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Graham Buchan takes a look back at Roman Polanski’s 1966 thriller set on Holy Island off the coast of Northumberland
Let me be frank. This is my favourite film. Of all films. This film changed me, in my late teens, from an occasional cinema-goer into an avid film fan. This film made me want to work in the film industry. (Which I did, but in nothing like so glamorous a way.) Most significantly, this film demonstrated the importance of the director: the way a director’s particular vision can steer a film towards being a completely satisfying entertainment.
Polanski remains one of the world’s greatest living directors. Chinatown is one of the best noirish detective films; The Pianist one of the most compelling of all war dramas. True, Polanski has also made a few duds. The Ninth Gate could not rise above its basic silliness; Bitter Moon could not shake off a feeling of sleaze. But these are a distinct minority. Polanski always has something to say – something important – and he usually says it with flair and conviction.
A little bit of history. Polanski emerged spectacularly from the Polish Film School in Lodz in 1959 and had already made the surrealistic short Two Men and A Wardrobe which was noticed outside of Poland. This was followed by his remarkably assured first feature Knife in the Water of 1962 which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. A claustrophobic tale of sexual tension, it showed its director to be in complete command of his material and have the tenacity to overcome considerable difficulties in the shooting. (Almost all the action is on board a small yacht on the Masurian lakes).
After scratching a living for two years in Paris, Polanski came to London. It was the sixties, and after repressive post-war Poland London had exactly the right climate for an original creative talent to be indulged in. It was the London which attracted Antonioni to make Blow-Up and Godard to make Sympathy for the Devil. Polanski made two films here, still working in black and white. Firstly Repulsion (1965) which charts a young girl’s descent into madness and murder. That remains one of the most effective horror movies ever. Then Cul de Sac (1966) which distinguishes itself as black comedy.
The scenario of Cul de Sac is improbable. Two ageing gangsters, Richard (Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran), have bungled a robbery and are pushing an ancient car along a coastal causeway. The tide is coming in. At the end of the causeway is the isolated castle retreat of a bizarre couple: George (Donald Pleasence) and Teresa (Françoise Dorléac). George is middle-aged, retired from business, petulant and a hypochondriac. He has a liking for dressing in his wife’s nightie. Teresa is young, French, beautiful, enigmatic and bored. Married to the older man for only a few months, she is already dabbling in other sexual adventures. They are an ill-matched couple living in a semi-island fortress. Richard holds them hostage, waiting to be rescued by his gangland boss. Albie bleeds to death at the end of the first reel. The intrusion of the malign outsider finally catalyses the couple’s break-up.
In both Knife in The Water and Repulsion Polanski displayed an acute psychological insight into the characters’ relationships and predicaments. In relation to Repulsion a leading psychiatrist asked him how he knew so much about schizophrenia. It was “just his imagination” he was forced to reply. Now, in Cul de Sac, he added humour. From the start the film is full of black humour, role reversal and a sense of the ridiculous. The castle is overrun by chickens; there seems to be nothing but eggs (would Freudians have a comment?) and home-made vodka to consume. In one delicious scene the rough-hewn Richard is transformed into the butler. And one of my favourite moments in all cinema is when Teresa, listless, tipsy and playful, rips and folds pages from her magazine, gently inserts them between the slumbering Richard’s toes, and sets them on fire.
As with Knife in The Water, Polanski maximises the atmosphere afforded by his location. The film was shot on Holy Island off the Northumbrian coast, with all the attendant difficulties that that entailed. (A brand new camera car was enveloped by the waves.) But visually the film benefits from a strong, clear northern light and vast horizons. A visit by former friends is announced by their Jaguar racing over the flat sands. Chickens, gulls and owls punctuate the soundtrack. Powerful sequences are allowed to unfold with little or no dialogue. The castle offers creepy stone passageways and a plethora of ticking clocks.
True, not all the acting is of the first order. Maybe the budget limited his casting choices, and Polanski of course was not working in his native tongue. But Pleasence delivers a beautifully sustained, over-the-top performance, one of the best of his career.
At the centre of the film is an extraordinary sequence which exemplifies the developing relationship of the three protagonists. They are on the beach. George and Richard are drinking. Teresa contemptuously flounces off to have a swim. George follows her but falls in the sand and returns to Richard. He pours his heart out, describing the difficulties of his marriage. Richard hears a small plane and thinks that rescue is at hand. George assures him that it is a regular flight and as the plane sweeps low overhead Richard, angry at being betrayed, pulls out his gun and fires uselessly at the receding shape. Teresa emerges from the waves, shuns George’s overtures and the three of them disappear over the dunes. Polanski, against all the advice on offer, insisted on shooting the sequence in a single, choreographed, seven-and-a-half-minute take, including the appearance of the plane. Perhaps only a young, confident director, absolutely on top of his talent, would have dared.
Polanski went on to make more extraordinary and bigger movies, but one feels, especially when he stopped originating his own screenplays, that there was less exuberance in his movie making. And it is amazing to know that even fifty years ago, Cul de Sac cost only £120,000 to make.
Cul de Sac, a little-seen gem, well worth your attention, has been known to crop up on late night TV, and can be found on DVD and Blu-ray.