Cul-de-sac (1966, Roman Polanski)

I follow a lotta must-see movie lists, and supposedly one of my core interests is the Criterion Collection. Movies that are generally accepted as great, released in pristine quality with valuable extras – it’s a no-brainer. At the halfway point of every month I reload their site all day until the new disc announcements appear, and I agonize over which titles I need to buy during the next half-price sale and which are okay to rent from netflix (in the increasingly rare case that they’re actually carried).

And yet it’s not unusual for a month to go by where I watch no Criterion blu-rays, and I think I’ve figured out why that is. I think in the back of my mind, when the Criterion discs come out they lose their sense of urgency. This movie is now readily available in a near-ideal form, so no need to worry about that. Perhaps the wealth of extras is actually hurting as well – I know when I watch Red I’m gonna have to watch another hour’s worth of (really great!) bonus material, which takes up extra time. I’m always threatening a Criterion Month to catch up, but somehow that never happens, while Shocktober and Cannes Month and the Shorts Project and Rock Docs and TV shows and my random decision this month to watch six adaptations of Crime & Punishment go off without a hitch.

So damn it, I’m declaring that from now until Shocktober is Criterion Month.

I watched a fair number of Polanski films in the last couple years, and am starting to make sense of his style. The Apartment Trilogy is dark and weird, but at least two of the three films have bits of heightened silliness. Carnage and Fearless Vampire Killers are ridiculous, and I thought I was supposed to take Ghost Writer seriously as a drama, but perhaps not. I wouldn’t say Cul-de-sac is one of my favorites, but I get its mood: a hostage thriller with the tension constantly undercut by comic situations and performances.

After a robbery gone wrong, gorilla thug Lionel Stander and mortally wounded Jack MacGowran (the nutty Professor in the following year’s Fearless Vampire Killers) hole up at a castle on the shore, not realizing that the tide would trap them there for the next day. The castle dwellers include insecure author Donald Pleasence, introduced being dressed as a woman by young wife Francoise Dorléac (Catherine Deneuve’s sister in life and in The Young Girls of Rochefort). Lionel alternates between seeming quite menacing and seeming like a dumb guy with nowhere else to go, after he’s disowned by his crime bosses via phone and his partner dies, lumbering into scenes of marital discord like a disfigured remake of Knife in the Water. Stressed, Pleasance alienates his wife and the friends who come to visit while Lionel is still waiting for word from the bosses (pretending to be a drunk uncle or something). Pleasance does finally transform from emasculated dress-up doll to heroic man of violence, shooting a marauding Lionel, but it doesn’t last – he’s freezing up moments later, and Francoise flees, leaving him to his freakouts.

Won the golden bear in Berlin, playing with Lord Love a Duck and Masculin Feminin. First film appearance by Jacqueline Bisset (Day For Night, Under The Volcano) as one of the visitors. Donald Pleasence is campy here, but to be fair, it seems like he’s supposed to be. I only know him as the least-convincing part of such realist films as Halloween, Phenomena, Mr. Freedom and The Pumaman. If only I knew a Pleasence expert who could explain this guy’s methods. Lionel Stander is an actor with an interesting history. He worked throughout the 1930’s and 40’s (Hangmen Also Die, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, A Star is Born). His Eugene Pallette-like voice endeared him to Preston Sturges in the late 1940’s, then he was blacklisted for many years before showing up here.

David Thompson:

What Polanski created with Cul-de-sac was a cinema of the absurd, delving into situations of humiliation, role-playing, and betrayal, and evoking an unsettling atmosphere quite unlike anything else on the big screen. This is underlined by his then favorite composer Krzysztof Komeda’s haunting music, a nagging cross-mix of cool jazz and early pop electronica that continuously twists back on itself in repetitive phrases — even to the point where, when Teresa plays a gramophone record of the main theme, the needle becomes stuck … Polanski had previously approached the august Beckett about making a cinema version of his revolutionary Waiting for Godot. But the author saw no reason for something conceived for the stage to be adapted into a film and refused the rights. Nevertheless, Beckett’s exploration of universal human experience through a pair of philosophical bums had a great influence on the young Polanski, as did the disturbing plays of his contemporary Pinter, with their theme of, yes, imposition, laced with menace and black humor. Although he would downplay it, Polanski’s eventual casting of Jack MacGowran, who had acted in Waiting for Godot and Beckett’s Endgame, and Donald Pleasence, who was in both the stage and film versions of Pinter’s The Caretaker, suggests more than pure coincidence.

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