Following the international successes of Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965), but before his American breakthroughs Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski made Cul-de-sac in 1966. This curious film is one seldom discussed when evaluating the director’s body of work, mostly because he directed so many other great movies, but also because this is an unclassifiable and bizarre yet truly engrossing picture.

Lionel Stander chews each scene aggressively as George, one of two criminals (the other being Albie, played by Jack MacGowran) who arrive at a remote water-front castle. George is hurt, but Albie is dying. We know neither where they come from nor what happened. Albie stays in the car as George seeks assistance in the castle, attempting to phone his apparent superior for support and confronting the owners of the building, Richard and Teresa, portrayed by Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorléac respectively. There is a past with George and the less-than-receptive Richard, but it too remains ambiguously undeveloped and not discussed. While away, George forgets the tide and returns to Albie too late, finding him in the car gradually getting swallowed up by the rising water. Though rescued, Albie dies soon after. Eventually, the relationships between the three remaining characters take uncomfortable and potentially dangerous turns. Sexual and violent tensions boil up and suspicions arise. Who is playing who? Who is really in charge? Who has the upper hand? And who is really holding who captive? This is all only heightened when other visitors, unaware of the transpiring drama, stop by.

The film, in a good way, begins to feel as awkward as the characters do. As he has always been an expert at, Polanski creates a palpable anxiousness and sense of danger. One is never quite sure if and when one of these individuals will act out. The film’s structure is such that the normal rules of narrative don’t seem like they might necessarily apply. Anything is possible. Added to that are the overstated performances: There is Stander’s gravelly-voiced threats and barbaric mannerisms; there is the attractive Dorléac seducing both men without ever really appearing genuine in either case, perhaps working her own autonomous angle; and there is Pleasence, exaggeratingly protesting the situation and attempting to enforce his supposed dominance over his home.

In a 1969 Positif interview, Polanski stated, “From a cinematic point of view it’s certainly my best film.” While he made many remarkable movies after that statement, some ultimately better than this, it is an interesting and perhaps accurate evaluation; this is the one that does stand out in terms of noteworthy camera angles, maneuvers (including one of cinema’s longest without a cut), and a general atmosphere of anxiety aided by the unorthodox sets and the unnerving and absolutely perfect music by frequent early collaborator Krzysztof Komeda. It’s not that the film is gimmicky; it’s just that it makes the most of what artistic cinema can do.

Visually, and with regards to mood and tone, Cul-de-sac has more in common with Polanski’s work from the 1960s (save for 1976’s The Tenant), but as a testament to his talent, these great works were not any sort of premature peak for the filmmaker. His recent achievements in the form of The Pianist (2002) and The Ghost Writer (2010) – one of last year’s best – proves that the director has not lost any of his mastery, of which Cul-de-sac is an early and underrated example of.

Blow Out

As reviewed on

Set for a DVD/Blu-ray release Tuesday, April 26, Blow Out, the 1981 film directed by Brian De Palma and starring John Travolta, is a spellbinding motion picture, one of the great filmmaker’s best.

While the 1970s produced an array of superior American political thrillers, De Palma kept the spirit alive for a few years after with this taut picture featuring Travolta as Jack, a movie sound effects man specializing in B-grade horror films, a sampling of which opens the picture in signature De Palma style. Out recording nature sounds one night, Jack quite accidentally “witnesses” a car accident in which a major political figure, a potential presidential candidate, drowns. The candidate’s accompanying girl-for-hire (Nancy Allen) is rescued by Jack after he dives into the water.

As the film progresses and De Palma unspools the threads of this conspiracy puzzler, Jack attempts to unravel the mysteries surrounding the events that have transpired. Combining the audio he recorded with photos taken by another party, Jack laboriously and imaginatively attempts to reconstruct what actually happened by creating a sort of flip-book with sound – itself not unlike a motion picture. This sequence is all crafted and shown in a dazzling tour-de-force of directorial flair, Travolta’s specialized methodology accentuated by De Palma’s focus. Was it a blow out, or was there a gun shot? An accident, or an assassination?

De Palma is regularly and rightfully noted for his penchant for homage, most prominently to Hitchcock (be it negatively or positively), but here the obvious allusion is to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). However, instead of tackling the illusory manipulations of cinematic images like the Italian master, De Palma deconstructs reality through the ambiguousness of the aural.

An excellent film, by a great director, Blow Out has frequently been ignored in De Palma’s body of work, overshadowed by his more popular movies like Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission: Impossible (1996) – each in their own right quite fantastic. But Blow Out, while at once situated as a mainstream release (Travolta, after all, was at the crest of his first wave of success), still manages to maintain some of the tawdry and overtly ecstatic traits more closely associated with De Palma’s “cultish” classics like 1973’s Sisters, Dressed to Kill from 1980, and Body Double from 1984. This sort of in-between make-up perhaps attributed to the film’s less than remarkable box office at the time. Regardless though, this is a highly cinematic work, one with many stylish flourishes and deliberate formal designs, one also, like most of De Palma’s output, well worth a look.


Released on a Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Ray April 19 and currently available to watch instantly on Netflix, Kes (1969), directed by Ken Loach, is widely regarded as one of the best of all British films (ranked No. 7 by the British Film Institute). That praise could go even further though.

Kes is one of the greatest films from anywhere … ever.

It is the moving and stark portrait of a young boy, Billy, who finds, befriends, tames, and trains a kestrel, aptly named Kes. This boy and this bird, and this film, do not attain, nor do they even seek to begin with, the sort of sentimentality that a movie about a child and an animal can typically denote. It’s much more than that, much more honest than that.

Loach’s masterpiece follows Billy as he tries to make his way through the grim and at times quite aggressive world of his downtrodden, working-class English town, seeking solace in his time with Kes, finding a refuge from the hostilities of family strife, torment at school, and an otherwise stagnant existence; shots of the bird soaring freely through the overcast skies stand as sharp contrasts and perhaps as sources of envy for the boy who seems to find abuse and confinement at every turn.

Kes comes at the end of the decade which featured a surge of superb British cinema, often deriving from the so-called “Angry Young Men” of the British New Wave. Like Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963) and If.... (1968) – all wonderful films – it too takes a similarly authentic portrayal of provincial living. In dialogue, rich and thick with jargon-laden accents, in location, with pervading grayness hovering above the mud and the dank natural exteriors, and in characterization, with individuals dressed and looking like they were caught living unawares by the filmmakers’ cameras, the film takes an commonly-clichéd “documentary approach” to its scenes. But these moments of valid representation don’t bog down the film in the manner of a sparse narrative or in overtly bleak stagings of haphazard and inconsequential occurrences. There’s no question that Loach is a gifted filmmaker, and here he accomplishes much with his purposeful ("observational" in his words) direction, many scenes presented as pure, affecting, and magical, despite their dreariness. Loach knows many of these moments are quite powerful, and he and the performers reveal the lightness, and the darkness, in these characters and these locations.

Specifically, moments of Billy and Kes together stand out, and they are of a sublime beauty. Billy is played astonishingly by David Bradley who, while he would continue to act, mostly for television, would never match the genuineness of his performance here — few other actors would either. Billy’s enthusiasm and passion, his drive and his pain, are well-worn on Bradley’s face, at once young looking and older than it should be.

The scene where Billy tells and animates to his teacher and classmates the processes of training Kes is simply one of the greatest moments of acting and filmmaking, eliciting a smile of appreciation and tears of sympathy.

The film as a whole is simply unforgettable.

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