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Waiting for Katelbach,
This review is from: Cul-De-Sac  [DVD] (DVD)
Released in 1966 right after Repulsion, Cul-de-sac is Roman Polanski's third feature film and one of his favorites according to his autobiography. In a world that acclaims Repulsion as being not only his masterpiece but also one of the greatest films ever made, it is revealing to read the great director dismissing his `greatest achievement' as a mere cash cow needed to fund the real labor of love that followed it. Cul-de-sac did win the Silver Bear at the 1966 Berlin film festival, but it's hardly accepted as a major work even today although it is good to see some positive posts here on Amazon. It flopped disastrously in the States and even in Europe it fell into the shadow cast by its predecessor. It's a shame really because I think in its own unique way it is rather wonderful. In fact all early Polanski is essential viewing, and Anchor Bay's 4 DVD set of Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Cul-de-sac and a selection of his bizarre short films from the late `50s would be self-recommending if it wasn't so expensive.
Cul-de-sac is undeniably an odd affair. Co-written by Polanski with Gérard Brach, it's a mixture of gangster flick and jet black comedy related in a style reminiscent of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter which makes for a film which is difficult to pigeon-hole. Think The Petrified Forest (1936, Archie Mayo), Key Largo (1948, John Huston) and The Desperate Hours (1955, William Wyler) crossed with Waiting for Godot and The Birthday Party, and you might get close to describing Polanski's exploration of themes that became obsessive for him across all his films - especially sexual repression, gender games, psychological retardation and the tendency of human beings to assert themselves by destroying those around them. Apparently all was not well between members of the cast who were at each other's throats by the end of the shoot. Perhaps this was a situation deliberately cultivated by Polanski as the film is about how a collection of ill-assorted misfits collide with each other in a most unlikely location designed purposely to bring out the worst in them. They scratch and trap, pushing themselves ever deeper into a dead end, a cul-de-sac from which there is no exit.
The location is Lindisfarne Island (otherwise known as Holy Island) off the coast of Northumbria. On it is a castle named Rob Roy and in the castle lives an eccentric Englishman named George (Donald Pleasence), an effeminate and neurotic millionaire with self-esteem issues who has cashed in his factory for splendid isolation. Living with the Englishman in his castle is his beautiful young French tart of a wife Teresa (Françoise Dorléac). The couple is as ill-matched as is possible to imagine. She specializes in goading him with taunts about his manliness and lack of prowess in the sack while torturing him psychologically by throwing herself at every other male that comes near in the knowledge that George is emotionally dependent on her. Into this hornets' nest of marital woe come two shot-up gangsters Richard (Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran) on the lam after a misfired caper. The first image of the film sees them loom out of the distance, Richard pushing their crippled car towards the camera along the causeway that connects Lindisfarne with the mainland at low tide. Albie is dying in the car's driving seat while Richard pushes from the rear. The situation is clearly absurd. What kind of caper could these city gangsters possibly have been pulling out here on the wild coastline a million miles away from anywhere? Richard spies a telephone line and leaves Albie at the mercy of the rising tide to call his boss whose name is Katelbach. The phone turns out to be in Rob Roy and soon the gangsters have George and Teresa under their thumb while they await their boss. Just as in Waiting for Godot we are given no clues about the background of these characters, no precise information about the man they are waiting for and (as with Beckett) the wait proves equally enigmatic. Much fun is had with the psychological mind-games played between the characters. George is the butt of most of the black humor as he is dressed in a nightie, covered in make up and abused by Teresa for not being man enough to defend her. He is alternately embarrassed, abused, humiliated, submitted to drink alcohol on his stomach ulcer and even almost buried alive. Lionel Stander is no Humphrey Bogart and though he quickly takes the upper hand in controlling the situation we sense it was his stupidity that stymied them in the first place.
More mind games take place when George is forced into throwing an impromptu house party for unwanted quests ironically named `Fairweather'. They wreak havoc on George's isolation and enable Teresa to turn the tables on Richard forcing him to be a servant for the occasion. This induces some memorable lines from Stander mimicking Jeeves the butler with a horrendous English accent. I won't spoil the film by going into every detail, but the tone Polanski adopts is fascinating being at the same time hilarious and frightening. As with Pinter we are forced into the discomfort of laughing at something that really shouldn't be funny at all. Looking at these weird characters acting out a farrago in the middle of nowhere we can't help but see aspects of ourselves in them. Like all of cinema's best psychologists Polanski knows the paradox of the human condition where we are all defined by the people that surround us. We need to both befriend and attack others to remain vital as people. There is something acidic and deeply twisted about Polanski's view of human nature which reminds me of Hitchcock. Perhaps Cul-de-sac is the kind of film Hitch would have loved to have made if he wasn't so committed to keeping his commercial reputation intact. Just think what The Trouble with Harry (1954) for example could have been if Hitch had really let his dead pan imagination go...
On the acting front the film really belongs to Donald Pleasence who here gives a ridiculously enjoyable performance. He annoyed Polanski no end by shaving his head completely bald the day before the shooting began. Then throughout he tried to hog every scene and milk everything to his advantage which got up everyone's noses. Then there's Lionel Stander playing the American gangster like a fish out of water, his macho gravelly voice contrasting marvelously with Pleasence's effeminate whining. Jack MacGowran does a lot with little material, bringing along as he does his reputation for playing Pinter in the theater (Polanski gave him a much bigger role in his next film, Dance of the Vampires ). Françoise Dorléac was Catherine Deneuve's sister who died tragically in a car crash not long after the film wrapped. Her role is one-dimensional as the object of all male sexual desire, but is important as she is the variable in the experiment which affects the way all the males act around her. There's also Jacqueline Bisset in a minor role. As with Repulsion, Gilbert Taylor provides superb b/w imagery which makes the most of silhouettes and the wild Lindisfarne location which exists as it looks in this film to this day. The whole film looks marvelous from start to finish and the very last image of George perched ridiculously on a rock like a diseased pelican surrounded by the sea has become iconic. It's a film of great pungency in the script highlighted by a series of extraordinary images - unmissable in my view.
The film is available in many presentations and surely the afore-mentioned Anchor Bay box set is a tempting (if expensive) proposition. This is a review of the Japanese region 2 NTSC disc which I bought very cheaply. There are no extras, but the b/w resolution is excellent, the picture widescreen and the sound very good for the period. The Criterion region 1 NTSC disc is supposed to be excellent as well, but again I note the expense. Still, whichever version you opt for, you surely won't regret adding this to your collection if absurdist humor is to your taste.