Around this time of year, we Horrorview scribes start to think about our Christmas round-up of favourite DVD releases of the year. Sometimes, it can be a bit of a struggle to decide between a plethora of interesting discs. But this year at least, there won't be any problem for me in coming up with at least one answer! Not because this has been a particularly sparse year (Blue Underground have made sure of that with a massive amount of first class releases), but because Anchor Bay UK have just unleashed a brilliant Boxed Set of the early work of one of the most important directors working in cinema today; a release that is sure to make any self-respecting film fan salivate! Moreover, it marks a turning point for the UK company who have up until now, found themselves rather overshadowed by their US sister company and their biggest US rival. With several big releases this year (and a few more to come) AB UK are now showing themselves worthy of some serious respect when it comes to providing high quality product for us fussy genre fans.
The set consists of four discs: the first three discs each feature one of Roman Polanski's first full-length movies while the fourth disc collects together eight of his early short films starting with some early student efforts made at the prodigious Polish Lodz film school. This review will look at each film chronologically, beginning with the material on the fourth disc of shorts.
"Murder" (1957) is Polanski's first completed film (an earlier effort was partially destroyed in a film processing mistake). Running at barely a minute and with no sound at all, it is a Warhol-esque depiction of just what the title suggests: a man enters a bedroom where another man lies sleeping. The intruder takes out a knife, murders the sleeping man and then leaves! The second film, "Teethful Smile" (1957) is in a similar style. This time, silently depicting a man peeping on a naked woman in the bathroom of a neighbouring flat. He is temporarily disturbed by another neighbour but when the voyeur returns for another look, the naked woman has been replaced by a man shaving! Both of these student features already foreshadow the obsessions of later Polanski work, particularly his apartment based movies ("Repulsion", "The Tenant", "Rosemary's Baby") where violence, voyeurism and paranoia suddenly erupt out of the most commonplace of environments and situations. The silence of these pieces particularly evokes comparison with the hallucinatory sexual attacks on Catherine Deneuve's character in "Repulsion".
With the mock-vérité style of "Let's Break The Ball" (1957) Polanski anticipates the manipulations of modern-day "reality" TV. The first half appears to be just a straightforward documentary record of an outdoor party. Then a gang gatecrash and the Ball turns into a massive punch-up! Apparently, Polanski organised the Ball and then invited the gang without telling anyone! In the finished film, it is impossible to tell how much, if any, has been staged and how much is real — encouraging the viewer to question the film techniques normally employed to suggest "reality".
"Two Men And A Wardrobe"(1958) was specifically made to win a prize at the 1958 International Avant-garde Film Festival in Brussels (according to Polanski in one of the other disc's featurettes); it did indeed win a bronze medal. The first indication of Polanski's penchant for broad, physical comedy is represented here, but filtered through an absurdist, almost surrealist style. In the film, two men emerge from the sea carrying a wardrobe and experience a number of adventures as they try to take their wardrobe into public places. The film starts off in a whimsical style as our two clown-like hero's indulge in Chaplin-esque comedy, but the mood gradually shifts and becomes darker. First of all we notice a murder taking place beneath a bridge while the two protagonists are crossing, and then the two get beaten up by a gang of thugs (one of which is Polanski himself who looks about twelve years old here!). Eventually they return to the sea with their wardrobe now battered and broken! The film is the best early example of Polanski's ability to radically shift tone without the result feeling disjointed and forced. It is also the first time he worked with composer Christopher Komeda.
"When The Angels Fall"(1959), is my favourite short on the disc. Through the use of flashback it tells the life story of an old woman, now working as an assistant at a gent's lavatory! The woman sits dozing in the corner as her customers stand at their urinals. These scenes are shot in black & white while her reminiscences are in vivid colour. The film is tremendously atmospheric and becomes increasingly tragic as we start to learn more about this old woman's life history. A startlingly surreal payoff suggests the woman's death at the end of the film. This is a beautifully shot piece of work which, more so than any other of these short films, uses strong imagery to tell a story and mixes realism with baroque fantasy.
"The Lamp"(1959) is a very odd but extremely atmospheric piece. An old doll-maker has electricity installed in his shop to replace the gas lamp he normally works by; but the poorly installed meter catches fire and the shop burns down! The film dramatises the event as a kind of battle between the traditionally made dolls and the modern electric meter! If you find dolls creepy then you will find this little film quite unsettling as Polanski's camera roams over a variety of weird-looking broken dolls which appear to be whispering to each other as the shop begins to catch light!
"Mammels"(1962) was shot after Polanski's first full-length feature and, for me, is the least interesting film of the collection. It depicts two men fighting over a sledge in a snowy landscape and once again it showcases Chaplin-style physical comedy and sight gags. This time though, there isn't really any stimulating context for the events. They take place in a blank landscape; and since I've never personally found this kind of comedy hugely appealing, there is not much to excite the senses in this piece.
The final film of the collection "The Fat Man and The Thin Man"(1961) is a much more successful example of physical comedy. Polanski stars as the titular thin man who spends his days attending to the constant needs of the fat man, who spends most of his time sitting in a rocking chair in the garden. He has to entertain the fat man with music and dance and also to rock his chair and cook his meals. From their spacious lawn, the thin man can see the city in the distance and dreams of escaping. But that becomes difficult when the fat man acquires a pet goat which he keeps chained to the thin man's foot! This final film showcases Polanski's talent for comedy performance to great effect and feels similar to "Dance Of The Vampires" in its comic style.
The transfers for these shorts are from brand new telecenes and all of them look extremely sharp for their age. There is print damage throughout, but not to any distracting degree. This disc is essential for any Polanski fan and Anchor Bay can be congratulated on a fine presentation of these very rare works.
After this fine set of starters, we get to the first of the main courses! "Knife In The Water" (1962) is a subtle examination of male ego that is set almost entirely on a yacht (an ambitious undertaking for the young director's first feature). A well-to-do sports writer, Andrej (Leon Niemczyk) and his "trophy" wife Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) pick up a hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz), who's method of getting vehicles to stop for him involves leaping out in front of them! After scolding the young man, Andrej offers him a lift -- mainly so he can continue the game of male "one-upmanship" that was initiated by the young man's unique hitching technique! Andrej and Krystyna are off to spend a few days on their expensive yacht, and the super-confident writer can't resist daring the inexperienced younger man to join them on their holiday. The trip quickly develops into a battle of wills between the two males. Both men try to humiliate each other in front of Krystyna -- with her approval as the ultimate prize!
The film plays out like an extended game of chess between the two male protagonists. Andrej feels in his element -- the yacht being a familiar environment for him; while the young man has no previous experience and even claims not to be able to swim! This, though, turns out to be the chess equivalent of a pawn "sacrifice": the young man's loss of face in the short-term is compensated for in the long-run when Andrej and Krystyna's belief that he can't swim helps gain him an advantage in the battle of wits. Krystyna may seem to be a passive observer in all of this -- firmly under her husband's thumb, but even she is playing the "game", and by the end of the film she has managed to exploit the power-play to gain leverage in her marriage as Andrej begins losing control of events.
Since this film was made, there have been several others on a similar theme, "Dead Calm" is the most obvious example. As was the case with that film, it usually turns out that the mysterious stranger will be revealed to be a psychopath. "Knife In The Water" never tries to suggest that any of the group are in any way unhinged and that, ultimately, is it's genius. There is a hint of possible violence symbolised in the young man's knife, which is usually on screen at one time or another, being handled by the characters, but the film is really concerned with exploring their psychological underpinnings. Polanski ruthlessly stripes away their pretensions, although the kind of people that the husband and wife represent (the well-off Middle Class) weren't officially even supposed to exist in communist Poland at that time. This was probably the reason the film was denounced by the First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party upon its release! Whatever their opinions about the subject matter, technically it can't be denied that the film is an amazing feat. Filming on a yacht with the film equipment towed behind on a barge couldn't have been the easiest of assignments, and a whole host of problems present themselves concerning the constantly changing light and skyline; but the film looks amazing with Polanski utilising some inventive camera positions and some wonderful photography from Jerzy Lipman.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 4:3 full-screen, with audio options that include a 5.1 DTS track as well as the original mono track. We get a host of talent bios; a poster and stills gallery and a theatrical trailer, with the set being rounded off with a fine featurette: "A Ticket To The West" which covers Polanski's early career up to and including "Knife In The Water". The film exhibits some print damage but generally looks wonderful.
Polanski's next project, "Repulsion"(1965), is one of the greatest British horror films ever made. The film's producer, Gene Gutowski, wanted an up-and-coming director with some credibility to lens a British exploitation horror picture, and after seeing "Knife In The Water" he decided Polanski was the man for the job. Polanski, meanwhile needed a vehicle to break out of the restrictive Polish film industry where all prospective projects still had to be approved by the Ministry of Culture! Teaming up with Gerard Brach, he came up with the screenplay for "Repulsion": the story of a young, troubled French girl, living in London, who slowly slides into a madness that results in a double murder after she is left alone in her flat while her flatmate/sister holidays in Italy with her boyfriend.
Since most of the film is spent exploring the disintegrating mind of its solitary lead character, in many ways its success is dependent on the performance of its leading lady. The role of Carol -- an introverted beautician with a phobia of sex and masculinity, is played brilliantly by a young Catherine Deneuve. Her character's passive fragility only seems to make her more attractive to her male pursuers: a young man called Colin (John Fraser) and a sweaty landlord (Patrick Wymark) who turns up at the flat to collect the rent. Both men meet a nasty end! Left by herself in the girls' unkempt flat, Carol's crumbling mind turns inward and her fears emerge from the very walls of the apartment and from behind the wardrobe in her bedroom to terrorise and ravage her.
The flat becomes an external representation of Carol's state of mind, and next to Deneuve's central performance, it's visualisation is of unparalleled importance. Polanski collaborated with cinematographer Gil Taylor and set designer Seamus Flannery to turn an ordinary shabby flat into a threatening repository of psycho-sexual delirium. Taylor's photography is able to make even the most ordinary domestic appliances and trinkets appear strange and alien while Polanski's inventive use of lenses (shooting Deneuve's close-ups with a wide-angle lens to subtly distort her features as a visual sign of her increasing madness, for instance) and obtuse camera-angles keeps the viewer on edge, even when nothing much seems to be happening. Flannery's set for the flat was built with movable walls, so that as the film progresses it begins to appear ever bigger, emphasising Carol's isolation and hallucinatory state of mind. The film is full of images that, once seen, remain indelibly stamped on the mind of the viewer: the hallucinatory cracks in the walls of the apartment; arms growing out of the walls of the corridors to paw at Carol as she passes; the passage of time marked by a rotting, uncooked, skinned rabbit, and sprouting potato's on the sideboard; and Carols unnervingly silent rape fantasy/hallucinations. Adding to the atmosphere of all this is Chico Hamilton's score: a forlorn flute melody for Carol's "theme" punctuated by bursts of jazz and insistent almost military-style rhythms. "Repulsion" is an utterly convincing portrait of a lost person, giving us a subjective view of her world while remaining detached enough for us to be able to stand back and reflect on the escalating horror of her situation. The film easily rises above its low-budget exploitation origins and is still as powerful today as it was upon its first release.
This disc gets the most interesting set of extras of all the films in the collection. Of course we get the usual trailer, biographies and photo galleries; and another fine featurette, "A British Horror Film" which contains interviews with Polanski, Gil Taylor and Seamus Flannery. Alongside these there is also an interesting eight minute audio interview with professor Richard Gregory, a specialist in the science of perception, who became involved with Polanski after the director read one of his books and contacted him to collaborate on a project which, in the end, never saw the light of day. Gregory talks a little about this uncompleted project and how "Repulsion" relates to scientific ideas about perception. Finally we have an audio commentary with Roman Polanski and Catherine Deneuve. Both have recorded their contributions separately but the commentary still offers many valuable anecdotes and insights.
The transfer is nice and sharp with good detail but there is a fair amount of print damage present with white lines and speckles quite noticeable throughout. Once again a nice optional DTS 5.1 track is included along with a decent Dolby 2.0 track.
After the huge success of "Repulsion" Polanski immediately embarked on another project for Compton Films. The quirky and deeply idiosyncratic "Cul-De-Sac"(1966)--originally titled "If Katelbach Comes" -- is a completely different affair from its dark and brooding predecessor despite the two films sharing a screenwriter and cinematographer. Set and filmed on Holy Island off the coast of Northumberland, "Cul-De-Sac" tells the story of what happens when two oddball gangsters find themselves hiding out with a mismatched couple who live in a small castle-house near the sea. Dickie (Lionel Stander) is a big, burly bear of a man--a stereotypical American gangster; his partner, a thin, bespectacled character called Albie (Jack MacGowran) who doesn't look like a gangster at all! Both are injured in a bungled job for their boss, Katelbach; Dickie has been shot in the arm while Albie is much more seriously injured. Their unwilling hosts are George (Donald Pleasence) -- an introverted neurotic who has escaped the rat-race for a secluded life of intellectual contemplation with his young, frisky French wife Teresa (Francoise Dorleac), while trying his best to ignore her adulterous relationship with the son of a couple who live on a neighbouring island. The film is very much a character piece like "Knife In The Water", but slips and slides between genres in a self-conscious, playful manner. It feels almost as if Polanski and his screenwriter partner Gerard Brach had taken a bunch of characters from four different genre movies and placed them together to see what would happen.
The title of the movie mirrors it's deliberate "non-development" of plot. The gangsters are waiting for a sign from their boss that he is coming to collect them. After numerous false alarms it becomes more and more apparent that they are on their own. The strange, virtually featureless, yet secluded landscape of the island, with its low, dark skies and causeway stretching away into the distance, may seem like a beach paradise, but for Dickie and Albie it is a dead-end. They have failed their boss and are now literally stymied: stuck in a no-man's land with little prospect of redeeming themselves. Meanwhile, for George, a dead-end life with no development -- just endless reverie amid mundane everyday events, is exactly what he has come to this historic place to attain and then finds so rudely disrupted by the sudden appearance of these interlopers. His young euro-babe seductress of a wife couldn't cause too much bother when there was barely a soul for miles around, but when Dickie turns up, it gives her a chance to cause much mischief between the coarse gangster and her ineffectual husband. The whole scenario eventually explodes into brutal violence that will change all four characters' lives forever!
"Cul-De-Sac" is still Polanski's favourite film and despite the many troubles he encountered from almost every quarter during it's making, it's easy to see why. The film boasts some brilliant performances from all four leads and features yet more brilliant work by cinematographer Gil Taylor, as well as a great score by Polanski's favourite composer Christopher Komeda. It must have been a bit of a headache for the producers though: one can understand their worries about the commerciality of the project. "Repulsion" may well have transcended it's exploitation origins ("we ordered a Mini-Cooper and you delivered a Rolls-Royce" co-producer Tony Tenser is supposed to have told Polanski) but it still worked as a horror film and so satisfied it's financiers. "Cul-De-Sac" -- a deeply personal project which, although it featured some broad comedy and more explicitly violent sequences than "Knife In The Water", is still very much an art film and not the kind of thing it's producers would normally consider making. Out of the three main features in this set it is probably the most ambiguous. Apparently many sequences were improvised and the film does have a very "stream-of-consciousness" feel to it with moments of mannered absurdity such as the sequence where Donald Pleasence's character first confronts Dicki while dressed in his wife's night-gown and make-up! Very much ahead of its time, the film has aged rather well, and is probably a far more satisfying viewing experience today than it was at the time it was actually released!
Out of all the films in this set "Cul-De-Sac" has the best looking transfer, with barely a blemish on the print and very little grain. It looks extremely sharp and the black levels are spot on. The film is presented in it's 1:85 theatrical aspect ratio and is anamorphicaly enhanced. Once again we have a choice of a Dolby 2.0 track or an optional 5.1 Surround track with DTS. Trailers, biographies and a stills gallery are all included with another fine Blue Underground produced featurette: "Two Gangsters and an Island" rounding things off nicely, although all four lead actors are now, unfortunately, deceased, so we have to rely on Polanski's not always complimentary recollections of them.
All four discs come packaged in a fold-out digi-case held inside a cardboard sleeve. A small wallet inside the pack holds a twenty-four page glossy booklet that contains essays on all three main features and an overview of Polanski's early work, all of which are written by Daniel Bird. Make no bones about it -- if you are a Polanski fan then you need this set! This is well up to Criterion Collection standards only at a fraction of the price, and is surely one of Anchor Bay UK's finest releases. Excellent stuff, highly recommended!!