B&W, 1966, 111m.
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Donald Pleasence, Francoise Dorleac, Jack MacGowran, Lionel Stander, Iain Quarrier, Jacqueline Bisset
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:) (16:9), Anchor Bay (UK R0 PAL), Zima (Mexico R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Pioneer (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)

Two robbers on the run after a botched job, Richard (The Loved One's Stander) and the mortally wounded Albert (The Exorcist's MacGowran), finally come to a halt along the English coast. They take refuge in a decaying castle inhabited by a submissive Englishman, George (Halloween's Pleasence), and his authoritative and alluring French wife, Teresa (Dorléac, late sister of Catherine Deneuve). However, our innocent couple doesn't go along with the standard thriller pattern of playing the helpless victims, and soon matters escalate strangely and amusingly out of hand.

For a follow up to his internationally acclaimed horror-art classic Repulsion, director Roman Polanski decided to go for a lighter tone... but not by much. Rarely seen and virtually ignored since its release, Cul-de-sac is a blackly amusing comedy of manners mixed with the traditions of hostage crime dramas, all filtered through the quirky sensibilities of Polanski and co-scenarist Gerard Brach. Blessed with one of his best casts and a sterling crew behind the camera, this may not be a film for all tastes (what Polanski film is?), but lovers of the offbeat will cherish this poisonous little treat.

From the disorienting opening sequence which finds the criminals' car stranded out in the middle of nowhere, Cul-de-sac finds sinister amusement in leading its audience along on a path which fittingly seems to lead to a dead end. The fun lies in what happens along the way, with Pleasence shining in one of his best and most atypical roles as perhaps an emasculated husband second to none. Everyone else is up to his level, though, with MacGowran making the most of his few, agonized lines; he would team up with Polanski again for their next film, The Fearless Vampire Killers. Celebrity spotters should keep their eyes open for a bit part by a young Jacqueline Bisset, speaking her first lines ever onscreen. The late Polish jazz composer Krzysztof Komeda, who went on to fame scoring Rosemary's Baby, pitches in with a catchy, sparse series of musical motifs which assure the viewer that this is indeed a comedy, all surface appearances to the contrary.

Rarely seen in the United States and barely marketed anywhere else, Cul-de-sac earned much of its reputation over the years through scratchy repertory prints and gray market copies passed around during the VHS era. Its first respectable treatment in any format first came in Japan on DVD courtesy of a crisp but non-anamorphic transfer; a similar-looking but slightly cropped anamorphic version later appeared in the UK from Anchor Bay in 2003 as part of their Roman Polanski line along with Knife in the Water and Repulsion, featuring the original mono track and a wholly unnecessary 5.1 remix. The DVD also features an excellent 23-minute featurette, "Two Gangsters and an Island," with Polanski, producer Gene Gutowski, and cinemtographer Gilbert Taylor (who went on to The Omen and Flash Gordon) talking about its creation and unusual shooting locations; the same featurette treatment from doc producer David Gregory (before he started Severin Films) was also given to the other two Polanski films at the time, and their piece on Repulsion was later carried over for the Criterion version.

Not surprisingly, Criterion's version (the first official release on video ever in the U.S., on both Blu-Ray and DVD) is the best of the bunch by a wide margin; the HD master is much more textured and rich than any previous version, though as several scenes were deliberately shot in very low light or overcast exteriors, it doesn't have the punchy, razor-like clarity of their earlier Repulsion. It's hard to imagine it looking any better, however, and Polanskiphiles will be very happy indeed. Thankfully this is also the first edition to offer optional English subtitles, which come in handy with a few mumbled lines of dialogue. The "Two Gangsters and an Island" featurette is carried over here along with a half-hour 1967 European TV interview with Polanski in which he talks about his childhood, the influence of Snow White, and the creation of his feature films up to The Fearless Vampire Killers, which was released shortly after this was filmed. You also get two theatrical trailers (one heavily promoting its Golden Bear win at the Berlin International Film Festival) and an illustrated liner notes booklet including an appraisal of the film by critic David Thompson. A long overdue release in America, this one may not be the ideal place for Polanski newcomers to start, but for anyone with an adventurous streak, this is one of the key cult releases of the year.

Reviewed on August 9, 2011.