Studio:The Criterion Collection Year: 1966 Cast: Lionel Stander, Donald Pleasence, Françoise Dorléac Director: Roman Polanski Release Date: August 16, 2011 Rating: Not Rated for Run Time: 01h:52m:14s Genre(s): thriller
Roman Polanski's triangle of menace and mayhem, with a killer new transfer.
Movie Grade: B+
DVD Grade: B
Reviewing movies in isolation, we sometimes give too much credit (or blame) to filmmakers, for both the style and substance of their work—auteurism contributes to this, too, and certainly one way to read Cul-de-Sac is as a continuation of themes that Polanski had previously developed, especially in Knife in the Water. (The setup for both movies is pretty similar—the rifts in the relationship between a young couple are exposed and deepened and made dangerous by the introduction of a mysterious stranger.) But what's kind of great about this release is a chance to consider this particular film in its historical moment—Polanski's private life isn't the subject of discussion here, and he certainly, earlier in his career especially, was as good as anyone at capturing and filming the zeitgeist. This handsome, classically made film is very much of 1966, for good and for ill.
The influences are obvious—the movie opens with a couple of stranded gangsters, one who has taken a bullet to the shoulder, the other who is worse off than that, and they're guys (though American) straight out of a Harold Pinter play of the period. The chief terrorizer is Richard, played by Lionel Stander—he's a great big mountain of a man, and you just don't want to be between him and what he wants. (Stander had a long, distinguished career, but if you grew up like I did on a steady diet of Hart to Hart, you may keep expecting Stefanie Powers and Robert Wagner to show up and bail him out of all this. Come on, Mr. and Mrs. H!) His marks here are a young couple in a house in Northumberland—Donald Pleasence is right out of Angry Young Man 101, and Françoise Dorléac is his perfect arm candy. (We learn in the supplements that the actress is Catherine Deneuve's sister.)
What ensues is the effort by Richard to wring a rescue plan out of his forced hosts as best he can—it's got many of the trappings of a thriller, but you sense that Polanski isn't much interested in gangsters, or in action. It's a reminder that the movie came out the same year as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and like the Nichols film of Albee's drama, it's all about games people play. Criterion's tremendous new transfer gives us grainy gray nightscapes, the sense of desolation in this remote part of England that makes for many dark nights of the soul; as a gangster picture, it's really more successful as a character study than a genre piece, and really, that's fine.
Extras include a 2003 look back, Two Gangsters and an Island (23m:26s), featuring interviews with lots of behind-the-scenes talent, including Polanski, producers Gene Gutowski and Tony Tenser, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, among others. There's also a long BBC interview (27m:04s) of Polanski from the following year, though it focuses more on the director's next picture (The Fearless Vampire Killers), and on his early life in France and Poland. The disc also holds two trailers, the accompanying booklet an essay by David Thompson.