I only recently came off a Roman Polanski binge having watched all of his films that have gotten so much as middling reviews. Polanski is often forgotten when great directors are discussed perhaps because he has not been especially prodigious and he has thus far made but one movie that is certain to be forever remembered as a classic. Moreover he does not have a particular style or genre that he has made his own. Plus the man's name will forever be linked with a notorious multiple homicide in which his wife was a primary victim and a nasty sex scandal of which he was guilty. Oh and let's not forget that both of his parents perished in the Holocaust. But none of that should obscure the fact that Polanski is a damn good director who for 50 years has been cranking out some wonderful motion pictures.
There is a pattern to Polanski's films the discussion of which is a spoiler in and of itself so you are now fully warned. There are no happy endings, at least among the eight films that make up this list of my favorite Polanski films and the several others that I watched. The main character either doesn't live happily ever after or doesn't live period. While Polanski has taken a lot more than his fair share of knocks in life he has also been an internationally celebrated success since the early 1960s. The horrible childhood memories of living in Nazi occupied Warsaw and the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the notorious Manson family are more than enough to make a bitter cynic out of any person. But Polanski's has never seemed angry or morose. Indeed his movies reflect a passionate artist who is meticulous and inspired. The endings may not be happy but the films are not somber or dark or even pessimistic.
Polanski succeeds as a director in large part because he uses excellent source material and often collaborates with top notch screenwriters like Robert Towne. Billy Wilder suggested that it is the screenplay that makes the film more than the auteur and Polanski's work is a strong supporting argument for that contention. He is clearly working from strong scripts.
Polanski takes on a variety of subject matters in various settings. Just these eight films alone represent such diverse times and places as Los Angeles in the 1930s, Scotland in the middle ages, Poland during WWII, England in the late 19th century, and contemporary London, Paris and New York.
Polanksi's films are not dominated by setting, character, music or atmosphere but are a blending of all these elements and more in whatever way best serves the story as a whole. While his films do not end happily for the characters they do for the audience. None are depressing and all are in some fashion or another memorable. I can't wait to see his next, Venus in Fur.
Chinatown (1974). "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown." The hero of our story, Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) lives to fight another day but evil triumphs in this '70s version of film noir that turns the genre on its head. Evil is personified by Noah Cross (John Huston) who has fathered a child with his daughter (Faye Dunaway) and wouldn't you know it he lives and its his daughter who takes a fatal bullet. Chinatown has surpassed greatness and lives in the rarefied air of classics, a status it richly deserves.
Tess (1979). It's got tragedy written all over it. You really want the title character (Natassia Kinski) to be able to settle down and experience a true they-lived-happily-ever-after denouement but you can also sense that's not happening. It's a shame. She's a nice kid and has continually gotten jacked around by men, a gender notorious for its lack of kindness toward women. Tess does not make it easier on herself suffering as she does from the dangerous flaws of honesty and pride. The ravages of fortune and the hectoring of one man gets to be too much and she finally commits murder. The film ends with her capture and the information that she was subsequently hung. Truly one of the most beautiful tragedies ever filmed.
Repulsion (1965). This is a brutally honest film about a woman who totally flips her lid and kills two people. So no one's perfect. A young woman (Catherine Deneuve) lives with her sister in a London flat. She has a good job, a suitor and is drop dead gorgeous. But she's also got serious emotional problems that spin out of control when big sister goes off on vacation with her boyfriend. Two men, including her beaux, enter the apartment at various times and neither makes it out alive. It's a brilliant examination of someone first teetering then going completely over the edge.
The Ghost Writer (2010). You talk about the bad guys winning....I'm going to trot out a tired old cliche and aver that this is a criminally underrated film that should have been showered with awards. Ewan McGregor plays a journalist who is hired to ghost write the memoirs of a Tony Blair like former British PM. He slowly begins to uncover some serious political chicanery and for planning an expose he is the victim of a rather untimely "accident."
MacBeth (1971). You may have heard of this play and its author, one William Shakespeare. You may also be aware this is one of his tragedies and tragedies do not, by definition, turn out well. One can make the case that MacBeth gets what's coming to him. This is one of the finest adaptations of a Shakespeare play I've ever seen and I can't wait to get a gander at its new Criterion edition coming soon (Hey Criterion! Send me a copy and I'll say nice things about it and you. Promise.)
Rosemary's Baby (1968). Let's put it this way: an innocent woman (Mia Farrow) gives birth to the devil's baby. Bleak enough for you? Oh but there's more. By the end of the film she seems perfectly ready to raise satan's spawn, she has given in to the forces of darkness. Rosemary's Baby is spooky. Mostly because it seems so real -- not that I believe for a second in a prince of darkness (well aside from Dick Cheney) but the tone of the movie suggests reality as horror not fantasy as horror as marked by the titular character's shout of "this is really happening!" while in a supposed slumber the seed is being planted.
The Pianist (2002). Okay well at last we have a hero who survives, is on the winning side, continues a successful career and no devil is born. Yeah that's nice but then again he did have to make it through the Holocaust so it's not like we're dancing in the aisles as the closing credits roll. Adrien Brody stars in the true story of a famous Jewish Polish pianist whose life is one of millions ripped asunder by the Nazis. All manner of horror is visited upon him and his family and friends and neighbors in Warsaw. He lives but to have gone through such horrors hardly suggests a victory.
The Tenant (1976). Polanksi is the star as well as the director in his third film about apartment dwelling gone bad. Very bad. It follows Repulsion -- set in London -- and the New York based Rosemary's Baby. This is set in Paris and the evil villain seems to be the apartment itself which sets the tenant in the same direction as his predecessor in the apartment -- taking a swan dive out the window. It is eerie, strange, atmospheric and like most Polanksi films, brilliantly executed.