Like the two films that preceded it, Roman Polanski’s third feature, Cul-de-sac, thrives on mood and tone in a claustrophobic setting. In some ways, it plays out similarly to Polanski’s debut — Knife in the Water — with a couple’s emotional balance upset by the appearance of a stranger inside a confined space. But this time, Polanski throws in an undercurrent of black humor to the mix, ratcheting up the absurdity just as much as he cranks up the tension.
Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorléac star as George and Teresa, newlyweds living in an English castle on an isolated island — cut off from the rest of the world for hours every day by the tides. He’s an effeminate Englishman; she’s a lusty Frenchwoman with a penchant for screwing the neighbor boy. Their distinctly odd relationship is lent an added wrinkle with the appearance of Richard (Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran), a pair of gangsters on the run after a botched job. Albie soon dies from the gunshot wound he’s sustained, leaving the married couple to contend with a dead body and a bombastic, unwanted houseguest.
Initially, the power hierarchy seems obvious, with the brash American gangster running roughshod over his unwilling hosts and basically camping out while waiting for the arrival of his boss, Mr. Katelbach. Richard is almost unbelievably boisterous, but for all of his buffoonery, there’s a real sense of menace underneath. And yet, a power struggle begins to play out in bizarre ways, and the dynamics of the trio begin to shift. Some of this is brought about by external factors, like a surprise visit from a group of George’s obnoxious bourgeois friends. Some of it seems to arise from cabin fever madness overtaking the castle’s occupants.
Cul-de-sac is a strange little film through and through. It feels slighter than its Polanski predecessors Knife in the Water and Repulsion, but it’s certainly the most idiosyncratic of the three. Its morbid humor and absurd theatrics show Polanski eminently capable of evoking a specific mood with his imagery, and for that reason alone, it’s a weird highlight of his filmography.
The Blu-ray Disc
Cul-de-sac is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Especially for the first half of the film, this is a very dark transfer, with heavy shadows overtaking large sections of the frame often. As this transfer was approved by Polanski, we can assume this is the intended look. It’s a testament to the quality of Criterion’s work that despite the darkness, blacks are never crushed and detail remains strong. The image is pleasingly film-like throughout, with a subtle layer of grain visible and rich, detail-heavy close-ups. Occasional long shots are a bit soft, but this is likely a condition of the photography. As far as I know, the film has never seen a U.S. home video release up until now, so this Blu-ray represents an excellent debut.
Audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural track that faithfully handles the dialogue-heavy film. Some portions of dialogue are a bit muffled, but it’s clearly an issue from the source. Stander’s blustering, which can get quite loud at points, never sounds harsh from the track.
Sort of a light collection of extras here, with the best being a 2003 making-of documentary originally produced by Blue Underground that runs about 25 minutes. Interviews with Polanski, producer Gene Gutowski and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor are featured in this retrospective about the film’s genesis. There’s also a 1967 TV interview with Polanski of similar length on the disc, along with several theatrical trailers. The package also includes a booklet with an essay by critic David Thompson, who dwells more on production history than analysis of the film.
The Bottom Line
Somewhere between oddity and essential part of Polanski’s career, Cul-de-sac is memorably bizarre and looks great in this Blu-ray release.