Cul-de-sac: Criterion Collection
August 16, 2011
After leaving Poland for England, Roman Polanski made three films, one of which was Cul-de-sac (1966), before moving on to Hollywood. The film contains many of his hallmarks: dark humor and suspenseful camerawork that puts one on edge. After writing the screenplay with aspiring screenwriter Gerard Brach, Polanski found that no one in France wanted to back it and set the project aside to work in England. After he made and released Repulsion (1965), he parlayed its success to get Cul-de-sac made. It was a not a commercial triumph and remains something of an underrated gem in his body of work.
On the run after a failed robbery, two gangsters – an American named Richard a.k.a. “Dickie” (Stander) and an Irishman by the name of Albie (MacGowran) – are battered and hungry. Their getaway car has broken down in the middle of nowhere and Albie has been shot in the gut while Dickie’s arm is in a sling. The latter decides to go looking for a phone and stumbles across an isolated medieval castle. Dickie hides out in a barn leaving his wounded accomplice in their car.
A dysfunctional couple lives in the castle. George (Pleasence) is an irritable fellow and his wife Teresa (Dorleac) is a bit of a flirty flake. They have an odd relationship to say the least. At one point, she gets him in one of her dresses and applies some of her makeup on him as a prelude to a little role-playing. This is interrupted by Dickie who has broken into their home to look for food and use their phone. The burly, surly crook takes control of the situation by making them help him retrieve Albie.
Cul-de-sac features some fantastic, moody black and white cinematography courtesy of Gilbert Taylor. For example, there is a shot of Dickie, George and Teresa in silhouette as they walk through tall grass at dusk looking for Albie. There is also the incredible use of shadows, like when Dickie sneaks around the castle before making his presence known to its owners. At times, this expressive cinematography evokes film noir and sometimes that of the horror genre.
Polanski makes the most of the isolated setting, pitting the two crooks against the George and Teresa only to throw in unexpected plot twists, like the arrival of unexpected guests. Cul-de-sac is a darkly comic battle of wills as George and Teresa’s eccentricities confound Dickie. The character-driven film is a fantastic showcase for its cast, from the gravelly-voice Lionel Stander to the twitchy Donald Pleasence, and the fun is watching such vividly drawn characters bounce off each other in a confined space. In the true Polanski fashion, they irritate and manipulate each other for their own selfish reasons. Brach and Polanski certainly have a bleak view of humanity – a vision they would revisit again over the years with Frantic (1988) and Bitter Moon (1992), which also featured a kinky couple with “issues.” However, it is Polanski’s absurdist humor that runs throughout Cul-de-sac, preventing the bleak worldview from overwhelming the film.
“Two Gangsters and an Island” is a retrospective featurette made in 2003 about the making of Cul-de-sac. Polanski says that his goal was to make a film that reflected his tastes in cinema. The director talks about the casting, finding the right location with little time to do so, shooting in a small village, working with the some difficult actors like Stander and his health problems, and so on. The key participants tell some excellent filming anecdotes on this solid extra.
“The Nomad” is a 1967 BBC interview with Polanski where he talks about Poland and his career up to that point. He talks about growing up and surviving World War II. The director also talks about how he got interested in cinema and how that evolved into a career as a filmmaker. This interview features some intriguing insights into the man and his career.
Finally there are two theatrical trailers.