“Anybody home?!” blasts boorish gangster Dicky (Lionel Stander) into the dark windows of the remote castle he has stumbled across on the British coast. Dicky and his mortally wounded partner, Albie (Jack MacGowran), have fled a robbery in a stolen car. Some miles up the coast, the car runs out of gas. Dicky, his arm in a sling, is tired from pushing Albie in the car and opts to leave him briefly in the castle's expansive drive. On foot, Dicky follows what he hopes are telephone wires up toward the castle.
Atop the hill, the castle's entryway is open. Dicky stumbles into a kitchen filled with roaming chickens, their many eggs stacked in the refrigerator. His confusion over the chickens is brief as he finds a telephone and places a call to his boss, Mr. Katelbach. Hanging up to await the response, Dicky looks hungrily around the kitchen and meets the shocked owners of the castle, former businessman George (Donald Pleasence), who has sold everything to buy this unusual property where he can paint with his much younger and secretly unfaithful wife, Teresa (Francoise Dorleac). Tempers flare, and Dicky explains everything to the bickering couple by revealing his gun.
The hostages find themselves helping Dicky push the car out of the water as the tide has come in, covering the castle's driveway and nearly drowning semi-conscious Albie. Once the car is out of the water and on higher ground, the breathless trio stop at the sound of the telephone ringing from above. Dicky runs to answer, leaving George and Teresa with Albie. When he returns, he explains they will all have to lie low and wait for Mr. Katelbach.
Tensions grow as Albie succumbs to his wounds, and the other three bury him before the sun rises. Exhausted and frustrated, they continually argue, and when a car is seen coming across the drive later, Dicky assumes it is Mr. Katelbach. But when Dicky realizes it is actually a group of George's friends, the gangster poses as a hapless butler whom angry Teresa and sleepy George seem to enjoy ordering around. The visitors quickly begin to see something is amiss between the couple and the servant. Later, when a child finds a hunting rifle and a handsome young man arrives to ask Teresa to “go shrimping,” the sunny afternoon explodes into chaos.
Director Roman Polanski’s second feature, Cul-de-sac, is both a curious character study of a disintegrating marriage and an uncomfortable comedy of manners. Drawn from numerous film genres, including noir and comedy, and mixing in the distinctive dark tone of theater of the absurd, this unusual black comedy is one of Polanski’s most personal films. According to the essay High Tides by David Thompson, included in this Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, Polanski said, “It is my best film. It is real cinema, done for cinema — like art for art.”
Polanski's “cinema for cinema” project proved to be a difficult shoot on Holy Island on the northeast British coast. In one of the supplements, the director of photography, Gilbert Taylor, BSC, mentions he took the job because he liked working with Polanski on Repulsion, and Cul-de-sac was to be a “short shoot of seven weeks rather than the 14-week Bond shoot I had been offered.” He also says the Holy Island locals and the crew did not mix well. In spite of the working conditions, Polanski and Taylor allowed for some experimentation after blocking and on-set rehearsals, placing the camera where they agreed it suited the scene best. Gilbert's crisp and elegant monochrome work on the film earned him a BAFTA nomination for Best Black-and-White Cinematography. (The legendary cinematographer received ASC International Award in 2006.)
The film’s Blu-ray debut is exceptional. A domestic DVD was never made available. When compared to the previously existing Region 2 DVD, the HD image quality of the Blu-ray is simply extraordinary. With excellent contrast, Taylor's careful grayscale and black levels seem perfect throughout. When compared to the Region 2 transfer, the image comes alive with shadows and reveals more nuance in the cinematography. The source material appears so crisp and clear it feels as if it were shot recently. There is mild and expected film grain throughout, making the presentation very pleasing without ever resorting to any visible DNR. It is a remarkably film-like presentation. The monaural audio track is also an improvement, with a noticeable reduction of age-related hiss. Music and effects have a stronger presence, and dialogue is always clear.
Included with the feature are two theatrical trailers, a 28-minute BBC interview with Polanski from 1967, and a 24-minute featurette made in 2003 that includes Polanski, Gilbert and others. These absorbing supplements, as well as Thompson's printed essay, shed light on this darkly comic exercise in style. This new presentation will impress the film's many fans and bring newcomers to this unusual table.