Following the international successes of Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965), but before his American breakthroughs Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski made Cul-de-sac in 1966. This curious film is one seldom discussed when evaluating the director’s body of work, mostly because he directed so many other great movies, but also because this is an unclassifiable and bizarre yet truly engrossing picture.
Lionel Stander chews each scene aggressively as George, one of two criminals (the other being Albie, played by Jack MacGowran) who arrive at a remote water-front castle. George is hurt, but Albie is dying. We know neither where they come from nor what happened. Albie stays in the car as George seeks assistance in the castle, attempting to phone his apparent superior for support and confronting the owners of the building, Richard and Teresa, portrayed by Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorléac respectively. There is a past with George and the less-than-receptive Richard, but it too remains ambiguously undeveloped and not discussed. While away, George forgets the tide and returns to Albie too late, finding him in the car gradually getting swallowed up by the rising water. Though rescued, Albie dies soon after. Eventually, the relationships between the three remaining characters take uncomfortable and potentially dangerous turns. Sexual and violent tensions boil up and suspicions arise. Who is playing who? Who is really in charge? Who has the upper hand? And who is really holding who captive? This is all only heightened when other visitors, unaware of the transpiring drama, stop by.
The film, in a good way, begins to feel as awkward as the characters do. As he has always been an expert at, Polanski creates a palpable anxiousness and sense of danger. One is never quite sure if and when one of these individuals will act out. The film’s structure is such that the normal rules of narrative don’t seem like they might necessarily apply. Anything is possible. Added to that are the overstated performances: There is Stander’s gravelly-voiced threats and barbaric mannerisms; there is the attractive Dorléac seducing both men without ever really appearing genuine in either case, perhaps working her own autonomous angle; and there is Pleasence, exaggeratingly protesting the situation and attempting to enforce his supposed dominance over his home.
In a 1969 Positif interview, Polanski stated, “From a cinematic point of view it’s certainly my best film.” While he made many remarkable movies after that statement, some ultimately better than this, it is an interesting and perhaps accurate evaluation; this is the one that does stand out in terms of noteworthy camera angles, maneuvers (including one of cinema’s longest without a cut), and a general atmosphere of anxiety aided by the unorthodox sets and the unnerving and absolutely perfect music by frequent early collaborator Krzysztof Komeda. It’s not that the film is gimmicky; it’s just that it makes the most of what artistic cinema can do.
Visually, and with regards to mood and tone, Cul-de-sac has more in common with Polanski’s work from the 1960s (save for 1976’s The Tenant), but as a testament to his talent, these great works were not any sort of premature peak for the filmmaker. His recent achievements in the form of The Pianist (2002) and The Ghost Writer (2010) – one of last year’s best – proves that the director has not lost any of his mastery, of which Cul-de-sac is an early and underrated example of.