Whenever Roman Polanski’s golden decade from the early ’60s to the early ’70s comes up, films like Knife In The Water, Repulsion, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, and Chinatown all get nods, but Cul-de-sac, his orphaned absurdist comedy from 1966, is rarely mentioned. There are two related reasons for this: It’s never been readily available (or frequently screened) in the video/DVD era, and it feels like a transitional film, mixing and matching the psychosexual tensions of Knife In The Water with the bawdy humor that he would develop later with Fearless Vampire Killers. Yet the film, while firmly in line with Polanski’s work from that period, has its own distinctions, from the evocative setting of a medieval castle isolated by the tides to a screenplay that references Samuel Beckett and Old Hollywood gangster films simultaneously.
In Lionel Stander, Polanski cast an actor whose bumpy career took him from Old Hollywood to European art cinema, a detour forced in part by his blacklisting in the wake of a famously defiant HUAC hearing. Barreling across the screen with a mangled arm and a booming voice, Stander projects like a heavy from another era, but his act as a wounded gangster is more than enough to intimidate the young couple whose lives he’s invading. Stranded in the middle of nowhere after a botched robbery attempt, Stander follows the telephone wire to a seaside castle up on a steep hillside. Its residents are Donald Pleasance, a doddering, ineffectual Brit, and his wife Françoise Dorléac, a sexy Frenchwoman who has grown tired of his weakness. Holding the couple hostage while he waits for his boss, the mysterious “Mr. Kazelbach,” Stander exposes the flaws in their relationship.
The dynamic between the threesome plays out like a proto-Straw Dogs, with Pleasance occupying the Dustin Hoffman role of a feckless intellectual with a bored sexpot wife who must defend his home from a more masculine threat. Polanski and Gérard Brach, his longtime screenwriting partner, sketch the divide between Pleasance and Dorléac too broadly, to the point where their relationship is inexplicable beyond the humiliating games they play with each other. Cul-de-sac functions better as an affectionate goof on Waiting For Godot, enhanced by an unforgettable setting that naturally severs the trio from contact with the outside world. There’s a direct line between the “island” of Cul-de-sac and the intense seclusion of later Polanski thrillers like Death And The Maiden and The Ghost Writer, and the new disc makes it possible to see where those seeds were planted.
Key features: The clear highlight of a slimmer-than-usual features package is Two Gangsters And An Island, a short 2003 documentary about the making of Cul-de-sac, with Polanski and others happily reminiscing about a film for which they feel a great deal of affection. Also included is a half-hour TV interview of Polanski produced shortly after Fearless Vampire Killers, as well as two trailers.