Directed by Roman Polanski. U.K. 1966.

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Holy Island, “Lindisfarne” is off the north-east coast of England. At low tide a road joins it to the Mainland. There is the ruin of a Priory, and, on a high point, a Castle which is the setting for this film.

After the release of Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski left Poland and moved to Paris. His marriage to actress Barbara Lass was virtually over, he had very little money, and his film had been poorly received. He met Gerard Brach who had, himself, recently been through a divorce and was living on the financial edge. They became close friends, and Brach turned-out to be an inspiring writing partner. Together they wrote a Piece entitled “If Katelbach Comes”, which centred on the idea of a household cut off from the outside world by water, terrorized by a gangster on the run. Polanski and Brach approached several Producers but could not find backing to shoot the project. Knife in the Water began to fare better. It was entered for the Venice Film Festival, for the first New York Film Festival - where Polanski was invited to speak - and it received good Reviews in England. At the invitation of Producer Gene Gotowski Polanski moved to London where the film-making scene was vibrant. He continued to seek funding for his “Katelbach” screenplay but still met with the same result. He and Brach were, however, commissioned to write “Repulsion”. The success of that film got them the go-ahead for their initial project which was re-named Cul de Sac.

George (Donald Pleasance) is in his late forties; his wife Theresa (Francois Dorleac) is in her early twenties, she is French. George has sold his business and bought the Castle on Lindisfarne. It is, perhaps, a typical day. George is flying a kite by the sea, with friends: Theresa is among the sand dunes lying topless with the friends' grown-up son. The opening shot is of the causeway that will flood at high tide. It is soft black and white. An old black saloon car is approaching, slowly. As the opening Titles appear the accompanying score is a bright 60s jazz riff on bass guitar repeating over and over, joined by piano and electric guitar. Saxophone and brass play in counterpoint. The music progresses and builds. The car is veering off the road. It is being pushed by Dickie (Lionel Stander), a gruff American, who has one arm in a sling. Albie (Jack McGowran) is in the driver's seat looking delirious. Dickie adjusts the steering and pushes further. The car crashes into a bollard. Albie complains that something is digging into his back; Dickie removes a machine gun, and puts it on the back seat. They argue: Dickie has screwed-up again. He heads-off alone to look for a telephone, and finds the castle. The owners return; Dickie hides and watches them. Back at the causeway water is reaching the wheels of the car. Dickie goes to sleep in the loft of a chicken shed. The main action begins that evening while George and Theresa are in their bedroom. Their friends have left, and Dickie wants to make his 'phone call.

This is not a gangster film, or thriller; it's a Psycho-drama. As Dickie tries to contact his Boss Katelbach, and deal with the flooded car, and with Albie, who has been shot in the stomach, he also has to contend with the couple, whose relationship and attitudes to one-another are far from conventional. There are shifting allegiances and the three take turns to pair-up against each-other. When Katelbach is expected a party of George's friends visit, perhaps delaying Dickie's departure. He is introduced as gardener and occasional cook and waiter. Theresa takes this opportunity to belittle him; George simply wants Dickie to leave, and to have his wife back.

The script is playful but leaves us with plenty to think about. We do not identify with one specific Character throughout; the film works from a range of points of view. The action results from basic, and from subtle motivations, though some early scenes are a little thin. Cameraman Gil Taylor's black and white is used well to show the expanses of sand, and of sea, and the castle interiors: there are other residents on the island, and Public Houses, but we get no sense of this from the film; when their friends are not there, they are alone.

Polanski perhaps gave less consideration, in advance to the overall style of this work than he would to later projects; he was thinking on his feet. A few close-shots jar, they seem too tight for the degree of movement in them, and I do not think this was intentional. But that is being ultra critical of work that is mostly very well crafted, and was shot in the days before video-assist. Long delays due to bad weather held-up production and less footage was shot than intended.

It is difficult to imagine a British Director of that Era conceiving such a blend of the bizarre and the sophisticated, and making it appear normal; perhaps that accounts for the difficulty in getting funding. This film has not dated in the way that many notable films of the sixties have. 

Peter Tonks 

Source information:

“Roman by Polanski”, Heinemann, 1984

“Polanski” by Christopher Sandford, Century, 

2007 Peter Tonks
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