Cul-de-sac: High Tides

“It is my best film. I always loved it. I always believed in it. It is real cinema, done for cinema—like art for art.” That was Roman Polanski’s view of Cul-de-sac in 1970, four years after its release and just following his hugely successful Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and before the similarly acclaimed Chinatown (1974). Would he maintain that verdict today, despite those obvious—and his subsequent—career peaks? I suspect he would. Part of his pride in Cul-de-sac came from the fact that it sprang directly from his imagination, being neither an adaptation nor a response to someone else’s demand. The shoot was a much-troubled one, yet the world he created before the camera, both weirdly real and abstract, appears perfectly achieved. As a movie, it unashamedly flirts with several genres—thriller, horror, comedy—but ultimately belongs to none, other than that of a Polanski film.

Cul-de-sac was the second feature Polanski made after leaving Poland, one of three shot in Britain before he began his adventures in Hollywood. Even by this early stage in his career—he was only thirty-four years old—it was clear the filmmaker would put a distinctive spin on any subject he touched, with dark humor and dramatic suspense delivered through a brilliant yet unpretentious camera style. Cul-de-sac confirms this from its first frame, a mysterious, long-held shot of a road empty but for a slowly approaching car. Audiences may at first think they’re in for a thriller. But as the credits finish, we perceive something peculiar that alters those expectations. The vehicle is in fact not being driven but pushed along, by a blustery American with his arm in a sling, Richard, or Dickie (Lionel Stander), while Albie (Jack MacGowran), an Irishman seriously wounded in the gut, sits redundantly at the wheel—two gangsters on the run from a botched robbery.

What follows is an unpredictable confrontation between these outsiders and the occupants of an isolated medieval castle. The latter are a very odd couple indeed: George (Donald Pleasence), a bald, pedantic Englishman, and his much younger, flighty French wife, Teresa (Françoise Dorléac). Leaving Albie in the car for the time being, Dickie takes refuge in this bizarre household. He banks on help appearing in the form of a mysterious offscreen presence called Mr. Katelbach, but has to contend with some unexpected guests who serve to upset his control of the situation and wind up the tension. It’s a pitiless clash of opposing worlds, with movie hoods crashing into a scene of sadomasochistic marital games, all in the ideal setting for a gothic horror film. Yet the predominant tone of the film is, albeit blackly, comic.

Such a disturbing, ironic vision of human existence could be found in the theater of the absurd, typified by plays, all familiar at the time to the director, written in the 1950s by Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Harold Pinter. In these works, intense tragedy shared the stage with low comedy, while the everyday speech of clichés slipped into philosophical discourse, as people found themselves trapped in situations out of their control. What Polanski created with Cul-de-sac was a cinema of the absurd, delving into situations of humiliation, role-playing, and betrayal, and evoking an unsettling atmosphere quite unlike anything else on the big screen. This is underlined by his then favorite composer Krzysztof Komeda’s haunting music, a nagging cross-mix of cool jazz and early pop electronica that continuously twists back on itself in repetitive phrases—even to the point where, when Teresa plays a gramophone record of the main theme, the needle becomes stuck. It’s just another reminder that this is a film in which the characters are imprisoned in a circle defined by the shores of an island, and are ultimately faced with the option of departure or death.

Material of this kind calls for a sure hand to not descend into prankish self-indulgence, but then Polanski had already demonstrated his full command of the medium. His extraordinary self-assurance is often related to his survival of an appalling childhood, fleeing the Kraków ghetto at the age of eight and hiding out on his own throughout the war, disguising his Jewish origins while his mother perished at Auschwitz. After the war, the teenage Polanski immersed himself in theater, radio, and, later, cinema. Studying first fine art and then filmmaking at the famous school at Lodz, Polanski proved himself an instinctive storyteller and a natural surrealist. His early short films—Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958), The Fat and the Lean (1961), Mammals (1962)—seem to be preparatory sketches for features like Cul-de-sac, as they deal symbolically with power struggles between oppressive masters and wily slaves, the well-meaning and the amoral.  

Polanski has been characteristically reluctant to connect Cul-de-sac’s themes to his own life, but that hasn’t stopped writers from drawing neat conclusions. Biographer Barbara Leaming, for instance, suggests that the roots of the irresponsible Teresa lie in the events surrounding the recent desertion of the director’s first wife, Polish actress Basia Kwiatkowska. Polanski has, however, gone on record as saying that Dickie and George were based, respectively, on the actor Andrzej Katelbach (the burly protagonist of The Fat and the Lean) and producer Pierre Roustang, and that the “hot foot” episode had its origins in a similar stunt played on Roustang by his wife. When Cul-de-sac caused some American critics to complain of elements of “necrophilia, homosexuality, and sadism,” as Polanski has said, his curt reply was to suggest that that was their problem. As he told Joseph Gelmis in The Film Director as Superstar: “I am not obsessed by these things. It was just a film.”

The British critic Kenneth Tynan, who knew Polanski well and collaborated on his 1971 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, famously described the director as playing variations on the theme of imposition—how one person comes to dominate and manipulate another’s sense of the world. This theme was at the heart of Polanski’s acclaimed first feature, Knife in the Water, made in Poland in 1962, in which a bourgeois couple—again, an older man and a younger, attractive wife—have their yachting holiday disrupted by the presence of a hitchhiker, an enigmatic young man who threatens the authority of the husband and wins the eye of the woman. With this film, Polanski showed he could create the greatest tension by placing characters in an isolated setting and, through a deft use of image and sound, achieve something close to what Hitchcock referred to as “pure cinema.” But the deep ambiguities of the story, with its discomforting challenge of an older generation by a younger one, led the Polish authorities to be wary of this precocious master. Polanski, who was born in Paris, realized that greater artistic freedom would be offered there; the French New Wave had successfully stormed the barricades of the once impenetrable film industry and made young directors hot. He decided to try his luck at riding that wave himself (while deriding the lack of professionalism he found in most of their work) and moved to Paris. There, at a party one evening, he found himself talking to Gérard Brach, an impoverished aspiring screenwriter of whom he later said in his autobiography, “We found we had a great community of ideas, Gérard and I: the same kind of humor, the same sense of the absurd.”

Together, the two began cooking up the story of Cul-de-sac, which at first was called Riri (the French version of Ricky), and then changed to When Katelbach Comes. The name Katelbach was borrowed from the aforementioned actor, but the title bore a more significant point of reference. Polanski had previously approached the august Beckett about making a cinema version of his revolutionary Waiting for Godot. But the author saw no reason for something conceived for the stage to be adapted into a film and refused the rights. Nevertheless, Beckett’s exploration of universal human experience through a pair of philosophical bums had a great influence on the young Polanski, as did the disturbing plays of his contemporary Pinter, with their theme of, yes, imposition, laced with menace and black humor. Although he would downplay it, Polanski’s eventual casting of Jack MacGowran, who had acted in Waiting for Godot and Beckett’s Endgame, and Donald Pleasence, who was in both the stage and film versions of Pinter’s The Caretaker, suggests more than pure coincidence.

Unhappily for Polanski and Brach, no one in France would back their screenplay, and they made up time by writing “River of Diamonds,” the director’s episode in the portmanteau film The Best Swindles in the World, and the feature-length comedy A Taste for Women (directed by Jean Léon), both from 1964. Budding producer Gene Gutowski, another Polish exile hungry for success, began hawking the Katelbach script around the smaller British production companies. He eventually found a glimmer of interest at the Compton Cinema Group, whose distinguished-sounding name disguised the fact it had made money showing soft-porn films in a small club in London’s Soho. Keen to invest in something more upmarket, the two men in charge—Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser—were hardly seduced by Polanski’s offbeat drama but said they would gladly back a horror film. According to the director, he and Brach set to work immediately and wrote Repulsion (1965) in seventeen days. Filmed in London, this superbly executed tale of a beautiful schizophrenic (played by Catherine Deneuve) turned murderer in an isolated apartment won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. In turn, Polanski won over Compton to produce the script he had first shown them, now retitled Cul-de-sac.

Polanski was then living in London, and his growing confidence with the language is evident in the greater fluency of the dialogue in Cul-de-sac. Resisting Compton’s suggestion of shooting by the Adriatic Sea, Polanski researched the British coastline. He found the ideal location in the northeast, on Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, which provided a ready-made castle (substituting for a house in the original script) that was cut off from the mainland by the tides for hours in the day. The principal male characters of George and Dickie were assigned to Pleasence and Stander, an American actor living in England as a victim of the Hollywood blacklist. More problematic was finding an actress to play Teresa. Polanski’s choice, Canadian Alexandra Stewart, realized her own unsuitability after a few rehearsals (she looked “too wholesome and healthy,” according to the director) and agreed to quit. Jacqueline Bisset, already in line for a small part, was considered too inexperienced, and with only a few days left before shooting, the role went to Françoise Dorléac, Deneuve’s sister, who had previously given a memorable performance in Truffaut’s The Soft Skin (1964).

Polanski has described the shoot of Cul-de-sac as one of the toughest of his career. Miserable weather, the isolation of the setting, and the hardships of local life brought out all the latent antagonisms among the actors, but in the end, that appears only to have contributed to the film’s palpable intensity and sense of unease. In particular, Stander, by all accounts a first-class bore, tried everyone’s patience, driving the director to goad him to consume yet more raw eggs and pints of milk to achieve the best take. In the scenes of aggression between Stander and Dorléac, the tortures they inflicted on each other became expressions of a genuine and intense antipathy, it has been said. Pleasence arrived on set with a shaved head, something not asked for by the director, though he conceded that it gave a useful twist to the character. The only actor who caused no problems was MacGowran. Polanski was so enchanted by him that he went on to write the role of the professor in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) expressly for the eccentric Irishman. Cul-de-sac soon ran over schedule, but Polanski retaliated with a plan to shoot an entire scene in a single day. This was the bravura seven-minute take of a drunken tête-à-tête between George and Dickie, played out on the beach, with Teresa running off for a nude swim and an airplane passing by dead on cue. Everyone except Polanski felt it was impossible to achieve, but he proved them wrong.

In an interview on the set of Bitter Moon (1992), I asked Polanski how he chose his camera positions, and he disarmingly insisted that it was simply a matter of observing the scene in question and filming it from the most interesting angle. Such moments in Cul-de-sac as a feminized, giggling Pleasence peering into the wide lens as if into a mirror, or the camera recoiling from a sudden outburst of laughter from Stander when Dorléac throws down a coffeepot, are obvious examples of his judgment in finding that perfect point of view. This assured sense of style, which has become more “classical” as his career has advanced, has made Polanski’s films especially satisfying to watch on repeated viewings.

After working with the director on eight films, from Repulsion to Bitter Moon, Gérard Brach died in 2006. Of their more outrageous collaborations, Cul-de-sac was by far the most artistically successful. The only similarly “original” one they penned together was the comedy What? (1972), a film that was sporadically amusing in its very seventies mix of “Alice in the Playboy Mansion” sexual perversity and cultural in-jokes. Neither that nor Cul-de-sac was a commercial success, and since then, the director has tended to play by genre rules, and been rewarded accordingly. Nevertheless, he has remained an auteur director, but one who has escaped the art-house ghetto and survived in the world of popular cinema. Cul-de-sac is that rare instance of a movie that doesn’t quite fit in either domain, and is the richer for it.

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