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The Criterion Collection: Cul-de-sac Blu-ray Disc Review

Cul-de-sac: The Criterion Collection [Blu-ray] (1966)

CUL-DE-SAC (1966, Blu-ray released August 16, 2011 – MSRP $39.95)

MOVIE: ★★★★½ 
VIDEO: ★★★★½ 
AUDIO: ★★★½☆ 
EXTRAS: ★★★½☆ 
BLU-RAY: ★★★★☆ 

Cul-de-sac is an unexpected treat for fans of the crime films tired of suffering the usual cliches of the genre. In typical Roman Polanski style, the director circumvents any expectations the audience might have of the characters and plot of the piece, in this rare, expressive early film that now looks and sounds better than ever on Criterion Blu-ray!

    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 Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorléac star as a withdrawn couple whose isolated house is invaded by a rude, burly American gangster on the run, played by Lionel Stander.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.

I’ll admit, I found Cul-de-sac tough to get into. The imagery is compelling right out of the gate but the narrative feels lost, as if it’s meandering from random point to random point for quite some time. That is, until Stander’s brash, American thug gets himself situated in Pleasence and Dorléac’s lonely, isolated fortress, invading their lives on even the most intimate level. Then, things really kick into gear. All the seemingly random encounters and images begin to click together, pieces of a puzzle that make up a character-driven whole. And the structure of the film becomes clear. From that point on, we fans of crime cinema know what we’re dealing with – a simple home invasion story that calls for the meek, mild-mannered home owner to man up and defend his lady and his land. That’s right where Polanski want’s you, though. Thinking you know what’s going to happen. How this thing will play out. But if you know Polanski, you know that he’s way too cheeky to tell a boring bit of old-hat.

The film turns in upon itself, becoming an examination of character rather than a tightly wound crime plot. The young wife joins the thug in demeaning and pushing around her dominated husband. The husband takes out his frustrations on a group of unassuming relatives who show up unannounced, an event which sees Dorléac taking the reigns in the power play, introducing Stander to the guests as their servant. It’s a push and pull with a climax that’s far from the expected but at the same time, right on the money. Genius. I loved it.

Cul-de-sac looks fantastic in this new, restored transfer courtesy of The Criterion Collection. The Blu-ray presentation is detailed with rich blacks and and an overall film-like look. I didn’t perceive any untoward use of digital manipulation but did notice some damage that managed to elude the cleanup process – vertical lines running through part of the picture around an hour into the film. Nothing to get your knickers in a knot about, though. Overall, a great looking disc.

From the booklet:

    Approved by director Roman Polanski, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from the original 35mm composite fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR and Phoenix systems were used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.

I found the lossless mono audio track quite thin. I mean, I don’t expect much dynamic range from a film of this age and budget, and I’m certain Criterion did what they could with the source but this bad boy is really lacking in bottom. Some of the music was positively grating, if you ask me. The track is, however, quite clean and clear with fully audible dialogue.

From the booklet:

    The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm fine-grain master positive soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.

The Cul-de-sac Blu-ray isn’t totally packed with special features but the few included are quality (no surprise to anyone familiar with Criterion’s standards.) ‘Two Gangsters and an Island‘ is an interview feature with Polanski, actor William Franklyn, producer Gene Gutowski, producer Tony Tenser, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor and others, running nearly half an hour and covering the making of the film. There is also an interview segment, also clocking in around a half hour, taken from a 1967 BBC program, where Polanski talks about his life and career. The disc is rounded out with a couple of trailers and a 16-page illustrated booklet.

Special Features:

  • New digital restoration, approved by director Roman Polanski (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
  • Two Gangsters and an Island, a 2003 short documentary about the making of Cul-de-sac, featuring interviews with Polanski, producer Gene Gutowski, and cinematographer Gil Taylor
  • Interview with Polanski from 1967
  • Theatrical trailers
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Thompson

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