Monday, August 15, 2011

"Get the hell out of my fortress!"

CUL-DE-SAC (1966) is Roman Polanski’s third feature film and his third (and final) film in black and white. For those into making arbitrary trilogies*, CUL-DE-SAC and its predecessors (KNIFE IN THE WATER and REPULSION) create a Polanski sourdough starter of sorts: the germ of Polanski’s entire subsequent filmography can be found in these three films (all available from the Criterion Collection, with CUL-DE-SAC hitting the streets tomorrow).
But CUL-DE-SAC is, by far, the most Polanskian of the three. One part psychological thriller and one (much larger) part sadistic swipe at the idle bourgeoisie, the film perfectly distills Polanski’s playful misanthropy and stylistic/thematic obsessions into 112 uncomfortable minutes.
The plot is familiar enough: two criminals on the run from a botched heist hole up with – and make hostages of – a married couple. Tensions grow as salvation for either party fails to arrive. In CUL-DE-SAC, the characters are so obviously doomed from the start**, the film becomes a waiting game to see who will implode first.
Over the opening credits, a sedan slowly approaches:

As it sluggishly lurches into frame, it becomes apparent that the car is being pushed by George (Lionel Stander), a gorilla-sized gangster with an arm in a sling:
… while his gut shot accomplice Albie (Jack MacGowran) drifts in and out of consciousness in the driver’s seat.
This is a Sisyphian torment, not an ordinary getaway. What failed criminal enterprise could these two possibly be coming from that’s within car-pushing distance from a Northumbrian no man’s land? The film never says and it’s really not important.
Following telephone wires, Dickie finds the perfect (and only) hideout: a medieval tor
… occupied by George (Donald Pleasence) and his French trophy wife Teresa (Francoise Dorleac, sister of REPULSION’s Catherine Deneuve):
Before long, the two are forced into submission by the alpha male Dickie, a crude American thug with no regard for their delicate European values. As Dickie, Lionel Stander suggests the unholy offspring of Robert Middleton and Ron Perlman, a hulking mass of childlike brutality. When Dickie colorfully vows to “punch that pretty puss into a pumpkin,” you chuckle while knowing he means to make good on the threat.
Polanski was apparently looking for someone “Wallace Beery-ish” and certainly got what he wanted (Stander, by the way, is beloved to me for his uncredited narration of BLAST OF SILENCE, another nice bit of nihilism available via the Criterion label).

Dickie is waiting (in vain, naturally) for rescue via Mr. Katelbach, the offscreen ringleader of whatever maladroit deed brought the criminals here in the first place. Google “Polanski CUL-DE-SAC” and you’ll quickly find the name “Samuel Beckett” is inextricably linked to discussions of this film. The Irish absurdist is the clearest influence here but there’s also a fair amount of Ionesco, too. Have I mentioned that George and Teresa’s castle is infested with chickens?

Eggs are everywhere (and find an odd echo in Pleasence’s bald noggin). There are at least two omelet-making scenes. Why? Who knows. Polanski is working to create atmosphere here. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about his films is their deep sense of space. With CUL-DE-SAC, we’re placed in a home at the edge of an unfeeling world. Where roads are subject to the whims of the tides
… and man is a futile spec on the landscape.

The inhuman desolation is accented by a brilliantly sparse nature-centered sound design. Silences are punctuated by wind, waves, gull cries, chicken clucking, the rustling of legs through beach grass, and the wailing of night birds.

Polanski is clearly influenced by the weird trappings of Gothic horror and Expressionism: 

At first I thought my TV was on the blink. But a trip over to DVD Beaver, where this Polanski-approved master is compared with a previous DVD release, revealed that the blacking of the faces – a bold touch of alienation – is purely intentional.
As someone who makes a living color-correcting reality TV shows, I find it fascinating (and slightly validating) that a few slight tweaks to luminance values can create a wholly different psychological atmosphere.

One of the best choices made by the filmmakers (one that was apparently not originally scripted) is the choice of the castle for the location:
The grandiosity of the setting makes George’s inability to defend it all the more pathetic (and, slightly, heartbreaking).
When a group of high society types drop in unexpectedly for dinner, the hostages and their captor have to make believe everything is on the level.
Things quickly go to hell, naturally. An irreplaceable treasure is destroyed and – in his only moment of true self-assertion – George demands that the visitors leave his “fortress” (see the top-most frame grab), the word suddenly occurring to him, mid-tirade, and giving him a brief moment of glee. Despite his crumbling life, George does, indeed, own a fortress.
Eventually, he has to defend his castle against the increasingly belligerent Dickie. George goes about this in the most half-assed way possible, still losing everything despite thwarting his enemies. STRAW DOGS this isn’t.
Is there a more off-putting actor than Donald Pleasence? Prior to seeing this, I always associated him with his bonkers turn in WILL PENNY. But Pleasence’s George rises to the top of the pile of psychotics and creeps that make up his resume. Pleasence throws himself into the role with a disturbing vigor. Rewatching the film with the sound off, I’m struck by how broad Pleasence is. But he’s still perfect in this role and his balance of attempted cordiality and hidden irritability during the dinner party is alone worth the price of admission, as they say.
Everyone in CUL-DE-SAC is off their nut to a certain degree; only Albie, slowly drowning with dignity, gut shot and alone, in the scuttled sedan, elicits a kernel of empathy. And he’s not around too much.

Compare Albie’s docile disposition as he nears his end with George’s final breakdown:
CUL-DE-SAC eventually reaches the dead end promised by its title. If you don’t mind a fascinating and darkly humorous ride to oblivion, it’s well worth your time.
One further note: The film is shot beautifully by DR. STRANGELOVE and REPULSION lensman Gilbert Taylor. Taylor would go on to preside over STAR WARS and the line from this work to George Lucas’s space opera isn’t as difficult to draw as one might think. The opening approach of the slinking sedan through negative space has an echo in both STRANGELOVE and STAR WARS. And Polanski’s obsessive repetition and recontextualizing of different objects (the eggs and the lonely tor on the tidal plain here, the rabbit and drywall cracks in REPULSION, etc.) is kind of the inverse of George Lucas’s well-ordered armies of homogenized Imperial Stormtroopers and T.I.E. Fighter formations.
* Until gathering info for this piece, I didn’t realize that there was already another dubiously arranged Polanski triptych – “The Apartment Trilogy” – comprised of REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, and THE TENANT. One might as well group KNIFE IN THE WATER, PIRATES, and BITTER MOON into “The Nautical Trilogy.”
** "Directed by Roman Polanski" is, in itself, a label that serves almost as an MPAA rating (or, more to the point, one of those signs posted in line for a roller coaster: "Do not ride if pregnant, etc.”). Those unable to deal with a certain amount of claustrophobia, psychosexuality, sadism, and – above all else -- alienation need be advised. His name implies doomed protagonists.

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