Roman Polanski recently won the directorial prize at Berlin for his exhilarating, humane The Ghost Writer (2009); but more than forty years ago a film of his took the top prize, the Golden Bear, at the same international film festival. This was the British Cul-de-sac, Polanski’s second, black-and-white film after exiting Communist Poland.
Two wounded criminals invade a castle on Holy Island, off the coast of Northern England; Dicky, armed, terrorizes the occupants, a couple, nervous George and his much younger, nervy French wife, Teresa.
Cleverly, quite beautifully, Polanski creates images of expiration: in a point-of-view shot, Albie, Dicky’s dying partner, watches Dicky walking away from him, to explore the castle, from inside their stopped vehicle, framed by the open passenger-side door; Dicky espies (what turns out to be) Teresa’s beachside adultery through slats whose restricted vision correlates to restricted breath; the camera facing him, ulcerous George is forced by Dicky to drink a cup of something alcoholic, the cup covering his nose and mouth—a metaphoric asphyxiation. (This moment echoes one in which Teresa has sexually humiliated George by compelling him to wear her negligee.) When Albie dies, moreover, Dicky has George bury him in a scene that somewhat suggests the gravedigging scene in Hamlet; but, given its publication two years earlier, one must plead the mediation of Warsaw-born literary critic Jan Kott’s Szkice o Szekspirze, especially since Polanski’s entire film is cloaked in absurdism, which some call Pinteresque, forgetting that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot had been a major influence on Polanski’s work since his student days at Lódź Film School.
Tables turn, and George shoots Dicky dead. The final shot, ”existentializing” Antoine’s final run in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), finds George running furiously toward an ever withdrawing camera.
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