Cinefantastique's Greatest Movie Cheats: Rosemary's Baby

Rosemary's Baby horizontal
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.

Rosemary (Farrow) chats with Dr. Sapirstein, played by Ralph Bellamy - although in this scene it may be a body double since we see only the back of his head.
Rosemary (Farrow) chats with Dr. Sapirstein (played by Ralph Bellamy - although in this scene it may be a body double since we see only the back of his head)

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.
While speaking in a phone booth, Rosemary does not notice the back of Dr. Sapirstein's head.
While speaking in a phone booth, Rosemary does not notice the back of Dr. Sapirstein's head.

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.
Rosemary turns to see Dr. Sapirstein waiting outside the booth.
Rosemary turns to see Dr. Sapirstein waiting outside the booth.

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).
Rosemary sees that the man is just an innocuous stranger (played by producer William Castle)
Rosemary sees that the man is just an innocuous stranger (played 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:
Rosemary closes her eyes and "Dr. Sapirstein" exits to the left.
Rosemary closes her eyes and "Dr. Sapirstein" exits to the left.

After Mia Farrow closes here eyes, Bellamy (or his body double) exits to the left.
Rosemary waits, eyes closed; the sinister Dr. Sapirstein is gone - or at least off-screen.
Rosemary waits, eyes closed; the sinister Dr. Sapirstein is gone - or at least off-screen.

For a brief moment the “Sapirstein” character is off-screen, while Farrow plays Rosemary as if she is silently praying for deliverance.
Rosemary waits with eyes closed while the man apparently returns.
Rosemary waits with eyes closed while Dr. Sapirstein apparently returns.

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.
Rosemary opens here eyes, the man visible just over her shoulder.
Rosemary opens here eyes; the man we take to be Saperstein is visible just over her shoulder.

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.
Once again, the shot of Rosemary seeing the smiling stranger
Rosemary turns to see the smiling stranger.

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.


The Wolf Man (1941)

Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolf Man.A classic despite its flaws

This 1941 film is widely considered to be one of the classics of the horror genre, because it introduced the world to one of the most famous movie monsters of all time: Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), an innocent man bitten by a wolf, who then succumbs to the curse of lycanthropy. After Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein, THE WOLF MAN probably ranks third in the pantheon of Universal Pictures’ famous movie monsters. Unfortunately, the film itself is a classic without being an actual masterpiece. It is glossy and atmospheric, but it lacks the imaginative impact and artistic sensibilities of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN (both made ten years earlier), relying on solid studio production values (sets and photography), plus its fine cast, to compensate for director George Waggner’s competent but not necessarily inspired handling of the material.


The story follows Talbot (Chaney) as he returns to his ancestral home after a stay in America. He escorts two ladies to a gypsy camp where they have the fortunes read, but the fortune teller, Bela (played by DRACULA’s Bela Lugosi) is disturbed when he sees a pentagram in the hand of one of the girls – a sign that she will be the werewolf’s next victim. On the way home, the trio are attacked by a wolf, which Talbot kills with his silver-headed cane; however, Talbot (who was bitten in the struggle) is found next to the body of Bela.

Maleva the Gypsy Woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) tells Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) the bad news about lycanthropy.
Maleva the Gypsy Woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) tells Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) the bad news.

An old gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) informs Talbot that Bela was a werewolf and his bite has passed the curse on to Talbot. Now he will transform into a wolf and kill against his will; the only way to end his cursed existence is with silver. The gypsy woman’s prediction comes true, when Talbot changes and kills a gravedigger. He tries to convince his friends and father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), but of course no one believes him. Finally, late at night, he attacks Gwen (Evenlyn Ankers), but Sir John manages to kill him with his silver-headed cane, ending the curse.


Though fans of old movies sometimes think of horror films from the 1930s and 1940s as being equally classic, the later decade was actually an era marked mostly by rehashing old material. THE WOLF MAN is no exception, being basically a re-thinking of 1935’s somewhat overlooked THE WERE-WOLF OF LONDON. THE WOLF MAN, however, seems relatively fresh, because it is not a sequel but a new take on the subject matter. The studio’s earlier attempt at lycanthropy introduced the notion that a werewolf is not a man who transforms into a wolf but a monstrous hybrid who undergoes an involuntary transformation during the full moon and passes his affliction to others, with a bite. THE WOLF MAN incorporated and expanded upon this mythology, dropping the full moon and adding the idea that a werewolf is immortal and invulnerable – except to silver. Additionally, the werewolf became a less human, more beastly creature.
Chaney is not a sinister presence in the manner of horror stars Lugosi or Boris Karloff, but he is perfect casting for as Talbot – an initially easy-going fellow who gradually transforms into a guilt-ridden, tortured man as he becomes convinced that he is a monster. Also impressive is the makeup by Jack Pierce and the transformation special effects by John P. Fulton (a series of lap dissolves that show fur gradually appearing or disappearing). Apparently, a similar make up by Pierce had been intended for WERE-WOLF OF LONDON, but actor Henry Hull had refused to have his face completely covered with fur. Lon Chaney Jr was a better sport about the whole thing, with the result that he achieved cinematic immortality in the role that caught on in the public imagination, turning him into a horror star (the “New Lon Chaney,” as Universal called him, after his famous father, who had starred in Universal’s 1925 version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA).

Bela Lugosi (Dracula) appears as the gypsy fortune teller Bela.
Bela Lugosi (Dracula) appears as the gypsy fortune teller Bela.

Nevertheless, THE WOLF MAN is riddled with flaws, the most obvious being that the filmmakers are inconsistent about whether or not a lycanthrope turns completely into a wolf or into a man-wolf hybrid. We are left to ponder why Bela Lugosi (the old generation passing on the curse of typecasting to the next generation?) is replaced by a real wolf when the full moon rises, instead of putting the actor in a werewolf makeup like Chaney’s. Also, Siodmak’s poetic speeches (“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night/May become a Wolf when the Wolfbane blooms, and the Autumn Moon is bright”) wear out through repetition.
The film is also somewhat blunt and unsophisticated in its technique, showing its monster perhaps a bit too clearly, instead of using shadows and suggestion to work on the viewer’s imagination. This is a complete reversal of what was intended in Siodmak’s original script, which left the question open of whether Talbot really transformed into a wolf or only thought he did. Much of the material relating to this psychological interpretation remains in the script: there are constant references to psychology and the mind; even the term “lycanthropy” is defined not as turning into a werewolf but as a delusion of turning into a  wolf. Consequently, the finished film seems ever so slightly schizophrenic, laying the groundwork for an ambiguous approach that is abandoned in favor of a full-blown monster movie.
Lon Chaney and Evenlyn AnkersThe decision to show the Wolf Man clearly appears to have beena  last minute one. There is little footage of the monster (which inevitably disappoints younger viewers), some of which is repeated. The monster scenes betray some continuity lapses (Talbot takes off his shirt during his first transformation, but he has it back on when he is seen in Wolf Man form, running through the woods), further indicating that the footage was hastily inserted without being properly thought through.
In spite of all this, THE WOLF MAN manages to survive because it lays out a mythology that seems like authentic, archetypal legend, when in fact it is mostly cinematic invention. Unlike his brethren, Dracula and Frankenstein, the werewolf has no literary classic to serve as the basis of film adaptations; although the lycanthrope, like the vampire, has a history in mythology and superstition, little of it remains in the screen incarnation. European tales of werewolves cast the creatures as voluntary shape-shifters, generally evil sorcerers and thus likely candidates to return from the grave as vampires.
Universal Pictures’ Wolf Man is an altogether different creature, a good but hapless mortal inflicted with a curse. In WERE-WOLF OF LONDON, Hull had played a scientist who was bitten in the line of work, placing him firmly in the tradition of mad scientists established by Robert Louis Stevenson in “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” By casting Chaney’s Talbot as an ordinary guy instead of a scientist (he’s no good with theory but enjoys working with his hands), THE WOLF MAN breaks any tenuous connection between the werewolf and Stevenson’s tale: Mr. Hyde, though cunning and evil, was a man, not a beast; even Hull’s hapless Wilfred Glendon was a combination of both. Chaney, on the other hand, plays a character cursed entirely “through no fault of his own,” and his bestial transformation leaves no remnants of his humanity intact.
This transformation perhaps helped the Wolf Man distinguish himself from the dualistic Jekyll and Hyde, allowing him to find his own niche in the public consciousness. Now, instead of a seemingly respectable scientist leading an extremely disreputable double life, the werewolf became a symbol not of Victorian hypocrisy but a more universal one of animal instincts and bestial drives, of hormones causing changes that left the mind incapable of controlling the body. In canine form, Lawrence Talbot had no human cunning; he was simply following an irresistible impulse. (It is tempting to read Freudian interpretations into this scenario, but little of THE WOLFMAN deals with sex on any kind of overt level. For that, audiences would have to wait for Hammer to film their version of the legend.)
The Wolf Man (1941) Claude Rains and Lon Chaney Jr talking
Claude Rains and Lon Chaney: glossy production values and strong performances help the flawed film achieve classic status.

THE WOLF MAN was such a hit with audiences that he reappeared in several subsequent films. Unfortunately, Universal was running out of ideas by this time, so Lawrence Talbot was doomed to co-star in a series of team-up movies that cast him alongside Universal’s other frightful fiends: FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). His last appearance was playing straight man in the 1948 comedy ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (which, like the two “House of” movies, teamed him with both Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster). None of these is a classic horror film, but FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is good, brainless fun, especially for kids, and the Abbott and Costello movie is actually better than most of the “serious” horror films of the decade.
Thus, the Wolf Man became a classic monster without have a quite great horror film to call his own (rather like Pinhead in the HELLRAISER movies decades later). Still, Lawrence Talbot lives on in the imagination, indelibly etched for eternity, fearful eyes gazing out the window at the full moon, which brings on the inevitable transformation from man into beast: the growing fur, the snarling fangs, and then the howl…
wolf man poster vertical
THE WOLF MAN (1941). Directed by George Waggner. Written by Curt Siodmak. Cast: Lon Chaney Jr, Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Patrick Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers.
NOTE: Some of the material in this review originally appeared in Imagi-Movies magazine 1:4, copyright 1994. This article is copyright 2008 by Steve Biodrowski.