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Quite a few black comedies have been successful, films with a specific satirical target or targets in mind. But movies that carry over the full impact of the Theater of the Absurd are few and far between. The entire point of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is a sense of stasis that keeps the play from progressing while its characters wait for a miracle that never comes. Absurdism takes the point of view that existence is not rational to the human mind, and that people must invent their own fantasies or self-delusions if they want or need reasons "to be".
As a film artist in Poland Roman Polanski imbued his films with equal parts pessimistic social comment and absurdist humor, which is usually not "funny" in the commercial sense of the word. Two Men and a Wardrobe is the perfect absurdist film. The action is a blank allegory, yet we can identify with the heroes' predicament at each stage of the game. Polanski's breakout feature Knife in the Water confirmed his technical and visual superiority, as well as showing him a master director of subtle relationships. The movie isolates a man, his wife and a young guest on a boat on a featureless lake, and is consistently gripping.
After spending some time in Paris Polanski gravitated to swinging London, presumably because of its greater access to film money. He and his new French writing partner Gérard Brach concocted a weird, indefinable script called When Katelbach Comes. The British exploitation-oriented company Compton-Tekli wanted something more mainstream, so the pair came up with the psychological horror film Repulsion. That hit launched Polanski's commercial career. Before filming his color and Panavision horror comedy for MGM, Compton-Tekli allowed Polanski to make what would become his personal favorite, 1966's Cul-de-sac.
Middle-aged George (Donald Pleasance) has left his wife Agnes for the young Frenchwoman Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), sold his factory and purchased a private island retreat, a 'fortress' of his own. An 11th century castle sits imposingly on a dramatic rock separated from the English mainland by a causeway that floods at every high tide. Although she is not faithful, Teresa seems to understand George, who in his freedom is becoming quite an eccentric.
Into this safe haven barges Richard "Dickie" (Lionel Stander), an American gangster fleeing a botched robbery with his partner Albie (Jack MacGowran). Both are wounded. Their car breaks down on the causeway and is swamped by the incoming tide. Dickie invades George's island home to await rescue by his gang boss Katelbach. Dickie holds the couple at gunpoint but the three form an unstable relationship. Then a group of uninvited guests arrive, at which point Dickie must pretend to be a servant. George reaches the end of his patience with the obnoxious guests. Disgusted by her husband's meek acceptance of Dickie's tyranny, Teresa would rather slip away to the sand dunes with a handsome guest (Iain Quarrier). Dickie sympathizes with George against the wayward Teresa, as he claims to know her type well.
Cul-de-sac is an altogether original exercise in extended absurdity, with a personality difficult to describe. The situation is a bizarre sidebar to a gangster tale, which becomes a muted situation comedy. The characters are amusing, especially Lionel Stander's outrageously straightforward Dickie. Other ironies make us smile but there are no calculated punch lines. Poor Albie, stuck in the car as the water rises around him, calmly observes that things are getting sticky. George laughs himself silly as he allows Teresa to dress him in a nightie and paint his face like a girl. Knowing Polanski's penchant for classic horror imagery, we suspect that George is made to look like one of the male pinheads that passes for female in Tod Browning's Freaks. Gravel-voiced tough guy Dickie bosses George about and calls him a Little Fairy, but soon takes his side. Like any red-blooded American hood Dickie doesn't trust dames, and Teresa seems willing to cheat on George with anything that comes along. Determined to show both men who is boss, Teresa at one point gives Dickie a hotfoot with burning newspaper between his toes. When Dickie takes a switch to her, it's almost as if he's become a tough-love marriage counselor. As if for fun Polanski places the stunning Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) as a quiet observer among the unpleasant lunch guests; it's one of her first movies.
Polanski and Brach imbue Cul-de-sac with all the marks of absurdist comedy. Nothing works the way it was intended. The brute gangster has no use for the beautiful female hostage. The guns are mostly useless and Dickie's feared submachine gun is only good for blowing up the henhouse. Dickie cuts the phone line only to later realize that he needs it again to communicate with Katelbach. Dickie misreads approaching cars and airplanes as signs that the hoped-for Katelbach has arrived. Surrounded by chickens, George can't find his omelet pan, and ends up with broken eggs on the floor. George's annoying, snooty lunch guests refuse to mind their bratty son, who bites and kicks George, and threatens the entire group with a shotgun.
Cul-de-sac's weirdness is engaging because Polanski and Brach's characters are so vivid, especially the near-infantile George and the charismatic thug Dickie. Teresa is mostly sincere but we doubt that she'll be a permanent mate for George. Hollow greetings and promises to have future get-togethers seem all the sillier when one greets guests on one's private "fortress" stuck out in the middle of the sea. Everybody wants to escape in Cul-de-sac, but the title announces a dead end -- and a last laugh on private plans.
Roman Polanski would cement his commercial career by reinvigorating the genres of the horror film (Rosemary's Baby) and the classic detective thriller (Chinatown). At one point he was deeply involved developing The Day of the Dolphin, a sci-fi conspiracy adaptation and not a project for a director committed to intellectual film art. But much of Polanski's work displays his affinity for mordant Absurdism, which creeps into the horror comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers, the soft-core Alice in Wonderland farce (What?) and the now virtually vanished box office failure Pirates. Polanski's sly and darkly absurdist attitude informs all of his best work, even when relegated to the details: that incongruous wardrobe crops up in film after film.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray rescues Roman Polanski's quirky masterpiece Cul-de-sac from the murky 16mm repertory prints that once circulated. Filmed in poor weather on an English location known for its cold and damp, Gilbert Taylor's cinematography manages to make much of the show look sunny and warm. And the matching is so good that, when part of the final night scene had to be filmed back at a London studio, the location change is imperceptible. 1
Composer Krzysztof Komeda provides a couple of jazz themes that communicate the weirdness of events while mocking the characters. Komeda was Polanski's closest collaborator until his untimely death at age 37, soon after composing the score for Rosemary's Baby.
The disc features an excellent documentary called Two Gangsters and an Island, built-around a candid interview with Roman Polanski. We hear plenty about problems with actor Lionel Stander (the best thing in the movie). Polanski tells us that Donald Pleasance took it upon himself to show up with his head shaved bald, and that the shoot was a difficult one owing to bad weather. Polanski also expresses his admiration for Jack MacGowran, who so impressed him that he fashioned The Fearless Vampire Killers just to give the actor a plum role. Polanski, producer Gene Gutowski and cameraman Taylor all comment on a miraculous lengthy beach scene that Polanski executed in one unbroken take. The airplane arrived perfectly on cue on the second take; a third attempt failed when actress Dorléac collapsed in the freezing water. The director of this fine docu is David Gregory.
Polanski appears again in a 1967 television interview, not long after the premiere of Vampire Killers. He relates the story of his childhood in Poland, leaving out the uglier details of his survival and his progress from one state school to the next. If Polanski's talent weren't so evident from the very beginning of his film work, we'd have to say his career was one incredibly lucky move after another. The director remains modest on the subject but was obviously a very calculating and clever survivor from childhood forward.
Two original trailers show the British distributor desperately trying to make the indefinable Cul-de-sac appear to be a normal comedy thriller, a hopeless ambition if ever there was one. Critic David Thompson provides the essay for the disc's insert booklet. Criterion is also releasing the disc on standard DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cul-de-sac Blu-ray rates:
1. Polanski told critic Ivan Butler in 1970 that from the moment George comes out of the wine cellar with the gun in his hand up to the end of the killing, it was all done back at the studio. He must have meant the pyrotechnics with the car and the henhouse.
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T'was Ever Thus.