Cul-de-Sac’s most obvious reference point in Roman Polanski’s filmography is his debut feature Knife in the Water. As with that film, we’re offered a remote location (in this case Holy Island) and the power games between three individuals. Though rather than a simple remake/rehash, Polanski and co-writer Gerard Brach offer slight twists on the idea and inject a great deal of black humour.
The individuals here are artist Donald Pleasence, his much younger wife Francois Dorleac (again, echoes of Knife in the Water), and on-the-run criminal Lionel Stander. Uninvited, Stander infiltrates his way into their remote castle, the threat of violence constantly present. This violence is interesting as it proves the main difference between Cul-de-Sac and Knife in the Water. Whereas as that film was far more psychological in its power struggles, the presence of Stander and his gun in Cul-de-Sac shifts the balance incredibly.
The most prominent shift is in the role of the husband. Not only does Pleasence seem to have little control of his marriage (tellingly, we first see Dorleac in a topless clinch with another man, and at another point we realise the couple have been together less than ten months), but he’s also more the persecuted that the persecutor (whereas in Knife in the Water, it was the husband who was, for the most part, in control).
The casting of Pleasence is important here. During this period the actor was doing arguably his best work in such films as The Great Escape, Dr. Crippen and Harold Pinter adaptation The Caretaker. The latter film offers an interesting comparison as Pinter’s work constantly deals with the themes of isolation, humiliation and the struggles between individuals (often married couples). Indeed, the coastal setting, uninvited stranger and sudden outbreaks of violence (the scene in which Stander whips Dorleac with his belt is truly shocking) remind the viewer of the playwright’s first full length play, The Birthday Party. What’s more the dark streak of humour that permeated that play is readily apparent in here, mostly at Pleasence’s expense. Witness, for example, his inability to communicate with a child, or his first meeting with Stander, dressed in his wife’s nightgown and make-up.
Interestingly, Roman Polanski has often cited Cul-de-Sac as his favourite of all his work. This is understandable to a degree as it collects many themes and ideas from his preceding short films as well as his debut feature and Repulsion. Where it is lacking slightly though is in not having the quite the same level of economy that made those films so great, and as a result tails off a little towards the end. It does find great success, however, in proving a culmination of the director’s earlier work, and whilst he would return at other points in his career to its themes, Cul-de-Sac served to allow Polanski to break away and explore other avenues. Indeed, his next feature would be the Hammer spoof Dance of the Vampires.
Picture and Sound
As with the other Roman Polanski titles gaining a release from Anchor Bay, the transfer here is simply stunning. It gains the upper-hand slightly though, by being free of any of the scratches and blemishes that do occasionally appear on the other discs. For a film made in 1965, this achievement is startling.
Again, Cul-de-Sac follows the other Anchor Bay discs by offering the original mono (spread over two channels) as well as a 5.1 and DTS mixes. As before, the original soundtrack is fine, though the two additional options offer an extra clarity. In particular, Krzystof Komeda’s terrific jazz score sounds wonderful.
In a similar fashion to Anchor Bay's release of Knife in the Water, the main extra is a featurette (23 minutes) devoted to interviews retelling the film's production. Again, most of the main crew offer their anecdotes, filling the documentary's brief running time with ample information. Sadly, all three principal cast members have passed away (including Dorleac in a tragic car crash in 1967 whilst still in her twenties), though the interviewees speak at length about their (excessive) behaviours on-set.
As before, biographies and a photo gallery are supplied to back up the featurette, and once more the gallery includes numerous production stills.
Also added is the original theatrical trailer. Presented 4:3 and showing some remarkable damage, it serves to highlight just how good Anchor Bay's transfer of the main feature is.
As with the main feature, no subtitles are provided for the special features.
Whilst the film suffers ever so slightly in comparison to Knife in the Water and Repulsion, it's still a remarkable piece. Moreover, the transfer is stunning to say the least and the film is ably complemented with worthwhile extras.