Few directors have had a greater impact on modern horror or arthouse thrillers than Roman Polanski. His films range from the sprawl of “Chinatown” to the deep claustrophobia of “Repulsion,” but almost all of them retain the same fractured worldview, the same darkly absurdist sense of humor, and the same focus on power plays. The controversy about Polanski’s real-life crimes sometimes overshadow his films, but he remains a vital and important director in his sixth decade as a filmmaker. In anticipation of his latest, “Venus in Fur,” which opens this Friday, here’s a ranking of his films, from worst to best.
20. “What?” (1972)
Indiewire’s own Eric Kohn made a pretty good case for “What?” as something other than a sickening id upchuck. I wish I could do the same. Filmed in Italy after producer Carlo Ponti gave Polanski a carte blanche and a beautiful Italian villa to work with, “What?” is posited as a sexy riff on “Alice in Wonderland” by way of Fellini. That makes it sound more coherent than it is, however, and doesn’t prepare for the film’s rampant misogyny. Opening with an attempted gang rape that’s played for laughs (not a good sign), the film sees a scantily-clad Synde Rome in a state of perpetual sexual abuse by the likes of Marcello Mastroianni (in a bit of sad self-parody) and Polanski himself. Where earlier Polanski efforts featured a certain amount of empathy for the women used by men, “What?” has no real perspective on the ugliness on display, playing like a queasy bit of foreshadowing on how Polanski’s decadent style and lifestyle had curdled into something nasty.
19. “Pirates” (1986)
Released after a seven-year absence from filmmaking, “Pirates,” Polanski’s attempt at blockbuster filmmaking, suggests that the director was a little rusty. The misconception of the film starts with the surreal miscasting of Walter Matthau as a pirate, which sees the eminently likable character actor buried under loads of hair and makeup, his recognizable voice traded for a horrendous pirate accent. What’s worse, “Pirates” doesn’t have the kind of narrative throughline that best serves the director’s absurdist sense of humor, instead consisting of a bunch of thrown-together scenes that Polanski thought would be funny. And while there are impressive moments of pure spectacle, most notably the full-scale galleon built for production, the action scenes are choppy and difficult to follow, making the film’s selling points a slog to sit through.
18. “Oliver Twist” (2006)
Considering Polanski’s own tumultuous childhood, it’s easy to see how adapting Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” might have been a tempting proposition. But Polanski’s take on Twist isn’t particularly distinguished, adopting the same drab visual palette that worked on “The Pianist” without the earlier film’s gradual drain of color that made the choice effective. The film otherwise lifelessly covers the same plot points seen in previous adaptations of the novel, with Ben Kingsley’s hammy Fagin providing the only point of energy. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s too damn familiar to stand out next to David Lean’s indelible 1948 version or Carol Reed’s bloated but charming film of the musical “Oliver!”
17. “Death and the Maiden” (1994)
Few directors get more mileage out of limiting films to one location than Roman Polanski, but he sometimes has trouble when adapting plays. “Death and the Maiden” has an ingenious set-up: a former revolutionary (Sigourney Weaver) suffering from PTSD believes she’s found the man (Ben Kingsley) who tortured and raped her years ago and takes him hostage; her husband (Stuart Wilson) is less certain. The trouble is that the play’s insularity feels contrived on screen, and it’s far too on-the-nose with its points about power, madness, and paranoia. The cast is uneven, too: Kingsley is excellent as the sometimes sympathetic, sometimes nebulous hostage, but Wilson doesn’t make much of an impression and Weaver is uncharacteristically overheated, which undermines an already shaky script that pivots on the ambiguity of whether or not she’s right.
16. “Carnage” (2011)
Polanski had more luck opening up “Carnage,” an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s acrid play “God of Carnage,” in which two couples separated by class meet to discuss an incident between their children and wind up tearing at each other’s throats. Polanski plays the couples’ inability to leave the apartment and just let it go as a terrific absurdist joke, letting the actors take control of the screen. But only half of the cast is up to task: where Christoph Waltz is hilariously condescending and Kate Winslet simultaneously irritating and sympathetic, Jodie Foster overplays her shrill character, while John C. Reilly can’t sell his everyman’s sudden shift to boorishness. And even if the cast was on the same page, “God of Carnage” is, Tony Award be damned, not a very good play, a low-rent Edward Albee wannabe that thinks the idea of people hiding their misanthropy under a facade of civility is new and insightful rather than well-worn and played out.
15. “The Ninth Gate” (1999)
“The Ninth Gate” is a stupid movie, yet there’s something perversely entertaining about it. Sure, the plot, about a hunt for a book that’s literally written by the devil, is ridiculous, and the film ends with a huge thud where the mysterious villain (Frank Langella) suddenly starts acting like an idiot. But it hardly matters in the early going, which sees Polanski mixing creepy classicism with an arch tone to intoxicating effect. It helps that Johnny Depp, back in the “actually trying” phase of his career, brings the right note of skepticism and slyness for the film’s “Chinatown” meets “Rosemary’s Baby” set-up. As drama, it’s unsatisfying and more than a little goofy. As a stylistic exercise, it’s a blast.
14. “Frantic” (1988)
“Frantic” is the most straightforward film Polanski ever made, a lightweight imitation of a Hitchcockian thriller with a weak macguffin, unmemorable villains and a blank performance by Polanski’s future-wife Emmanuelle Seigner as the mysterious woman who helps Harrison Ford save his kidnapped wife. But Polanski gets strong work out of bleary-eyed and increasingly exasperated Ford as he deals with ineffectual bureaucracies and mounting exhaustion. Polanski also pulls off some dynamite set-pieces, including one where Ford has to avoid being seen or heard on Seigner’s rooftop. It’s a disposable film, but hardly a bad one.
13. “Tess” (1979)
Conceived as a comeback for Polanski following his exile from America, “Tess,” an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbevilles,” saw the director briefly back on top of his game, earning him his second Best Director nomination. It’s a film of many pleasures, from Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet’s gorgeous, hazy cinematography to Nastassja Kinski’s beautifully tentative performance, and Polanski’s deeply sympathetic look at Tess’s dehumanization plays as a welcome addition to Polanski’s ongoing fascination with power and unfair worlds. But “Tess” moves at a snail’s pace, often feeling like a richly imagined but essentially shapeless book on film, and Polanski is better-suited to films of ever-present dread and danger than he is to quaint period pieces. It’s an admirable film, but not always a gripping one.
12. “The Ghost Writer” (2010)
For a short time, it looked like “The Ghost Writer” might be Polanski’s final film, as the director was nearly extradited to the U.S. for his 1977 rape of an underage girl. It was not to be, but it wouldn’t have been a bad film to end on. Opening with an elegant move worthy of Hitchcock – a car doesn’t leave the ferry, and a body washes ashore – Polanski maintains a mood of quietly-simmering dread that never lets up. Polanski doesn’t have much interest in the political implications of Pierce Brosnan’s Tony Blair-surrogate, but he gets great work from his cast (particularly a mysterious Olivia Williams), and his mastery of limited perspective makes for some great misdirection an a sense of isolation for a protagonist who’s a man with no existence, a man who can easily disappear or be controlled.
11. “Cul-de-sac” (1966)
Dwarfed by Polanski’s other 60s films and unavailable until Criterion released it a few years ago, “Cul-de-sac” is a transitional film for Polanski, but a memorable effort in its own right. A sort of “Waiting for Godot” meets “Little Caesar,” the film is a power-play between brash American gangster Lionel Stander, who’s waiting for a colleague that never shows, and ineffectual Brit Donald Pleasence, whose castle Stander stumbles upon. Stander dominates and emasculates Pleasence in front of his oversexed wife (Francoise Dorleac) as Polanski uses the castle to striking effect, turning an battle of wits into an outsized look at male dominance. If the final moments of this black comedy are more disturbing than funny, it’s because it’s comedic in the nastiest sense of the word, pushing Polanski’s bleak worldview to its most jaundiced.
10. “Venus in Fur” (2013)
While the film’s two-person act would likely benefit from seeing the actors in the flesh, “Venus in Fur” never feels like canned theater, with Polanski’s subtle shifts in lighting and off-kilter compositions perfectly suiting this delightfully lurid psychodrama. The subject’s perfect for him, too, distilling his takes on sex and power in art into a concentrated dose and featuring a career-best performance from Emmanuelle Seigner as an actress who constantly shifts from actress to character, submissive to dominant, manipulative to…more manipulative.
9. “The Tenant” (1976)
Polanski’s final film before his permanent exile from the U.S. is also his most unhinged and arguably his most disturbing. The final part of a loose trilogy “Apartment Trilogy” that started with “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” the film stars Polanski as a Polish-born accountant living in Paris who believes his xenophobic neighbors are either trying to force him to suicide like the previous (female) tenant or, more bizarrely, trying to turn him into the previous tenant. The movie starts out crazy and gets crazier, mixing creepy surrealism (Polanski dropping bits of trash as he takes his garbage out, only to come back and find them missing), terror (the previous tenant inexplicably appearing across the way and giving him a creepy smile), and flat-out weirdness (Polanski slapping a small child for no discernible reason). The film’s thesis isn’t as clear as his earlier efforts, but it’s still a highly effective story about how the world’s insanity poisons the mind.
8. “Bitter Moon” (1992)
Polanski’s most underrated film, “Bitter Moon” is a bit of a reworking of his debut “Knife in the Water” – both are set on ships (this one on a cruise ship), and both deal with relationships strained by heightened sexuality. “Bitter Moon” takes Polanski’s aesthetic to a greater extreme, starting with a tongue-in-cheek softcore haze and campy tone that culminates with Emmanuelle Seigner pouring milk over her breasts to the tune of George Michael’s “Faith,” then taking the audience out of their false sense of security to uncomfortable territory like Peter Coyote wearing a pig mask and crawling on all fours or Coyote and Seigner’s intense emotional cruelty towards each other. Their uninhibited sleaziness contrasts perfectly with Hugh Grant and Kristen Scott Thomas’s milquetoast couple, showing how an extreme relationship can mirror a milder one, with both ultimately hinging on games of power between lovers.
7. “The Pianist” (2002)
Polanski’s most personal film is also one of his best, a Holocaust movie that’s as much about a world gone mad as it is about the event. It has some of Polanski’s subtlest touches, from the shift in costumes from vivid period clothing to dank grays and browns to the use of limited perspective of Wladyslaw Szpilman (a haunted Adrien Brody in an Oscar-winning role), who can never know who to trust or where to turn to, and who’s helpless to do anything to resist the Nazis if he wants to survive. Polanski also sees the dark (if impossible to laugh at) absurdity in Szpilman’s situation, as he’s constantly spared death not by the use of his wits, but by sheer dumb luck. He maintains a sense of bitter irony up to the end, when one German’s good deed isn’t enough to save him from oblivion. The film earned Polanski a surprise Oscar win for Best Director, and a richly-deserved one.
6. “The Fearless Vampire Killers” (1967)
Likely the most polarizing film in Polanski’s oeuvre, “The Fearless Vampire Killers” is his most successful comedy in a walk, an irreverent but affectionate parody of the Hammer horror films. The humor is broad, but Polanski filters it through a finely-tuned genre framework, and many of his touches are truly inspired, especially a Jewish vampire who laughs off a woman with a cross (“Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!”) and kvetches about being getting lesser treatment than the rich goy vampires. Polanski also tempers the bawdy sexual humor with a genuine sweetness when his character falls for the radiant Sharon Tate (who would sadly meet her fate by the Manson family only two years later). Even that sweetness, though, leads to one of the best ironic endings in Polanski’s filmography, which suggests that it’s through love that evil can conquer, something that Polanski would return to in “Rosemary’s Baby.”
5. “Macbeth” (1971)
Arguably the definitive film version of Shakespeare’s play (only Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” would rival it), Polanski’s “Macbeth” is the Bard by way of atmospheric horror. Doom and dread hangs over the world like an ever-present specter, and the film’s grisliest scene, the slaughter of Macduff’s family, bears a disturbing resemblance to descriptions of Sharon Tate’s murder, as if Polanski is exercising his worst nightmares. Polanski’s liberties with the play only make it even more unsettling, with an ending that suggests the cycle of violence, betrayal, and death will continue until the end of time.
4. “Knife in the Water” (1962)
One of the greatest directorial debuts of all time, “Knife in the Water” is a film where mind games between old and young, bourgeois and proletariat become physical. Brilliantly contrasting the openness of the sea with the claustrophobia of the boat that a married couple and an unnamed, virile hitchhiker stay on, Polanski gives them no choice but to deal with each other, until a competition for the affection of the rich man’s wife turns nasty as the possession of a knife (large, phallic and brutal) becomes a symbol of power and sexual dominance. It’s a pessimistic film where no one is innocent, everyone’s playing a game, and none of them can return to their ordinary existence unshaken. Yet it’s also one of the most entertaining thrillers of the 1960s, with Polanski showing a knack for working with deep focus and playful editing.
3. “Repulsion” (1965)
Polanski’s films often deal with innocents driven mad by the world, but there’s something terribly wrong with Catherine Denueve’s character in “Repulsion” from the beginning. When she hears her sister’s orgasms, she looks like she’s being tortured. All sexuality is rape to Denueve – her dreams of men dominating her and visions of walls grabbing at her breasts are just stepping-stones to her descent into insanity. It’s the rare horror movie where the surreal elements are almost comforting compared to the realistic ones – Deneuve’s cold stare, her vivid dreams of sexual violation, and the frankness of the murder scenes. Polanski plays with the idea that she’s a woman out of place – a repressed European girl dealing with the sexual permissiveness of swinging London – but a puzzling final shot leaves it open as to whether or not this fear comes from past experience or general repression. That’s part of what makes “Repulsion” so effective and disturbing – there’s no answer.
2. “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
The genius of “Rosemary’s Baby” begins with some of the canniest casting of Polanski’s career: a marvelously expressive Mia Farrow as a girl-next-door turned sickly, terrified mother, daffy Ruth Gordon as a sweetly satanic neighbor, and independent filmmaker and sometimes mainstream actor John Cassavetes as a man who sells his soul for a break. The domination of Rosemary is one of Polanski’s most perfectly realized power plays, as the dominating characters are no longer the openly contemptuous or leery figures of “Knife in the Water” and “Repulsion,” but the people Rosemary trusts the most: doctors, friendly neighbors, her husband. Polanski puts us in Rosemary’s limited perspective, where we feel her paranoia but question just how much we can trust what we see. And the film’s chilling ending is disturbing not because it suggests the existence of evil, but that good can resign itself to accept it. More than “Psycho,” which ends with an explanation, “Rosemary’s Baby” is the birth of modern horror, where the “why” of the situation is impossible to answer.
1. “Chinatown” (1974)
The crown jewel in Polanski’s filmography, “Chinatown” is a cracked, cold masterpiece, a revisionist origin story for modern America. Working with Jack Nicholson at the height of his smart-alecky charm with a near-perfect script by Robert Towne, Polanski trades the blacks and whites of noir for a sunbaked look at the shadowy, seamy side of Los Angeles. “Chinatown” works as both an apotheosis of noir and a subversion of it, where the slick private eye only makes things worse and the femme fatale is the only truly selfless character. It’s the ultimate look at Polanski’s interest in power and a world gone mad, where the reason behind the exploitation of both land and personal trust are simply because the villain was capable of it, and where the hero can’t even bring light to the truth. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Odds and Ends: Polanski’s early short films, all made during his tenure at the National Film School in Lodz, are available on the Criterion edition of “Knife in the Water.” They’re all excellent, but the absurdist short “Two Men and a Wardrobe” is particularly of interest. He’s currently gearing up to direct his 21st feature, “D,” about the Dreyfus Affair. And as with any director, he has a slew of fascinating unmade projects, including adaptations of Dostoevsky’s “The Double” and Mikhail Bulgakov’s Stalinist satire “The Master and Margarita,” which Polanski considered the best script he ever wrote. Oh well.