The Ghost Writer: Polanski Escapes into His Cinema Nightmares

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Kim Cattrall, left, Olivia Williams, and Pierce Brosnan star in The Ghost Writer.

We're all in hiding: from people who would harm us; from our deepest, darkest selves; from the slow or abrupt intrusion of death. If we emerge from our haunts, they'll be waiting. If we stay inside, they'll come to get us.

That mortal warning — Trust No One, possibly including yourself — is posted in nearly every movie made by Roman Polanski, 76. From his debut work at the Polish Film School, a one-minute shocker called Murder that showed a sleeping man being stabbed to death in his apartment by an intruder, to his new thriller The Ghost Writer, Polanski has plumbed the themes of isolation, persecution and claustrophobia. In 1963 Polanski gained international attention, and a TIME cover, with Knife in the Water, which trapped two men and a woman on a small boat to play out their sexual rivalries. In the 1965 Repulsion he locked young Catherine Deneuve in a London flat and let her go picturesquely berserk. Hollywood called, with Rosemary's Baby (1968), which imprisoned the pregnant Mia Farrow in a Manhattan condo to be preyed on by Satanists. By the end of the decade, and ever since, "Polanskian" could have been as evocative a summary of a director's nightmare world as "Hitchcockian."

If an auteur is a director with an obsessive personal vision — or, in simple terms, a man who keeps remaking his own movies — then Polanski is the very auteuriest. Even if he weren't drawn to pictures about hunted, holed-up men, he could hardly avoid the connection between iconography and autobiography, for his life is at least as notorious as his films. As a child, with his Jewish parents in concentration camps, he survived the Nazis by hiding and running. In Hollywood, his blond starlet wife Sharon Tate was slaughtered by Charles Manson's own Satanic gang. Then, after his great success with the knotty, despairing Chinatown (still his best film), there was his 1977 sexual encounter with a 13-year-old; when he thought he was sure to serve a long jail term, he fled the U.S., never to return. He seemed secure living in Paris, making films in France and Germany, until a visit to Switzerland last Sept. led to his detention on an international arrest warrant. He completed the editing of The Ghost Writer while under house arrest.

When Polanski hooked up with the novelist Robert Harris, best known for his Roman fictions Pompeii and Imperium, for a film version of Harris's roman-a-clef The Ghost, he might have felt that the book had been written from his own recipe for paranoid suspense. It's the story of a writer of celebrity lives — a magician's best-seller, for instance, titled I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered — hired to add some marketable pizzazz to the memoirs of Adam Lang, a retired British Prime Minister of the Tony Blair stripe. He's called in on this rush job because the previous ghost, Mike McAra, has died suddenly. Joining the ex-P.M. in a remote enclave on Martha's Vineyard, he is drawn into a controversy involving Lang's possible approval of torture on terror suspects. Soon, he thinks that McAra may have been murdered, and that he could be next. One of his sources snorts at this theory — "He can't drown two ghost writers. You're not kittens" — but later that source is also found dead.

The kinship to Polanski's oeuvre is clear enough. The Ghost could be a blending of the director's 1976 The Tenant, in which he starred as a man who rents an apartment where the previous tenant committed suicide and soon believes the neighbors are scheming to force him to kill himself, and the 1999 The Ninth Gate, in which a book dealer sleuths through a antique volume that might be the Devil's autobiography. Need more? Lang, who becomes the focus of a war-crimes investigation in Europe, may be condemned by his past to remain in the U.S. — even as Polanski is condemned by his to keep out.

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