These are my selections for the 10 best Roman Polanski movies. While the diminutive Polish-French director is known as much for his personal life as anything else, he still remains a versatile and skilled filmmaker.
He’s had a trio of nominations for the Best Director Academy Award, with the third time being the proverbial charm (for 2002’s The Pianist). Polanksi has also popped up in acting roles throughout his career, including his own films (The Tenant, The Fearless Vampire Killers) and those of others (Rush Hour 3?!).
- The Pianist (2002) – Polanski draws upon his own experiences living in a WWII Jewish ghetto to tell the story of Wladyslaw Spellman (Adrien Brody), a Polish Jew trying to survive the Nazi occupation of his country. Beautiful classical music is juxtaposed with the horrors of war, and Brody would go on to become the youngest performer to ever win the Best Actor Academy Award.
- Chinatown (1974) – Polanski takes on the film noir genre in this tale of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a streetwise private detective who gets caught up in an L.A. water rights dispute, not to mention murder and incest. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it’s considered one of the finest American films ever produced. Nicholson is at the top of his cynical game, and excellent performances also come from Faye Dunaway and John Huston. Watch for the director’s cameo as the guy who slices Jake’s nose open with a knife. Easily one of the 10 best Roman Polanski movies.
- Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Mia Farrow stars as Rosemary Woodhouse, a New York housewife who begins to suspect that something is horribly wrong with her pregnancy. She’s right, of course. Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer are outstanding as the nosy old neighbors who harbor an ancient secret, and John Cassavetes plays Rosemary’s actor husband. Gordon would go on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. One of the finest Roman Polanski movies, as well as one of the best horror films ever made.
- Tess (1979) – Set during England’s Victorian period, Tess is an adaptation of the novel Tess of the d’Ubervilles. Nastassja Kinski is radiant in the title role as a young woman who finds misery and later redemption through her relationships with a dissolute nobleman and simple farmer. Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, had given him a copy of the novel the last time he saw her alive (she was murdered by Charles Manson’s “family”), and he made the film in her honor. It’s a fitting tribute.
- Repulsion (1965) – This psychological thriller was Polanski’s first English language film. In it, Catherine Deneuve plays Carol Ledoux, a London manicurist who suffers from a psychological fear of men. When her sister goes away on a trip, Carol plunges deeper and deeper into her fears, eventually falling prey to hallucinations and resorting to multiple murders. Considered a classic of the thriller genre, Repulsion has served as the inspiration for a number of movies and music videos (including Darren Aronofsky’s Pi).
- Frantic (1988) – Harrison Ford and Roman Polanski team up for this film about an American surgeon (Ford) who travels to Paris for a medical conference. Getting out of the shower in his hotel room, he finds that his wife is missing. Soon, he realizes that she’s been kidnapped, and he must team with a professional smuggler (Emmanuelle Seigner) to secure her release. A tense thriller that makes perfect use of its European locale.
- The Ghost Writer (2010) – Based on the Robert Harris novel, The Ghost, the film follows a British ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) who’s hired to help with the memoirs of former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). But as he picks up where the last (now deceased) writer left off, it begins to become clear that a dark secret is hidden within the pages of the manuscript–a secret that could very well get him killed. Olivia Williams plays Lang’s wife, and Kim Cattrall co-stars as his mistress. This white-knuckle political thriller–with plenty of allusions to Tony Blair and the “war on terror”–also features Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Jim Belushi, and Eli Wallach.
- The Tenant (1976) – An adaptation of the Roland Topor novel, The Tenant features Polanski as both actor and director. He plays Trelkowski, a man who’s recently rented an apartment in France. It turns out that the previous tenant tried to kill herself by jumping out a window, and Trelkowski soon comes to the realization that something’s wrong in the building. His neighbors stand like zombies in the toilet, and he finds a human tooth hidden in his apartment. Before long, he’s putting on panties and dreaming of severed heads. The moral of the story? Don’t rent an apartment in France.
- Death and the Maiden (1994) – Sigourney Weaver plays Paulina Escobar, a South American housewife who was once blindfolded, tortured, and raped by an agent of the previous fascist regime. When her lawyer husband (Stuart Wilson) gets a ride home one night from a stranger, Paulina becomes convinced that this man–known as Dr. Miranda (Ben Kingsley)–is none other than the person who brutalized her years ago. He refuses to confess, so Paulina gets a gun and forces her husband to represent him during a makeshift trial. What follows is a psychological cat and mouse game that shows off the range of both Weaver and Kingsley. Based on a play by Ariel Dorfman.
- The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) – Combining the sensuality of a Hammer vampire flick with a liberal dash of humor, this quirky gem from Polanski is often overlooked. Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his bumbling assistant Alfred (Polanski) head to Transylvania to do a little vampire hunting. They don’t have to look long, as a small village is being plagued by Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), not to mention his hunchback assistant and gay vampire son, Herbert. Polanski’s late wife, Sharon Tate, shows off her striking good looks in the role of the local beauty who’s abducted by the bloodsuckers. Years later, the movie would be adapted into a successful musical known as Dance of the Vampires (the film‘s original title).
So there you have it: kooky vampires, cynical private dicks, and Sigourney Weaver with a gun. These 10 best Roman Polanksi movies are all over the place, showing the director’s gift for working in multiple genres. While his personal life may be a shambles, his cinematic talents have never been in question.