Monday, August 15, 2011

Waiting for Katelbach: Criterion in a Cul-de-sac

Cul-de-sac (1966) opens with the stark image of a road bisecting a flat landscape and a car’s slow approach. Slow because it’s not being driven but rather pushed by Dickie (Lionel Stander), a loud, shirtless, ogre-like, middle-aged gangster with one arm shoved into a sling. Dickie’s Hitler-moustached, comparatively diminutive cohort, Albie (Jack McGowran), sits up front, quietly nursing a gut wound. They’ve somehow wound up at what looks like the very ends of the earth, following the telephone wires under the assumption that they must surely lead someplace worth going to. Echoing the dynamics of some of the director’s early short films (‘Two Men and a Wardrobe,’ ‘The Fat and the Lean’), the pair resembles some variation on Beckett’s tramps; indeed, they are waiting, not for Godot, but for the mysterious and equally elusive Mr. Katelbach to come and rescue them from perdition.

As the tide rises and threatens to swallow the car, Dickie finally discovers a looming sign of salvation straight out of myth: an 11th-century castle, the one, it turns out where Rob Roy was written, inhabited only by the nervous, pedantic, bald-headed George (Donald Pleasance) and the much younger, very attractive and frequently naked Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), the two of them married less than ten months and living out here with many chickens, a well-stocked wine cellar, a room full of George’s bad paintings of Teresa, and a fridge containing about 900 eggs. Dickie invades the castle, devours many eggs and bottles of wine with the table manners of a grizzly bear, and immediately asserts himself as a sort of paternal authority figure; George and Teresa comply with his demands, even when he poses no immediate threat (though one of the film’s most entertaining sequences finds Teresa responding to a surprise visit from friends by suddenly ordering Dickie around like he’s their butler; she calls him “James”). A very weird sort of improvised family unit falls into place, prompting a surprising intimacy between the two men, who get stinko and touchy-feely with each other, and discuss life and women. At one point George even shaves Dickie.

This essentially sums up Cul-de-sac’s premise: one odd couple meets another in a cold, vast, isolated setting. What unfolds is a film that snakes seamlessly between comedy, thriller, siege drama, horror, and social critique, all of it truly inspired and amounting to what is probably the most sui generis project of Roman Polanski’s career. Yet, scripted by Polanski and his long-time collaborator Gérard Brach, the film never feels indulgent or aimless. Every scene pulls us deeper into something. Everything moves toward its end.

I first saw Cul-de-sac when I was maybe 16, and it somehow came to emblematize something very seductive about the European 1960s for me. So, like a lot of people, I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time, and Criterion’s DVD/blu-ray release rewards patience. The film, shot in black and white (and countless shades of grey) by Gilbert Taylor, is riddled with haunting images, alternating between hot sunlight and gloom, and Criterion’s transfer is suitably gorgeous. The disc also features a terrific documentary about the film’s arduous production and a vintage British television program featuring a fascinating and comprehensive interview with Polanski just as he was enjoying his first taste of global renown.

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