On April 18, Warner Bros. released a new DVD package, “Roman Polanski Collection: Limited Edition,” featuring six films made by the Polish film director.
The package also includes a two-page essay on the director’s cinematic career by film critic Scott Foundas, and a seventh disc, featuring an interview with Polanski and fellow film director Brett Ratner, who directed Polanski in his 2007 comedy “Rush Hour 3,” which was filmed in Paris, where Polanski lives.
It’s a handsomely mounted package, and it serves as a fine introduction to Polanski’s work. What’s most interesting is that the package is divided between three of Polanski’s best known, Academy Award-winning films, and three of his more obscure efforts. It’s noteworthy that among the latter films, there are movies he made in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Academy Award winners
Of the six films that Polanski has made that have been nominated for Academy Awards, the “Roman Polanski Collection” package opted to include his classic 1968 horror movie “Rosemary’s Baby,” which won Ruth Gordon an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress; his 1974 film noir classic “Chinatown,” which won Robert Towne an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and was also nominated for 10 other awards, including Best Picture and Best Director; and his 2002 historical drama about the Holocaust, “The Pianist,” which won Polanski an Oscar for Best Director and was also among that year’s Best Picture nominees.
These are excellent choices for a career overview package; when “Rosemary’s Baby” was re-released by The Criterion Collection in 2015, the reviews seemed even stronger than when it first came out in June 1968. Film critics reviewing the DVD were quick to note that the film had aged remarkably well and had become a classic and seminal example of the horror genre.
Missing from the package is “Knife In The Water,” Polanski’s first feature length film and, until he made “The Pianist,” the only one he filmed in Poland, which was nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film in 1963; and “Tess,” his version of the Thomas Hardy novel, which was nominated for six Academy Awards in 1980, including Best Picture and Best Director. (Polanski’s 1986 comedy “Pirates” received a single nomination, for Best Costume Design.)
Instead, Warner Bros. opted to mix the three Polanski classics with three films well known to fans of the director’s work, and to some degree to enthusiasts of the horror genre, but nowhere near as universally recognized as “Chinatown” or “Rosemary’s Baby.” It’s an intriguing selection.
Worthy of Rediscovery
A more conventional selection from the director’s 1960s output might have been his 1965 horror movie “Repulsion,” but instead Warner Bros. selected Polanski’s 1967 horror comedy “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” even though during their initial release, it was “Repulsion” that got much stronger reviews.
“The Fearless Vampire Killers,” which has a cult following and inspired Polanski’s musical stage version “Tanz Der Vampire,” is a better choice for a rediscovery, though. And I suspect Warner Bros. may have chosen this film because it’s the only one Polanski made that featured his second wife, actress Sharon Tate, in a starring role. Polanski also acts in the film, so he and Sharon perform together, two years before her tragic murder at the hands of the Manson family.
A similar sentiment could have prompted Warner Bros. to also include Polanski’s 1988 Hitchcock-style mystery “Frantic,” which had a decent box office showing when it was first released, but did not attract the same kind of strong reviews as some of the director’s latter day works, like “The Ghost Writer” and “Venus In Fur.”
On the other hand, the movie, filmed in Paris, was the first to feature his third and current wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, in a starring role. Seigner has the lead in Polanski’s latest film, the thriller “Based On A True Story,” which will debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
The final choice may be the one most ripe for rediscovery, Polanski’s 1976 horror movie “The Tenant,” and the only film the director made, outside of “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” where Polanski took a lead role.
Here, he served as the director, screenwriter (with longtime collaborator Gerard Brach, from the novel by Roland Topor), and lead actor. When the movie was first released in June 1976, it got mostly negative reviews in the United States (The New York Times and The New Yorker being exceptions), and stronger reviews in Britain, and died a quick death at the box office. It later became a cult movie, and when it was released on DVD in July 2003, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with critics calling it one of Polanski’s absolute best films, and some even considering it his masterpiece. Whether the film was a box office hit, like “Rosemary’s Baby,” or a failure the first time around, like “The Tenant,” this DVD package demonstrates how well Polanski’s films age over time.
In the 45 minute documentary, Ratner and Polanski meet in the theater where Polanski filmed his 2013 movie “Venus In Fur” and discuss the six films included in this package. Polanski offers a few interesting insights. Polanski notes that he and Brach wrote the part of Michelle in “Frantic” with Seigner in mind, says he no longer watches some of his films because they bore him, and says he would like to do a special “director’s cut” re-edited version of “The Tenant.”
Conclusion: The liner notes on this package stress that “From the mean streets of Chinatown to the crowded tenements of the Warsaw ghetto, acclaimed director Roman Polanski has tread the ground of most every genre, mastering one before completely reinventing himself as an auteur for his next film.”
It’s a good point, and “Roman Polanski Collection” serves as an excellent overview of his work, from renowned genre classics to some long-forgotten films that absolutely deserve a second look, and a cinematic rediscovery.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..