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Region 4 DVD Reviews: Updating the Genre - 30 years ago

Originally published in Australian HI-FI, August/September 2004, v.35#04

Rosemary's Baby cover Rosemary's Baby
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer
Chinatown cover Chinatown
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston
Movie: A, Picture: A-, Sound: C, Extras: C Movie: A+, Picture: A, Sound: B, Extras: C
One of the spookiest things about The Exorcist was the way it transplanted ancient demonic fears into a then modern milieu. But this had already been done a few years earlier by Polish director Roman Polanski, himself recently transplanted to the United States. What had originally been planned as a cheap and nasty horror/thriller became, in Polanski's hands, a classic spook tale with a Faustian theme.

The originator of the story deserves a mention. Rosemary's Baby was the second novel by Ira Levin turned into a film. His A Kiss Before Dying was successfully filmed a dozen years before (and, less successfully, another dozen years later). Most of his novels -- and stage plays, such as Deathtrap -- have been filmed (except his best novel, This Perfect Day) and all involve off-the-wall ideas. Think The Boys from Brazil and The Stepford Wives (again recently hitting the big screen).

The story is simple. Guy (John Cassavetes) is a struggling New York actor. Rather than selling his soul to the devil to achieve success, he sells the womb of his wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow). The movie opens with the lodgment of the then happy couple into a rare New York apartment. Their new neighbours seem pleasant enough, but are keen on bringing the son of Satan into the world. Rosemary becomes pregnant, although recalls the act only as a nightmare. Guy's career picks up. And everyone conspires to keep Rosemary ignorant of the true nature of her pregnancy.

The ratcheting up of tension is top notch. The apartment is suitably eerie. The camera work is effective. This is anything other than a cheap thriller, thanks to Polanski.

The DVD gives lie to the talk of older movies producing poor DVD transfers. The picture quality is more than adequate, even on a large screen. Sharp, well modulated dark hues (of which there are many) and sombre colours. The sound is clear and clean enough, albeit only mono.

By the way, see if you can spot the soon-to-be-murdered wife of Polanski, Sharon Tate, as a 'girl at the party'.

The Internet Movie Database lists Polanski's Chinatown at number 48 on its list of popular greats, compared to number 51 for The Maltese Falcon. Given that Jack Nicholson's (Jake Gittes) character in the former is almost identical to Humphrey Bogart's in the latter, perhaps this isn't surprising.

Technically not 'film noir', given that it's filmed in colour, the movie is entirely noir in character. Gittes, like Bogart's Sam Spade, doesn't mind in the least that he is thought of as a low life, but shares a level of integrity, a line he just won't cross.

There's no way that the dialogue of Chinatown comes close to that of Falcon, but this is more a reflection of changing sensibilities. The sheer cleverness of Falcon's talk is more like that of a fine play, whereas Polanski responded to the 1970s demand for naturalism with naturalistic dialogue, unspoken subtexts, and an undercurrent of conflicting emotions.

Those who know Nicholson mostly from his manic post-Cuckoo's Nest work will be struck with the range and subtlety of his work in this film. Well, he won both a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for Best Actor.

The structure of the movie is superb, leaving the impression that it is much more than it is. At the end you feel like you're just watched a three hour movie that kept you rapt for every second, even though it's only a little over two hours long. The only distraction was the cameo by Polanski who wielded the nose-slitting knife. This scene sticks in the memory, but it leaves one wondering where this character came from, and what became of him.

The DVD is finely done, with an excellent picture transfer (the average video bit rate trespasses into Superbit territory), although its not quite as sharp as it one would expect. I suspect this was a filming decision rather than the transfer. The English sound track has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1, and while clear and engaging, it is not patch on a modern 5.1 channel movie.

Running time: 131 minutes
Aspect: 1.85:1 anamorphic (4.92Mb/s average video bit rate)
Sound track: English, Spanish, French, Italian: Dolby Digital 2/0.0 (Mono), 192kb/s
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian, Portuguese, Slovenian
Features: Featurette: 'Rosemary's Baby: A Retrospective' (16 mins), 'Making of' featurette (22 mins); Trailer
Running time: 125 minutes
Aspect: 2.35:1 anamorphic (6.52Mb/s average video bit rate)
Sound track: English: Dolby Digital 3/2.1, 448kb/s; German, Spanish: Dolby Digital 1/0.1, 192kb/s; Spanish, Hungarian, Italian: Dolby Digital 1/0.1, 96kb/s
Subtitles: English, Danish, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, Finnish, Swedish, Turkish, English for the hearing impaired
Features: Featurette: 'Chinatown Revisited with Roman Polanski, Robert Evans and Robert Towne' (14 mins), Trailer (3 mins)

© 2002-2011, Stephen Dawson