Knife in the Water was a rare kind of debut. The 1962 Polish film brought Roman Polanski international acclaim, earning him an Academy Award nomination and a spot on the cover of Time magazine, where the release represented a new wave of foreign cinema. The accolades were well deserved, since Knife commits to character development while extending minimalist suspense. The endeavor was decidedly non-Hollywood but, in its own way, high concept. Its setting – a sailboat moving about a Polish lake over a weekend – may seem scaled-down but is an extended canvas for character development. After a series of experimental shorts (collected on Disc Two of the Criterion Collection’s 2003 releaseof Knife) Polanski entered the feature narrative with youthful sprite and surprising control.
Although the results suggest otherwise, Polanski felt stifled by the state-controlled Polish film system and left for Western Europe. In London, with the help of producer Gene Gutowski, Polanski geared his next project toward the horror market. Repulsion (also availablefrom Criterion) is a quasi-psycho thriller in the wake of Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Both influential features give equal weight to plot and psychology, while revising the haunted house motif into the haunted mind, in a subjective tone. (Hitchcock’s film begins in the original territory and owes something to the wit of Robert Wise’s The Haunting and its source novel, by Shirley Jackson). Polanski brings the haunted mind from its gothic origins to Powell’s territory: the contemporary European city. There, Polanski created suspense in unlikely settings.
Genre never left Polanski, as his up-to-date resume shows. Cul-de-sac, his 1966 follow-up to Repulsion, fuses tradition with the filmmaker’s roots. Through behind the Iron Curtain, at Poland’s film school at Lodz, Polanski had the rare privilege of studying American films. The institute accessed Hollywood works during a thaw in Soviet regulation after Stalin’s death. The American classics were available to instruct students in technique for them to promote socialist ideals and the worker’s plight. Polanski’s exposure to classic American cinema kept genre forefront in his mind. He uses tradition to frame common territory while communicating contemporary ideas. In Cul-de-sac, written by Polanski and Gérard Brach, the filmmaker aligns his approach with the experimental absurdism of his earlier works. Now availablefrom the Criterion Collection, where it joins Knife and Repulsion, Cul-de-sac offers further understanding of Polanski’s relationship to tradition and style.
Immediately, the film reveals Polanski’s eye for minimalism, employed so well in his earlier features. The removed location of Holy Island in Northumberland seems idyllic at first, before we learn that the relationship between George (a prissy Donald Pleasence) and Teresa (Françoise Dorléac) is routine, mundane. Entering their space is Dickie (Lionel Stander), a gangster Americain with a gravelly voice more humorous than menacing. (Close your eyes and his words channel Saturday morning cartoons from the era.) His car has broken down not far from the homestead, where his partner (a nebbishy Albie played by Samuel Beckett-performer Jack MacGowran) awaits, dying. While recalling the unwelcome visitors in Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Dickie’s arrival reflects the popular gangster-invasion motif of Hollywood’s golden age. The subgenre takes the gangster away from his own rise-and-fall tale, the one popularized by Little Caesar and continued by The Public Enemy and Scarface. Instead, he departs the milieu of urban corruption for the countryside, to enforce his rule-bound system on innocents.
Naturally, this subgenre is less a ‘gangster’ tale than the originals – the eponymous figure is no longer the central character. (The conceit of a criminal taking center stage made the classic gangster film so unique.) Instead, the figure becomes the counterforce to family-oriented suburbanites. The victims rise against the threat, thus fashioning the plot into crime melodrama. Love and community must outshine crime, even if a hero would perish, as he does in the benchmark of the style, 1935’s The Petrified Forest. John Huston’s Key Largo (1948) is a more engaging gangster-invasion tale, since the criminal grows beyond his place as the hero’s opposition. The psychology (and shadow) of Johnny Rocco (played by Edward G. Robinson, one of the classical gangsters) overtakes the attention-getting leads, Bogart and Bacall.
Polanski deploys the gangster invasion to provide a prominent role to Dickie and reveal the lack of devotion between George and Teresa. Thus, Polanski revises the original style, since the film soon reveals that nothing much exists between the couple. Hence, the connection to Pinter’s The Birthday Party goes only so far. A tale of pure menace when performed well, Birthday never challenges the devotion between the married couple, while Stanley gets abducted by the hoods. The familial devotion in the gangster-invasion film concerns Polanski more than his literary predecessor. Though community often saves the threatened, in Polanski they proved to be victims to each other.
In much of Cul-de-sac Polanski refreshes his motif from Knife, in which a third-party male crashes the private space of a couple. In the latter, however, tensions between the husband and wife begin submerged, revealed slowly by the youth’s nudging, turning into a complex power relationship. In the gangster-invasion version, the couple’s bonds break easy, a fact many auteur critics could cite to argue Cul-de-sac’s inferiority to Knife. Yet, Polanski multi-layers the power relationship in the former through genre and tradition. In contrast to Knife, the third party ups the threat by keeping the couple at gunpoint. It comes at the worst time for George, since the gangster invades (though himself tired and worn) just as Teresa has encouraged George to cross-dress, even with makeup. Thus, Polanski employs absurdism – his conceit to have Dickie reach by phone a man name Katelbach, whom the former hopes will come, is an allusion obvious enough to be humorous. (The reference to the song, not so much.) Knife reveals the hidden perversions of a seemingly functional relationship; Cul-de-sac’s invader cuts away the last threads to reveal a lack of familial unity, on which the classic style relies. It takes a home invasion to complete a split long in the making. Polanski tributes the crime subgenre by adding his own conceit: when there’s no community worth salvaging, a threat will leave all involved floating, sans shoreline.
Polanski recalls his Beckettian shorts when the couple, under Dickie’s orders, bring back the dying Albie from a car, now surrounded by a rising tide. Teresa eventually sides with Dickie as he digs a grave for Albie. Dickie’s avuncular manner converts the woman, played by the sister of Catherine Deneuve (star of Repulsion) in a different take on minimalism. Throughout, Polanski uses close-ups with full shots in the background, as he did in Knife to reflect the same kind of claustrophobia in an open space. Dickie channels threat less than personal history: having taken a life of hits, this tough is near his end, his invasion ironic but inevitable for the couple. Many ‘nice guy’ baddies depict a subversive element of criminality. Yet, Dickie acts as he thinks right, casually controlling while smiling and joking. To hide his getaway car in their garage, he orders the couple to break down chicken coops in the same manner he suggests they have a drink.
Like Knife, Cul-de-sac doesn’t comment on the nature of morality, just as Repulsion isn’t foolish enough to attempt a thesis on madness. Instead, Polanski depicts the (futile) search for moral boundaries after a disruption to the home. The film shows Polanski in experimental mode, as scenes ponder convictions while they explode in Knife. Polanski has described Cul-de-sac as one of his favorites, in which he experimented more than he aimed for results. Style triumphs as the finish on a generic vehicle.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His book, The New American Crime Filmis forthcoming with McFarland.