Roman Polanski orchestrates a mental ménage à trois in this slyly absurd tale of paranoia from the director’s golden 1960s period. Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorléac star as a withdrawn couple whose isolated house is invaded by a rude, burly American gangster on the run, played by Lionel Stander. The three engage in role-playing games of sexual and emotional humiliation. Cul-de-sac is an evocative, claustrophobic, and morbidly funny tale of the modern world in chaos.
Criterion presents Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac in its home video debut in North America on Blu-ray in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer.
I’m not sure why it hasn’t been released previously but that’s all made up for here with this video presentation which is absolutely superb. Criterion yet again gives us a great, film-like presentation, with no noticeable noise or artifacts, and perfectly rendered film grain. Contrast looks spot on, with clearly defined gray levels and rich deep blacks without losing any clarity or details. Other than a few spots the image is sharp and crisp with excellent detail and definition. The print has a few blemishes like minor tram lines and few bits of dirt but overall it’s very clean. Overall it’s top-notch.
The lossless mono track was a bit of a mixed deal for me. It sounds clean but I had troubles understanding dialogue during many sequences within the film, eventually opting to just turn on the subtitles. There’s a bit of edginess to the voices and I had trouble with a few accents, but Stander’s gravelly voice presented a real problem for me; the track makes it a little muffled and weak and then with the slight edge it comes off a bit of a mess. Music is a little grating as well.
It was weak for me but I feel the shooting conditions and then the age of the film are more the issue than anything Criterion did. Disappointing but I don’t know how much more could have been done with it.
And Criterion manages to somehow bomb on the supplements for this film, which is crying for more. We first get a carryover from the Region 2 Blue Underground DVD edition of the film, a 24-minute talking-heads documentary called Two Gangsters and an Island, featuring interviews with Polanski, producers Gene Gutowski and Tony Tenser, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, designer Voytek Roman, and others involved with the production. It’s a pretty basic documentary with participants talking about the production, starting with the script development and pretty much ending with its reception (not bad, not great.) There’s some interesting moments where people recall some of the problems on the set which includes issues with the shooting conditions and then problems with both Pleasance and Stander (to a surprisingly greater extent—I’m really shocked they didn’t can him) but there’s nothing particularly surprising here. Worth a view but not much else.
A little better is a 27-minute interview with Roman Polanski from a 1967 BBC program simply called ”The Nomad”, recorded for the release of The Fearless Vampire Killers. Unfortunately most of it is made up of clips from his short films and then Knife in the Water, Repulsion, and Cul-de-sac but the actual interview clips with Polanski are excellent and worthwhile, with the director talking about his childhood and then how he got into film, and talks about his work and some of the technical aspects of them. He’s loose and engaging, and can be fairly funny (I like where he goes into detail about how he’s thankful for the “Cahiers du cinema” praise he received but admits he doesn’t understand their writings. Breezy but unless you want to watch the clips you may catch yourself fast forwarding through it.
The disc then closes with 2 theatrical trailers, which I found both fairly bad.
The thin booklet offers a decent essay by David Thompson on the film and Polanski’s early work as a whole. Unfortunately it doesn’t really close any gap that there may be in the supplements.
Considering Criterion still hasn’t carried over the pricing scale from their DVD days (this release would have been a cheaper edition on DVD way back when) it makes this release all the more frustrating. The supplements really offer very little overall, are not at all scholarly, and are of only very mild interest.
I really feel Criterion missed it on the supplements, and the lack of strong scholarly material on quite a few of their releases lately is becoming a little worrying and upsetting. Thankfully the video transfer is stellar and makes the release worthwhile to those who have been patiently waiting for a North American home video release.