‘Roman Polanski: A Retrospective’: a great director turns 80

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polanskiAbrams has just published a stunning coffee table book — “Roman Polanski: A Restrospective” — to mark the 80th birthday of the great, embattled Polish filmmaker whose career now spans more than a half-century.

Polanski’s milestone on Aug. 18 finds him as active as ever — he has just completed a film version of the recent Broadway hit “Venus in Fur” — but also still reviled for his 1977 arrest in Los Angeles for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.

That long ago case turned the director into a fugitive — in the sense that he has never been able to return to the United States — but his career has not been seriously impacted. Polanski won an Oscar for his direction of “The Pianist” in 2002 and he made the marvelous “The Ghost Writer” three years ago.

“A Retrospective” is packed with beautiful photographs spanning the entirety of the filmmakwer’s career, but it also has above-average text by James Greenberg who has been interviewing his subject off and on for the past two decades.

Greenberg takes us through Polanski’s horrifying childhood in war-torn Poland and then his meteoric rise on the global film scene after his debut picture, “Knife in the Water” (left), was released in 1962.polanski2

Polanski’s mastery of atmosphere, acting, and unusually realistic suspense got him an important British studio gig in 1965, the still-harrowing thriller “Repulsion” starring Catherine Deneuve as a French woman slowly going mad in London.

The film demonstrated Polanski’s ability to invest an ordinary setting — the London apartment — with great menace, and led directly to Paramount studio boss Robert Evans bringing him to America to make “Rosemary’s Baby” three years later.

According to Greenberg, Evans performed a bait-and-switch move on the Polish filmmaker, promising the lifelong skier the chance to direct “Downhill Racer” and then urging a galley of the diabolical Ira Levin novel on him. Polanski was hooked and decided to write the script as well as direct. The result was a horror movie milestone and the director being added to Hollywood’s A-list (a position that would be reinforced by another classic Evans-produced film, “Chinatown,” six years later).

Greenberg points out that what made “Rosemary’s Baby” work was the fact that the director “completely understood the book and what he wanted to do with it. The originality of his concept was to present supernatural elements in a real and believable way. What made the story shocking was that Rosemary was a vulnerable girl from Omaha living an everyday life in the city that little by little goes haywire.”

Polanski tells Greenberg that “existence has always carried a sense of dread.”

“It’s just there…If I have some kind of facility in creating suspense it comes from life and the various things that I might have gone through for real.”

If you’ve never seen this great horror film, check out the recently released Criterion Collection DVD — it’s as good as ever. 

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Joe Meyers

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