The Roman Polanski Collection Review
Famed for the likes of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski has also courted a certain notoriety during his career owing to the death of his girlfriend Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family, as well as the accusations of underage sex. As a result, his filmmaking at times get forgotten, though Anchor Bay have done the DVD buying public a wonderful favour by releasing a four disc box-set of much of his early works - from his earliest student shorts to Cul-de-Sac. For the benefits of this review covering the entire boxset, a chronological order will be used and links supplied to separate reviews of the three features (which are also gaining individual releases).
The collection opens with Polanski’s first completed film. Totalling just over a minute in length, Murder (1957) presents the viewer with just one scene: a man walks into an apartment and stabs another man who is sleeping. Reminiscent of a particularly violent moment from a fifties film noir, the sheer audacity of the piece is remarkable. Completely silent, without even musical accompaniment, the viewer can’t help but be drawn into the action which is immensely shocking even though it’s over almost as soon as it begins.
The second short, Teethful Smile (1957), is similarly brisk. Again without any audio accompaniment this presents a young man spying on a naked woman through her bathroom window. Distracted by a neighbour he turns away, only to discover a man brushing his teeth when he goes for a second look. This and Murder make good bedfellows; both present two of what were to become favourite Polanski themes (violence and voyeurism) in very small doses, and both prove to be extremely funny, owing to the disbelief that the director is doing this. The most shocking thing is, of course, the fact that no context is offered for either event, yet Polanski gets away with it through sheer verve. For fans of reductionist cinema, these are two classics.
Let’s Break the Ball (1957) is a different matter entirely. Largely shot documentary style, it similarly displays another Polanski trait in miniature: his cruelty. Essentially, the plot follows the ball of the title, until a gang of thugs gatecrash and proceed to cause havoc. What’s interesting is how Polanski created this film; according to his autobiography ‘Roman by Polanski’, not only did the director organise the ball, he also invited the gang without telling any of the guests. As is noted in the extensive liner notes that come with the box-set, this short sees Polanski playing with the conventions of the documentary form. Whilst the piece may appear at first glance to be a straight-forward piece in the “Free Cinema” (a British documentary movement that saw works from the likes of Linday Anderson and Karel Reisz) sense, there was in fact a little manipulation going on in the background.
The “Free Cinema” reference is pertinent as the next short, Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958), was once included in a collection of that movement’s films. However, the surreal tone of Polanski’s best known pre-feature work seems at odds with the British efforts. The tonal shifts in particular make this film unlike anything else before or since. From the bizarre opening scene of the two men coming out of the sea, their travels with the piece of furniture veer from anti-authoritarian humour (attempting to take the wardrobe into a cafe or on a tram) and free-spirited clowning that wouldn’t seem out of place in an early Godard film to a remarkably cruel scene that sees a cat get stoned to death and our two heroes beaten up. Tellingly, the main attacker is played by Polanski himself, serving two purposes. Firstly, it’s remarkable to see just how young the director was at the time, making this and the earlier shorts seem all the more impressive; and secondly, it allows the film to act as precursor to the infamous scene in Chinatown when Polanski slits open Jack Nicholson’s nose with a razor. The unpredictability of that scene and the ones that appear in Two Men once again reveal that the director was working out his favourite themes even in his earliest work.
When Angels Fall (1959) once more offers a change of pace. Apparently inspired by the report of an old woman’s death in a newspaper, Polanski takes the image of a urinal assistant and offers her increasingly bleak life in flashback. Strikingly, these reminisces are presented in colour, though as the woman progresses from the country to the city, and the flashbacks take in the events of World War II, the colours get gradually more muted (as though Polanski’s Thomas Hardy adaptation Tess had been suddenly invaded by Repulsion). Whilst not quite in the same league as some of the other shorts in the collection, When Angels Fall still shows Polanski to be an assured filmmaker, even at this early stage in his career. Indeed the sense of place he creates, especially in the framing scenes, is remarkable; it’s worth noting that in a Sight and Sound interview the director once stated that atmosphere “was the most important thing...in cinema. Without it, it’s all dialogue and movement.”
Perhaps the oddest short present, The Lamp (1959) is, according to the liner notes, the one film Polanski is reticent to discuss. The plot is remarkably simple, indeed it’s near non-existent: the workshop of a toy maker gradually catches fire and all the toys are destroyed. As with When Angels Fall, a remarkable sense of atmosphere is created with very little, though the lightweight quality it possesses leaves the viewer rather unfulfilled. That said, it offers a fascinating counterpoint to Walerian Borowczyk’s Renaissance or, more perversely, George Pal’s stop-animation shorts of the forties.
The final two pieces are perhaps the weakest. Both Mammals (1962, made after Knife in the Water) and The Fat Man and the Thin Man (1961) offer broad comedy in the vein of Richard Lester’s The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film. I’ve always felt that Polanski’s comedies have been his poorest efforts (those which are entirely comic I should state, as many of his films always have comic edges - The Ninth Gate being only the most recent example), and whilst Dance of the Vampires in particular has its defenders, I still feel its pleasures lie primarily in its luscious cinematography. There are, of course, points of interest in each however: Mammals’ gag involving the bandages in the snow is cinema at its purest, so defiantly visual it must surely rank alongside the delightful silent The Miller and the Sweep, plus Polanski’s ever present cruelty is still in effect; and The Fat Man and the Thin Man is remarkable insofar as it still bears the strong imprint of the filmmaker despite Jean-Pierre Roussea serving as co-director. It also has the honour of being the first film that Polanski made outside of his native Poland, and the French location does create freshness.
British horror writer, and occasional filmmaker, Clive Barker once stated in reference to two of his early forays into cinema, The Forbidden and Salome, that the first works of a director offer a key into their psyche, presenting ideas that, whilst not fully formed, would be ever present in their more mature work. Indeed, this proves to be the case with these Polanski shorts, and Anchor Bay are to be congratulated for releasing one of the most fascinating home cinema releases since Connoisseur's collection of early Martin Scorsese films in the early nineties.
Knife in the Water
Picture and Sound
Remarkably, all of the short films are presented with wonderful transfers. Anchor Bay inform me that the prints are all brand new telecines, and although the occasional scratches are evident, for the most part the films remain incredibly clean. The only short to offer any real problems is When Angels Fall, though this is only during its black and white sequences. That film's colour sequences, however, look consistently sharp throughout.
The audio for each short is monaural Dolby Digital 2.0. Each of the films feature minimal dialogue and instead rely on their wonderful jazz soundtracks, which sound fine throughout.
Each of the feature films offer their own extras on their individual discs (see separate reviews), and as these shorts are exclusive to the box-set, they're essential extras in themselves.
There is one bonus however, a glossy booklet featuring analyses of all the films by Daniel Bird, author of 'The Pocket Essential Polanski'. Illustrated with numerous stills, the information is constantly interesting and thankfully avoids the usual fluff. (Note, however, that Bird's discussion do contain complete synopses and therefore spoilers.)
Truly a contender for DVD release of the year. Not only have Anchor Bay presented three bona fide classics with perfect sound and picture, they've also unearthed a welter of Polanski's early work for which they are to be congratulated. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that this is Anchor Bay's strongest release to date, which is saying something considering they've been responsible for the likes of The Evil Dead's "Book of the Dead" DVD and the wonderful disc of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue.