging heart-pounding thrills.
And while I seriously urge you all to check out Polanski's superb political mystery THE GHOST WRITER from 2010, it probably strays too far from the horror genre to really elaborate on why. That said, it's truly no less thrilling than Polanski in his heyday. I shite you not!
So rather, I say we spotlight the two flicks that, along with ROSEMARY'S BABY, complete what is loosely referred to as Polanki's "horrific apartment living" trilogy. That's right yo, I'm talking about the 1965 film REPULSION and the 1976 film THE TENANT!
REPULSION stars one of the "grand dames" of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve, and paints her in the most horrifying and unflattering light imaginable. Already an anarchic intent. Deneuve plays a deeply troubled young manicurist, Carol, who is left alone at her sister's place while she and her hubby go on vacation. As time passes, the girl becomes increasingly tormented by her own personal demons, which manifest outward in physical form throughout the apartment. A mortifying hallucinatory descent into utter madness follows suit, and Carol spirals out of her f*ckin' mind with paranoia. Of course, she can't escape the apartment, so neither can we, and therefore we become a weird sort of vicarious hostage throughout the film. We suffer with the poor girl, which is where Polanski's direction is so damn impressive. Seriously, check out REPULSION if you've not already!
Completing Polanksi's "live-in horror trilogy" is THE TENANT, a startling 70s thriller that allowed Roman to explore such sordid material without nearly as much 60s censorship as the preceding two flicks. Cited as Bruce Campbell's favorite "scary movie", THE TENANT finds a demure bureaucrat (played by Polanski himself), who rents an old bathroom-less apartment in which the prior tenant committed suicide. As he slowly settles in, loneliness and paranoia take a firm grip on his sanity, and before long the politician is sure his neighbors, landlord and concierge are all out to make him commit suicide as well. Shelly Winters is great as the shady, cold-as-ice concierge, as is Melvyn Douglas as the landlord Mr. Zy. It's their showier performances balanced against Polanski's stripped down one, that, combined with a handful of truly hair-raising thrills, make THE TENANT a fine household mainstay!
Circling the globe this fall is Polanski's newest flick, VENUS IN FUR, which is a film adaptation of a two-handed stage play. The flick stars Emmanuelle Seigner and French actor Mathieu Amalric, with the story centering on an actress who will stop at nothing to convince a director she is the perfect choice to star in his new project. Word is the film is more of a feminist statement than perhaps we're used to seeing from Polanski, one largely bereft of Roman's ghastly visual and thematic trademarks. While certainly off-genre, I enjoyed his adaptation of CARNAGE enough to give VENUS IN FUR a day in court. That said, I think I'm looking forward to Polanski's announced next film, D, even more.
D, short for the Dreyfus Affair, is said to be the next film for the 80 year old Polanski. The flick is still in development under an unspecified 2014 release date, so who knows how far along the production is at this point. But if it does get made, it could be more in line with THE GHOST WRITER than any of Polanski's other films. You see, The Dreyfus Affair is still hailed as being one of the historical calling cards for French injustice. In short, around the turn of the century, a soldier named Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of divulging secrets to the German embassy. Never exonerated however, the French government went ahead to forge damming documents that would keep Dreyfus imprisoned indefinitely. Public outrage was stirred, the case was reopened, and a dramatic course of events unfurled.
Again, neither VENUS IN FUR or D are particularly genre-heavy, but if we've learned anything about Roman Polanski today, it's that his movies are always a cut above the rest, and no matter how overt the storyline or how obvious the genre, the evil that men and women do is always commented on.
Roman Polanski has made 20 narrative features in 50 years. No less than 8 of those 20, and really more like 9 or 10, have featured some sort of horrific genre tinge...which lets you know how dedicated to the world of the macabre the man has been throughout his career. We should be appreciative, because, as we've tried to demonstrate in this here column, Polanski has given us some of the best movies ever made...in and out of genre.
Whether it's the psychosexual interplay of KNIFE IN THE WATER, the irreverent horror lampoon THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, the claustrophobic madness seen in such psychological thrillers as the "apartment dwelling" trilogy: REPULSION, ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE TENANT...or even on through later films like FRANTIC, THE NINTH GATE and THE GHOST WRITER (and let's not forget the human horrors of THE PIANIST)...Polanksi has spent 5 decades plumbing the depths of humanity's dark side. Personal tableau aside, we should all feel grateful for the work Roman has shared with us!