Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Françoise Dorléac, Lionel Stander, Jack MacGowran
Country: UK
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1966
BBFC Certificate: PG

I, like many film fans I imagine, have a chequered relationship with Roman Polanski. His controversial private life is something I won’t get into here, but it has tarnished his work to many over the years. I’ve never liked how he comes across in interviews either, but I don’t usually let my opinion of a filmmaker’s personality or private affairs get in the way of the quality of their work. Unfortunately though, I’ve found the quality of Polanski’s work a little hit and miss over his lengthy career. Tess for instance, which I reviewed here a while back, bored me to tears, whereas Chinatown has long sat in my list of favourite films of all time. There are plenty of Polanski films I’ve yet to watch though and because I regard one or two of his films so highly, I’m always happy to give new ones a try. Cul-De-Sac was his third full feature film in the director’s chair and it’s being re-released on Blu-Ray as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection in the UK, so an offer for review came my way and I thought I’d give it a shot.

Cul-De-Sac sees two injured gangsters (Richie – Lionel Stander and Albie – Jack MacGowran) stuck on Lindisfarne (a.k.a. Holy Island) in Northumberland when their stolen car breaks down in the middle of a road which is regularly submerged under the sea due to the shifting tides (this is indeed true to the location – I’ve been there myself). They seek refuge in a nearby mansion inhabited by the care-free couple George (Donald Pleasence) and Teresa (Françoise Dorléac). Taking advantage of the remote location and his ‘hosts’ weaknesses, Richie, the muscle of the operation, essentially takes them hostage whilst he waits for his boss to show up and sort out the mess they got themselves into after their botched heist. So begins a blackly comic fight for power as Teresa attempts to force her cowardly husband George into taking control of the situation.

Cul-De-Sac is a most unusual film. Employing a free-wheeling style very much in tune with the period, it’s not a film concerned with telling much of a story. Instead it seems content with having fun with its quirky cast of characters and odd situation. Much emphasis is put on exploring the idea of ‘manning up’, with Richie throwing his weight around, George wanting to do something about it but not having the courage to, and Teresa ultimately ending up as the most bold and confident person on the island. There’s a fun reflection of this in the segment when some unexpected guests appear at the mansion with their young rambunctious son in tow. George obviously can’t control the boy as he trashes his beloved kite and causes chaos. Richie tries but fails to deliver his thuggish brand of discipline and it’s left to Teresa to put the boy in his place.

Although the film plays it very loose and is a little meandering because of this, I still very much enjoyed the experience. It’s often very funny with some nice visual gags scattered throughout. The performances are great too. Verging on over the top, the actors enthusiastically throw themselves into their larger than life roles, with the two male leads in particular proving a riot to watch.

There is some striking black and white imagery on display too. Although the camerawork is often handheld and has a free-flowing feel to it like the rest of the film, Polanski and his DOP Gilbert Taylor have a keen eye for effortlessly capturing beautifully framed shots that make the most of the sparse landscape and gothic mansion.

I appreciated the jazz soundtrack too, courtesy of regular Polanski collaborator Krzysztof Komeda, who died only 3 years later. It adds to the almost improvised feel of proceedings and keeps you bopping along throughout.

It’s a most unusual, rambling farce, which I didn’t always know what to make of, but enjoyed nonetheless. With its dark and quirky sense of humour, Polanski’s keen eye for memorable and often amusing imagery, and anchored by enjoyable performances, it’s certainly on the ‘hit’ side of my relationship with Polanski’s films.

Cul-De-Sac is out on 27th February on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality is excellent as usual for the label.

You get a handful of special features too. Here’s the full list:

– Two Gangsters and an Island, a 2003 documentary about the making of Cul-de-sac, featuring interviews with Polanski, producer Gene Gutowski, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor
– Television Interview with Polanski from 1967
– Theatrical trailers
– PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Thompson

It’s maybe not the most loaded package Criterion have put together, but the documentary is very good, covering the production in great detail with a refreshingly honest approach. It wasn’t an easy shoot and nobody claims otherwise. Polanski doesn’t hide the fact that the film wasn’t planned in great detail either. The interview explores Polanski’s early career with plenty of snippets from his short films as well as his first couple of features. It’s a decent piece, if a little dry and academic.

Cul-De-Sac - Criterion Collection
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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