A Book Review by Thomas M. Puhr.

With The Palace recently premiering at Venice, now is an opportune time to revisit these early works, and Roman Polanski: Behind the Scenes of His Classic Early Films may prove a valuable companion for such a journey….”

In a 2011 Cineaste review, David Sterritt noted that “Cul-de-Sac may not be a truly great film, but it’s a truly great thingamajig.” This observation, quoted in Jordan R. Young’s Roman Polanski: Behind the Scenes of His Classic Early Films (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books), encapsulates my complicated feelings about the auteur’s absurdist 1966 foray into Samuel Beckett territory: I appreciate its aesthetics and unique place in both Polanski’s oeuvre and ’60s cinema as whole, but something prevents me from wholly embracing it. My reaction may very well be precisely what the writer-director intended for audiences, seeing as his third feature directly confronts alienation, discomfort, and psychosexual humiliation. Cul-de-Sac doesn’t want or need you to “like” it.

Though nominally about Polanski’s first four features, Young almost exclusively concerns Cul-de-Sac, so much so that I wonder why the author or his publishers didn’t retitle it to reflect this central subject….

Though nominally about Polanski’s first four features, Young’s short but detail-packed book almost exclusively concerns Cul-de-Sac, so much so that I wonder why the author or his publishers didn’t retitle it to reflect this central subject. If you’re searching for an extended analysis of Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965), or The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), then look elsewhere (most of their coverage is relegated to a brief prologue and epilogue). If, however, you are among Cul-de-Sac’s ever-expanding fanbase and want to know more about what the director has often called a personal favorite from his decades-long career, then there is much to enjoy here.

As Ewa Mazierska notes in her foreword, this text’s “novelty lies in approaching Polanski’s work and life from the perspective of production studies.” Rather than analyze the film at length (which, of course, has already been done elsewhere), Young divides his chapters according to different stages in the filmmaking process: scripting, acquiring producers, casting, location scouting, shooting, etc. Another unique feature is Young’s privileged access to a rare shooting script, one provided by Polanski himself (the author emphasizes that he “did not give him approval over the final manuscript”); the author also claims to have “production call sheets and sketches he [Polanski] made,” though readers unfortunately don’t get to glimpse these.

While Young’s reporting on Polanski’s longtime collaborations with the likes of writer Gérard Brach or experimental jazz musician Krzysztof Komeda (arguably the man “with whom Polanski had the closest working relationship”) offers keen insight into his creative process, the author’s best passages focus on the day-to-day practicalities behind making a movie (and how a little bit of improvisation can offer a quick fix). Readers learn of Polanski’s “trick” of pretending to know less English than he actually did – at least, according to some; the book offers delightfully conflicting interpretations of what happened on various sets – in order to skirt difficult conversations with producers. While making Cul-de-Sac, the director had to grapple with shooting on the isolated Holy Island with a tight budget, volatile actors, and anxious producers breathing down his neck (after leaving the set in a huff, his car got stuck in the same causeway as the film’s gangster character, Richard).

‘It was in fact one of the longest shots attempted up to that time,’ Young notes – and the author’s detailed breakdown of what made it possible makes it all the more impressive.”

If Polanski has been described as a ruthlessly exacting, domineering presence on set, he has also been long-admired for his prodigious skills behind the camera. One anecdote told by sound camera operator Robin O’Donoghue would boggle even David Fincher’s mind: “‘Roman says to Alastair [McIntyre, the editor], that shot is too long. “Take twelve frames off that shot.” So Alastair goes into the projection box and cuts it. They run it again. And Roman says, “No, no, now you’ve taken out fifteen frames.” Mac…has the trim in his pocket, he counts it out – fifteen frames.’”

Isolation And Madness In Cul-De-Sac (1966) – Roman Polanski. – Celluloid  Wicker Man

A highlight – one that underlines the extreme attention to detail and intense planning that a complicated shot demands – is Young’s chapter on the film’s famous uninterrupted 8 minute take on the beach. The scene itself is deceptively simple: While his wife Teresa (Françoise Dorléac) runs off for a swim, George (Donald Pleasence) has it out with manic gangster Richard (Lionel Stander), who’s been terrorizing the couple at their secluded castle. The confrontation comes to a head when a plane – thought to be carrying Richard’s Godot-like boss – flies overhead. This sequence posed a number of logistical difficulties. Dorléac, for instance, couldn’t swim and suffered from life-threatening hypothermia after diving a few too many times into the frigid water; Polanski, who “insisted on recording all the original sound,” had microphones put in fake rocks on the beach; he also had a sound-proof booth erected so he could communicate with the pilot and ensure he flew overhead at precisely the correct moment in George and Richard’s conversation. The take had to be accomplished in fewer than 10 minutes; otherwise, they would run out of 35mm film in the magazine and have to cut. The result is breathtaking – “It was in fact one of the longest shots attempted up to that time,” Young notes – and the author’s detailed breakdown of what made it possible makes it all the more impressive.

Other chapters, however, read suspiciously like filler. “Casting the Net” is less about the casting process itself than it is a breakdown of each actor’s CV, and it takes up nearly 30 of the text’s 192 pages. A chapter near the end of the book, “The Wrap Party,” amounts to little more than summaries of the cast and crew’s careers after their stint at Holy Island. But each section is full of enough random factoids to maintain the reader’s interest; a personal favorite of mine concerns how “when they’d fallen behind schedule…Roman simply ripped some pages out of the script and said, ‘Now we’re back on schedule.’” Such anecdotes nicely encapsulate the barely-controlled chaos of this particular production (Polanski apparently considered an early retirement after finishing it).

With The Palace recently premiering at Venice, now is an opportune time to revisit these early works, and Roman Polanski: Behind the Scenes of His Classic Early Films may prove a valuable companion for such a journey. Especially if you’re interested in that confounding 1966 thingamajig.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

Read also:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *