It takes Roman Polanski but two minutes to find the gothic Old World in 1966 New York, a slow drift over the Manhattan skyline concludes with a high-angled view of what might be a Malbork medieval cathedral. The building has a history of "unpleasant happenings," the newly vacant apartment has words scratched on its walls ("I can no longer associate myself," cries one note) and an ominous passage behind a cabinet, just the spot for the hip young couple. A baby for the pliant gamine (Mia Farrow), her husband (John Cassavetes) is too self-centered to want a child until the elderly couple next door (Sidney Blackmer, Ruth Gordon) take an interest. In her domestic maze of a hundred doorways, the heroine grows sallow, internalizes her agony, slowly awakens to the horror of being a walking womb for a bunch of frumpy Satanists. "Darling, you got the pre-partum crazies." From TV ads to Broadway, thatís the Faustian joke, a bit of thespian vanity to expose an insidious patriarchal grid. The elegantly profane ambience is couched in Lewtonís The Seventh Victim (and Alexeieff and Parkerís Night on Bald Mountain, perhaps), the big city is a swarm of cheery yentas and strict quacks and dandified gargoyles, everybody is very polite and everybody is out to get you. Meticulously scattered Hitchcock notes throughout (the poisoned cup from Notorious, Suspicionís word-scrabble), Fuseli and New Age psychedelia for the nightmarish ravishment. The chocolate mousse with the "chalky undertaste" is of course Polanskiís mise en scŤne, a Ross Hunter-type gloss cannily deformed by anxiety and the gnomish grins of familiar Hollywood faces. (Thereís Ralph Bellamy behind a warlockís beard and Patsy Kelly doing her vaudeville double-take in the midst of a sabbath, and then thereís the great American independent as the actor who canít wait to sell out.) The finale envisions a sardonic Nativity tableau, with the camera briefly panning from the blasphemous proclamations to hilariously notice Gordonís irritation at a huge knife dropped on her nice wooden floor. Cohenís Itís Alive is a perfectly unvarnished analysis, Polanski provides his own send-up in The Ninth Gate. Cinematography by William A. Fraker. With Maurice Evans, Victoria Vetri, Elisha Cook Jr., and Charles Grodin.
--- Fernando F. Croce