Criterion: Cul-de-sac, 1966
Some might consider this a lesser Polanski, but it was produced during what I consider his peak. Repulsion, which I consider to be the best Polanski (sorry Chinatown!) came out just the year before, and this pictures uses many of the same crew, including the DP, Gilbert Taylor. It has a similar look and feel to Repulsion. While this film is lighter in tone and has some comedic moments, it still had similar, dark themes as his surrounding films, which would culminate a couple years later in Rosemary’s Baby, another of his best films.
Cul-de-Sac could have been a three-act play using mostly four lead actors, but the location of Lindisfarne / Holy Island was almost like another character. It was the dead end, or cul-de-sac in many ways for all of these characters, whether temporary or permanent. The castle was beautiful, but remote, isolated, and subject to the tidal whims of the sea. It was a change in tide that created the situation that put these characters together, as the car of two gangsters stalls on its way to the island.
The ensemble case consisted of lesser known talent, but they really shined here. Most notable was Donald Pleasence in his effeminate portrayal of the cuckolded husband George. Françoise Dorléac played his restless French wife. I admired her work in Truffault’s The Soft Skin, and it is worth noting that she is the elder sister of Catherine Deneuve, who was absolutely fantastic in Repulsion. In many ways the two characters were similar, albeit Dorléac’s Teresa responds to her isolation with adultery rather than psychosis. Finally, Lionel Stander played Dickie, the gangster who occupies and bullies the quiet lives of this odd pairing. He was perfectly cast as the loudmouth ruffian, which results in terrific character conflict between Pleasence and Dorléac.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing long take. There is a period where the threesome are on the beach, when Dorléac strips naked, runs into the water and leaves the men to argue. As they continue their bickering, a noise is heard from overhead which Dickie thinks is a helicopter coming to rescue him. Instead, to his disappointment, it is a low flying airplane. The actors play off it exceptionally well, and the plane enters the frame with perfect timing. Dorléac right on cue, returns from her swim towards the end of the shot. It was over 8-minutes, and it’s difficult for me to remember a better orchestrated take in Polanski’s long career.
Film Rating: 8/10
The disc has a short, making-of featurette. What I like about the Criterion documentary features compared with traditional releases is that they aren’t self-congratulatory. They are honest about the production, warts and all. First off, I was surprised that they practically bash Stander, who was extremely difficult to work with. You wonder whether they would have been so frank about his behavior if were still living. They also talked about the animosity on the set between Polanski and pretty much everyone else. Finally, they talk about how they put together and timed the praiseworthy long take. If it weren’t for production problems and delays, it may not have happened.
They show a black and white TV interview with Polanski in 1967, just after he had filmed The Fearless Vampire Killers. Sometimes these features don’t work well, but this was a good interview, especially considering this was from when Polanski was young and at the height of his career. He touches on his rough childhood in Poland during the war (he was a Jewish refugee whose mother died), and focuses more on his career, and shows old shorts and previous works of his. It is a nice retrospective and Polanski is always a good interview subject, young or old.
The disc is light on special features and that is okay. Other Polanski releases, including Repulsion have a lot of features. This is a good companion to all of them.
Criterion Rating: 8/10