Hello, fellow movie cheaters! Hm, maybe that’s not the best way to describe fans of movie cheats, but it has a nice ring to it. In any case, I am back with another in an on-going series of the greatest movie cheats in horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. This one is a real gem – and long overlooked (even by me, who is deliberately searching for this kind of thing).
Please recall our definition of a “cheat,” which is a variation on movie terminology used when a prop or set piece is moved from its established position in order to create a more pleasing composition on screen (that is, when you move the camera to a new angle, you “cheat” lamp in the background to the left or right, so that it doesn’t seem to jump from one side of the character to another when the shots are cut together). In our usage, a “cheat” is a piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand that pulls a fast one on the audience, often violating the film’s own internal “reality.” Usually, a cheat works because the trickery is visible, though perhaps subliminal; if you couldn’t see it, the impact would be lost.
Writer-director Roman Polanksi’s 1968 film ROSEMARY’S BABY – based on Ira Levin’s novel, about a young married woman who believes her unborn child has been targeted for sacrifice by Satanists – is generally considered to be one of the great achievements in the horror genre – a subtle exercise in suspense that works because it remains grounded in the real world, its horrors suggested and ambiguous, its supernatural element possibly imagined. What has never been mentioned before (at least until it was pointed out to me*) is that the film features a remarkable movie cheat – one that may be unique. Before we get to the cheat, however, we have to take a look at the set-up.
Midway through the film, before the suspense has set in, the recently pregnant Rosemary (Mia Farrow) attends a party, where she chats with pediatrician Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy). In this scene, Dr. Sapirstein is photographed only from behind; in fact, it is hard to say with certainty whether we are seeing Bellamy or a body double with Bellamy’s voice dubbed in. Whatever the case may be, we get a good look at the back of Sapirstein’s head – enough to recognize the doctor from behind later in the movie.
This recognition takes place during a four-minute sequence during which Rosemary, convinced that Dr. Sapirstein is part of the Satanic conspiracy, uses a phone booth to contact her old pediatrician, begging him to see her. While Rosemary is facing toward camera, her back to the phone booth door, a man slides into view; the audience immediately “knows” it is Dr. Sapirstein.
Finishing her call, Rosemary turns and pauses in alarm when she sees the man. She closes her eyes in fear and desperation; when she opens them again, she is relieved to see that the man has turned around revealing not Dr. Sapirstein but just someone wanting to use the phone (a cameo by producer William Castle).
The scene is deceptively simple: a single, continuous take in close-up, with only a short camera move to emphasize the appearance of the man waiting outside the phone booth. But there is more here than meets the eyes – at least the eyes of the character. I have deliberately omitted a few frames in order to convey what Rosemary perceives, which might also represent the erroneous impression that a viewer could take away from the film: that there was a man who looked like Dr. Sapirstein from behind, but he turned around to reveal an unexpectedly innocent face.
What Rosemary does not notice is that, while her eyes are closed, the “Sapirstein” character walks off-screen, then walks back into the shot – or does he? It may not be apparent on first viewing, but if you go back and look again, the switch takes place a little too quickly for the man to have walked away, done a 180-degree turnabout, and come back.
Instead, this is what seems to happen:
After Mia Farrow closes here eyes, Bellamy (or his body double) exits to the left.
For a brief moment the “Sapirstein” character is off-screen, while Farrow plays Rosemary as if she is silently praying for deliverance.
The “Sapirstein” character appears to re-enter the frame – actually William Castle. It is hard to tell from the brief glimpse we get, but if you pause the film and look carefully, Castle’s hair does not quite match the back of Dr. Sapirstein’s head, confirming that a switch has been made.
As she opens her eyes, Farrow is blocking our view of the actor outside the booth, making it difficult to notice the switch that has taken place. When she finally turns, the movement of her head reveals not Bellamy’s Dr. Saperstein but the smiling stranger played by Castle.
What makes this cheat uniquely interesting is that it may not be a cheat at all. On a superficial level, the gag is that Rosemary and the audience think the man outside the booth is the sinister Dr. Sapirstein, but he turns out to be someone totally innocuous; the “cheat” is achieved by simply having Castle quickly replace the other actor. However, the switch takes place in full view of the camera, leaving the scene open to a second interpretation: that we are supposed to notice the switch, even if Rosemary does not; although we sympathize with her relief when she re-opens her eyes, we have to wonder whether she was right the first time: maybe that was Dr. Sapirstein, and he has simply gone off to alert the other Satanists that he has located Rosemary. In which case, the “cheat” of using Bellamy (or his double) to fool us into “seeing” Sapirstein is not a cheat at all but rather an accurate depiction of what happens in the scene.
There is a delicious ambiguity to this interpretation: Was it, or was it not, Sapirstein? Was it, or was it not, a cheat? And on a meta-level, was it, or was it not, Bellamy’s body double in either or both scenes?
As intriguing as these questions are, there is yet a third, equally intriguing interpretation of the scene. As much as ROSEMARY’S BABY is a story of witches, Satanists, and the Anti-Christ, the film is also a study in paranoia, with Rosemary driven to hysteria by fear for her baby. In the phone booth scene, she thinks Dr. Sapirstein has found her. She closes her eyes as if wishing him away, and it works: when opens her eyes, he is gone – like magic. What we may be seeing in the shot is an externalization of Rosemary’s inner mental state: her fear manifests as the appearance of Dr. Sapirstein; the appearance of the harmless stranger represents a return to a semblance of normalcy, a momentary quelling of paranoia, as Rosemary briefly gets a grip on her emotions that have been driven to extremes by both the events around her and the hormonal changes inside her body. In which case, we’re back to calling the scene a movie cheat, because two actors were switched right before our eyes to create an erroneous impression. The difference is that, in this new interpretation, the switch conveys not a mistaken identity but a paranoid delusion.
That’s an impressive amount of significance and meaning to pack into a single shot, making this scene worth a second look not only to spot a great movie cheat but also to appreciate the subtle tour-de-force machinations of a master filmmaker at work.
Note: This article has been updated to explain our definition of movie cheats, in order to clarify that it is not a derogatory term.
- A tip of the hat to Ted Newsom for pointing out this overlooked movie cheat.