Saturday, August 27, 2011

TV Bites: Cul-de-Sac

Donald Pleasence's Fillet of Sole Bonne Femme

A shorter version of this post was originally published on the Criterion Collection website.

I'm going mad, I tell you! Mad! I dream of a bed made of ice. And snow. All the trees are covered in snow. And sweaters. I dream of wearing a scarf. A parka, even. Because it's cold. So very cold outside. I yearn to be only one place. And that place is.... ICE STATION ZEBRA!

Seriously, I finally understand the meaning of the word "hellacious." It is ungodly hot here in Texas. And all I'm going to say in reference to our esteemed governor, is that every time the weatherman says it looks like rain, the governor prays for rain, and then it doesn't rain. I'm just saying. Maybe his god is trying to tell him something?

When I lived in Los Angeles, I had a ritual I would act out on the hottest day of the year. And that would be to lock myself inside, crank up the a/c, and watch Ice Station Zebra. I'm not making this up here. I would blend some tequila beverage with ice until I could just slide the frozen lava down my throat and watch all 148 minutes - that's two minutes shy of 2 1/2 hours, for you math-averted types. Granted, there's an intermission, but still! And what a cast! Rock Hudson, Ernie Borgnine, the great, great Patrick McGoohan, and football-champ-turned-actor and all-American hero Jim Brown. And we even get a sizable role for a young Tony Bill (who remains in my memory as one of the most likable Hollywood people I met in my years in LA - it was always a pleasure to chat with him at some art event or even at his restaurant), and some Lloyd Nolan tossed in. Directed by probably the top action director of his time, John Sturges. Oh, but wait....

In my heat-caused delirium, I almost forgot I'm not writing about Ice Station Zebra. I'm writing about Roman Polanski and Cul-de-Sac. This is such an odd little movie. I can completely understand why some didn't take to it when it was released. But movies, or should we say, (ahem) cinema, was changing pretty rapidly at the time. You were either on the ride, or off. Cul-de-Sac hit the theaters in 1966. That year audiences around the world were seeing films like Fahrenheit 451, Blow-Up, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Persona. I mean, seriously... what a year! Even Hollywood output was impressive: Oscar Best Picture nominations that year included Dr. Zhivago, (the winner) The Sound of Music, and (one of my all time favorites) A Thousand Clowns. The Black Panthers formed. Ronald Reagan became governor of California. The first episode of Star Trek aired. And Roman Polanksi was living the life in London, swinging with rock stars and starlets. Not bad. And he also made an odd little film which has been out-of-print in these United States for some inexplicable reason but now has a new release this month on Criterion (hey, they do help pay the air-conditioning bill, folks).

And what a treat it is. It's madness. A bleak, black - is it a comedy? Someone, sometime ago coined the term "the cringe factor" when talking about a particular emotion which 21st Century television seems to feed on. It's described as the uncomfortable feeling of watching someone doing or saying something we ourselves would feel embarrassed or ashamed to be recorded doing and subsequently shown to to everyone. It's not sadness. It's not laughter. You physically cringe at that moment. But you also can't look away. And you get that train wreck feeling here, as everyone in Cul-de-Sac, with the exception of poor Albie, is a mostly self-deluded, sad, and pathetic human specimen. I mean, seriously... Who is the least appealing character in this movie? It's a tough call. And for sure there's something symbolic in all them live chickens cackling about in almost every shot of the movie. It's almost like Hitchcock's The Birds sometimes (which will be the featured film of my next Chef du Cinema class on October 29th). You can't describe Cul-de-Sac to someone. It's a movie you just have to watch and experience. And that's a pretty good description of Polanski's vision of "true cinema."

Anyways, without further ado, Cul-de-Sac is available for purchase on a new Criterion edition @ Amazon, and is streamable @ NetFlix.


"One doesn't choose the time one gets into trouble."

Our story begins in Paris, 1962, when Roman Polanski, who had just completed his first feature film, Knife on the Water, was commissioned by a French producer to write a new screenplay. He was told the script should be about a Polish girl who comes to Paris and falls in love with a Frenchman. The producer told him to think "a low budget Hiroshima Mon Amour."

Polanski hated the idea and didn't like the treatment he wrote. He turned to his friend Gérard Brach, who was a struggling young screenwriter at the time (they'd go on to write many films together). They decided to jettison the original premise and write something completely different.

"Gérard and I began with isolated scenes and situations, ignorant of where they would lead. Gradually, by trial and error, by talking our way around a scene, we would develop a thematic fragment into a fully structured story line," Polanski wrote. "[T]he original title of which was 'Riri – the French equivalent of 'Dicky.' We started out with the notion of a household, cut off by water from the outside world, terrorized by a gangster on the run. The character of Dicky, the loudmouth misfit, was closely modeled on my friend [and landlord] Andrzej Katelbach." The script was now titled If Katelbach Comes.

"We had absolutely nothing, not even a structure for the story [to begin with]," he said elsewhere. "It's as if you give someone some brushes and a canvas, and then tell them, 'Go on, paint something.' We started to create scenes and characters who connected with the things that interested us at the time, both in life and in cinema. We went to see films every day and soon the characters began to create a story for themselves. It eventually developed into a screenplay and we went to work on the structure by adding and cutting."

"To be perfectly frank," he continued, "had I been asked at this stage what the theme was, I wouldn't have been able to answer. There was no theme, only the expression of our state of mind. Both Gerard and I had recently been let down by women...."

They were both highly influenced in the writing of the screenplay by two hot playwrights in London at the time, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, who would also influence the casting of Cul-de-Sac eventually. Polanski also had approached Beckett to film an adaptation of Waiting for Godot, but the author turned him down.

But no one seemed interested in whether Katelbach came or not. Polanski was told perhaps to tone down his "'Middle European' sense of humor." Even after Knife in the Water took the Critic's Prize at the Venice Film Festival, all Polanski wanted to do was make this film yet he couldn't find a producer willing to finance it. Then a still from Knife in the Water found itself on the cover of Time magazine. Next came his Academy Award nomination. (My favorite story and one of those "I wish I could go back in time and be a fly on the wall" events was when he was in Los Angeles, Polanski, Federico Fellini, and Fellini's wife Giulietta Masina, went on a tour together of Disneyland.... unbelievably, there is a film clip of Polanski visiting Fellini while making Satyricon wherein Polanski tells him how he went back to Disneyland "stoned" and urges Fellini to come visit him in Los Angeles and go again with him.) Polanski had a meeting with a Hollywood studio and they wanted him to do an American remake of Knife in the Water with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Warren Beatty. He thought the idea was "ridiculous" and offered them the rights to do it themselves for free.

Polanski relocated from Paris to London, as the reception for Knife in the Water had been tepid in the former, but a hit in the latter. He has always said how those times in London were some of the happiest moments of his life. Again, he tried to convince some producers to take on Katelbach, which was now officially called Cul-de-Sac. They said they would back him to do a horror movie. And thus, Polanski called Brach and they wrote Repulsion. Polanski said that even with Repulsion winning the Silver Bear Award at the 1965 Berlin Film Festival, to him the film was only "a means to an end: Cul-de-Sac." And so three years after they wrote it, financing secured, preproduction began in 1965 on the film.

According to Polanski, Donald Pleasence came to him by way of the casting director. However, elsewhere, it was reported that the producers went through great lengths to get Pleasence because Polanski wanted him desperately. After all, Pleasence was closely associated with Harold Pinter.

Lionel Stander, who had left the United States over the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings (he was first called in 1940 and cleared of charges of being a Communist, but then was called back in 1947 - after years of being virtually blacklisted, was now officially blacklisted, and left the country in 1951 instead of testifying) was chosen after Polanski saw him on a British television chat show. He was a rough and gruff character, who was like the real Katelbach who inspired the character of Dicky. Polanski was also very excited about working with Jack MacGowran, a Samuel Beckett regular.

Of the character Theresa, George's new wife, Polanski said, "[She is a] girl who wasn't doing anything with her life and who was in trouble. [George] even calls her a semi-prostitute, though she certainly didn't marry for money. There are a lot of girls who think they're being radical by doing things a little out of the ordinary, and everything she does – like provoking the gangsters and playing with the kid by pulling his ear – falls into the same category as her marriage." At first, Polanski wanted Charlotte Rampling for the part, but she became unavailable. He also saw Jacqueline Bisset, but decided to give her a smaller role in the movie. Supposedly, Polanski personally interviewed over 200 starlets for the role. Then, with shooting only a couple of days away, he'd heard Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve's sister, was in town. Polanski went to see her and hired her on the spot.

But once they arrived and got the camera rolling, Polanski's dream began to turn into a nightmare. "It is never long, during the making of a film, before the off-set atmosphere begins to reflect that of the story itself," wrote Polanski. (filmmaker Allison Anders noted the same effect describing her experience working on Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas in my post on that film.) "Gérard and I had written a black comedy about three characters condemned to close proximity under isolated conditions - a study in neurosis with the thriller conventions turned upside down. Unfortunately, our trio of principals soon started playing their parts for real." But so did Polanski....

Polanski and the crew wound up hating the location and the people of Lindisfarne. But the squabbling between between the cast, between the crew, between the cast and crew, and between the producers and Polanski, were never-ending.

Pleasence and Polanski began sparring from the get-go when the former arrived with his head shaved without consulting Polanski. "He presented me with a 'fait accompli,'" Polanski wrote, "by arbitrarily shaving his head prior to shooting. Although this lent his performance an extra twist, I was annoyed that he hadn't consulted me first." Pleasence, he complained, "had the central role yet seemed to want to upstage everyone else. He hogged the camera in a variety of ingenious ways. Not always an easy man to deal with or be with despite his outstanding talent, Pleasence looked down on the rest of the cast and was subtly mean to them." (and isn't Polanski then doing the same in saying that?)

Pleasence is quoted to have said in the aftermath: “[Roman] was an average, Hollywood-type megalomaniac, an unsentimental, restless young man. He was also about 20 IQ points brighter than most directors.

Meanwhile, Françoise Dorléac arrived with attitude, a lot of suitcases, and smuggled into the country "her incontinent chihuahua," Polanski described. About halfway through the shoot, Dorléac had to go to her dentist in Paris, but upon her return tried to smuggle the dog again and this time got caught. The dog was quarantined, which only made her more miserable to be around in Polanski's opinion. He said she regularly attacked the rooster brought in to "manage" the chickens with a broom, out of some manifested hatred of it.

Polanski was the only person who had his own private trailer brought in which he used to get away from everyone with, and to carry on with Jackie Bisset. Unfortunately, some of the local natives conspired to keep him out. But not human natives. "[T]he colony of earwigs in my trailer were multiplying fast," Polanski wrote, "I would return, exhausted after a day's shooting, to find my bed crawling with the shiny, wiggly bugs. I did my best to fight them with massive doses of DDT.... [but] they actually seemed to thrive on DDT."

However, it was Stander who caused Polanski the most headaches. At first he amused everyone with his Hollywood stories (and the 20 pounds of pastrami he had flown in - see below), but that wore thin a bit too quickly. Polanski complained he was "[l]azy at heart, [and] tackled his role with an almost manic enthusiasm that proved to be regrettably short-lived." During the scene where he was to beat up Dorléac, he repeatedly hit her with his belt buckle, hurting her for real. She fought back and he cursed at her. "Knowing that the crew was ready to kick his teeth in, I called a halt. Stander limped off," Polanski noted, but then Stander returned and apologized. Another day, he went blind for 24 hours after drinking some local moonshine. But his erratic behavior only got worse.

He began to complain of a knee injury, but according to Polanski, which knee it was often changed and became a running joke with the crew. Then there were chest pains, which Stander now admitted he'd had a history of heart trouble - something he had neglected to tell the film's insurance company who now had to be talked out of pulling the plug on the whole production. Polanski eventually sent Brach over to see Stander and make up a story that Polanski was in love with his performance in the film and told Brach they were going to write a new movie starring Stander - but, with all the problems, Polanski was thinking twice. "It worked like a charm," recalled Polanski. "Miraculously Stander's knee and chest pains vanished. No longer afflicted by palpitations, he worked whatever hours we wanted him to work. Throughout our last couple of weeks on Holy Island [Lindisfarne] his behavior was impeccable."

In a 2003 interview, Polanski seemed to soften his opinion, reflecting, “But what I say is that was the role we asked him to play. And we wanted him to be like that. There was a lot of that in Lionel and we were getting it out of him - 12 hours a day. So no wonder that he was like this.”

There were only three people who brought him joy during the fimmaking: Jack MacGowran, MacGorwran's wife, and Jackie Bisset - who left about halfway through when her scenes were done... and the woman who arrived then to take over "taking care" of Polanski, actress Jill St. John.

With filming finally over, Polanski returned to London. He told a reporter at the time: "I've never had such a bad working relationship with actors, and at the end of the shoot no one could stand each other. I'm never happy at the end of a film's production because it's difficult to see what's really been achieved. It's only much later that you're able to judge the result. I hope it turns out OK." It took a night of LSD for the depression to dissipate and let him get on with the post production.

As noted above, the film did not perform well in the theaters. Critics weren't sure what to make of it, even though it won the Golden Bear Prize at the Berlin Film Festival that year. I think audiences in 1966 hadn't gotten used to this kind of theater yet. But in the post-Pinter, post-Beckett, and now post-reality television era wherein it's all about watching others dissect and pick at each other in sadistic ways - Cul-de-Sac seems quite tame and can be viewed with a different perspective (and that comes with its own set of positives and negatives, right?).

Polanski said in a 1969 interview that, "From a cinematic point of view [Cul-de-Sac is] certainly my best film. If I went in search of cinema, just as Samuel Becket goes in search of theater, I would only make films like Cul-de-Sac." And in 1981 reiterated that "Cul-de-Sac, a film that I consider even now a great cinematic success – was a complete flop." And further in 1986, he noted that the film which "gives me great satisfaction from a filmmaker's point of view is Cul-de-Sac. I like its originality and style a lot. It has a truly cinematographic side. It's not theater, it's not a television program illustrated with slides – it's true cinema."

"I was watching a couple of films I'd rented from the video shop round the corner, and I thought films have got so complicated," Donald Pleasence said in 1983. "They're all shot like commercials - your nose, your glasses and so on. And I thought how wonderful to see a film like Cul-de-Sac. The essence of that film is what you read into it, not what the director puts into it by way of fancy cutting. It was a straightforward film in the sense that it could have happened - like Waiting for Godot. The weirdest things are those which bear a resemblance to the truth." And in another interview, he said, "I think [Cul-de-Sac] was Polanski's best picture. We were very creative together and although we had fights, a lot of the scenes were improvised on the spot."


Polanski flew a plane around England until he'd found the right location. When he saw Lindisfarne (aka The Holy Island of Lindisfarne), he immediately felt it was the perfect location for the film. But much later, from ground level experience now, he wrote of it:

"Holy Island, also known as Lindisfarne, was a strange place reputed to be haunted by innumerable ghosts. Its tiny, inbred community of under 300 inhabitants - sheep farmers and fishermen, poachers and wreckers - resented outsiders descending on them for longer than a day or two. The island had a small mead brewery and no fewer than six pubs, which remained open at all hours of the day and night. There wasn't a single resident policeman to enforce the British licensing laws that required pubs to close in the afternoon and turn their customers out at 11:00pm. On one occasion, so the story ran, two constables from the mainland had come to carry out a spot check. It was a bitterly cold winter, and none of the islanders would give them shelter. Cut off by the tide, they were forced to spend the night in the open. One of them died of exposure as a result. Somehow, the glee with which the locals recounted this tale seemed psychologically consistent with their principal sport, which was to kill as many ducks as possible with a single shot from a homemade cannon loaded with rusty nails."

Regardless of what Polanski said, visiting Lindisfarne just to see the darn thing looks like something pretty awesome to do.

But being that it's a tidal island, with the only access by a paved causeway, covered by the North Sea twice every 24 hours -you better consult the tide tables or else you'll wind up like Albie & Dicky in the movie!

As for history, the place is swimming in it. St Aidan founded the first monastery in England there in 635. According to their official website: "Locally the island is rarely referred to by its Anglo-Saxon name of 'Lindisfarne'. Following on from the murderous and bloodthirsty attack on the monastery by the Vikings in 793AD, it obtained its local name from the observations made by the Durham monks: 'Lindisfarne - baptised in the blood of so many good men - truly a 'Holy Island'. Its more appropriate title is 'The Holy Island of Lindisfarne'."

The castle, according to Wikipedia, "is located in what was once the very volatile border area between England and Scotland. Not only did the English and Scots fight, but the area was frequently attacked by Vikings. The castle was built in 1550, around the time that Lindisfarne Priory [the monastery] went out of use, and stones from the priory were used as building material. It is very small by the usual standards, and was more of a fort. The castle sits on the highest point of the island, a whinstone hill called Beblowe."

In 1901, Edward Hudson, a publishing magnate and owner of Country Life magazine (today a subsidiary of the Time Warner empire), bought the castle and renovated the interior in the Arts and Crafts style. Since 1944, it has been in the care of the National Trust and open to tourists. You can even rent it out for your next wedding, if you're so inclined, which leads us into the next section....


bonne femme, à la [bohn FEHM, bohn FAM]
Literally translated as "good wife," the term bonne femme describes food prepared in an uncomplicated, homey manner. Sole bonne femme is a simply poached fish served with a sauce of white wine and lemon juice, and often garnished with small onions and mushrooms
. - The Food Lover's Companion, 1995

There is something sardonically appropriate about pairing Cul-de-Sac with a dish called “bonne femme.” For the film is partly a cautionary marital tale of what can befall a man who doesn't marry “un bonne femme.” Françoise Dorléac's character is anything but that. But the thing of it is, it wasn't my first pick for a dish, nor my second, not even my third.

My first thought was to make, as Dicky (Lionel Stander) does in the film, an omelette. But we never find out exactly what kind of omelette he makes. So I thought since Theresa and her paramour Christopher (Iain Quarrier) catch fresh shrimp between bouts of adultery, I'd make a shrimp omelette. But it wasn't calling to me. It was like I knew there was something else out there.

My second idea was to do a local dish from Lindisfarne. But as Polanski recalled of its cuisine: “Tweed salmon is supposed to be the best in the world, but the pub cooks stewed it till the flesh turned to gray mush, whereas the skin, by some mysterious process, became even tougher. The islanders' staple dish was boiled mutton, and the crew conveyed their opinion of it in a ritual that steadily lost its entertainment value as the weeks went by... they returned to the set bleating like sheep.” Okay....

My next step took me on a search hopefully for a recipe from Lionel Stander (once dubbed by the Italian press in the 1960's as “the world's oldest hippie”). He looked like a cat who liked to eat well. In fact, Polanksi noted Stander had 20 pounds of pastrami especially flown in for him to Lindisfarne from the Stage Deli in New York during the shoot. I soon found myself trading some emails with one of Stander's daughters, Bella, and here's what she shared with me:

My father did indeed love to eat, and would eat almost anything. I think all he and my mother had in common was a love of Chinese hot and sour soup, which they passed on to me. He wasn't much of a cook, however. I only saw him at a stove when he was acting: first in 'Cul-de-Sac' and 20 years later in 'Hart to Hart.' The only food I recall him making was when he grilled steaks in Rome in 1973. Mine was inedible but his, as always, was 'WUN-dah-ful!'”

So, another dead end. Finally, I landed on this celebrity cookbook from a Canadian cooking television show which included this recipe from Donald Pleasence. The host of the show, Bruno Gerussi, was a huge celebrity himself in Canada, having starred in The Beachcomers, which the Museum of Broadcast Communications notes was, “the longest-running series drama in Canadian television history.” Reruns are still shown regularly. For nine concurrent years, Gerussi also had his own cooking show, Celebrity Cooks, featuring guests like Margaret Trudeau, "funnyman" Jack Carter, Lynn Redgrave, and Dizzy Gillespie. The show is also infamous as the answer to the obscure trivia question, “What was the last television appearance of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane?” (The episode, which never aired, was recreated in the Crane bio-pic Auto Focus wherein he made “Chicken a la Hogan's Heroes.”)

Donald Pleasence was born and raised in England and, while at first a conscientious objector, joined the Royal Air Force during World War II, flew over 60 missions until he was shot down, then spent a year in a German POW camp (where he performed in a production of The Petrified Forest!?!). While he appeared in over 200 film and television programs - though is mostly known for his work in the Halloween film franchise, and as the evil Blofeld in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice - Pleasence's stage career was far more prestigious. He received four Tony award nominations for Best Actor, including for his roles in The Caretaker and The Man in the Glass Booth.

He once said of himself: “Right from the beginning people saw me in some kind of screwy way - that I wasn't suitable for the tall, handsome parts. They didn't realize they were looking at this tall, blond, crinkly-haired Adonis with the perfect features, the twinkly eyes and the boyish dimples. So I gave up. Then I started seeing myself on the screen. Suddenly I understood why and stopped watching."

With all the tension between the two, we can only imagine what might have happened had Pleasence only served Polanski his fillet of sole during the film's production. Perhaps, their memories of each other would have been a bit “plus bonnes.” As always, cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Donald Pleasence's Fillet of Sole Bonne Femme
adapted from a recipe found in Celebrity Cooks Volume I, by Bruno Gerussi
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 4

4 6-ounce fillets of Sole, Tilapia, or other firm white fish
1 cup fish stock (see Note)
1/2 pound button, or white mushrooms - quartered
1 Portabella mushroom cap, halved and sliced 1/2” strips (6-8 ounces)
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 tablespoon butter
parchment paper
1 bouquet garni
1 cup white wine
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil

for Buerre Manie:
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter

(Note: You can make fish stock from scratch as according to Donald: "using the head & bones, etc. or an extra fillet. Put in a sauce pan, add a cup of water and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain. Season to taste." So I'll recommend just some salt and pepper to taste, and it wouldn't hurt to toss in a shallot or two.)

Preheat oven to 350*F.

Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit over the baking dish. Smear butter on one side to cover it. Reserve.

Put fillets in bottom of a buttered shallow baking dish. Sprinkle with shallots and button mushrooms. Add just enough wine to cover fish (you'll need the rest of the cup of wine for later, “but no more than 1 cup altogether," per Donald's instructions) and the fish stock.

Now add the bouquet garni and bring dish to boil. Remove from stove carefully, cover with the paper (buttered side down), and bake in oven for 10 minutes.

Drain off the liquid from the baking dish in a sauce pan. Add the rest of the white wine (remember - the total wine used is "no more than 1 cup altogether"). Keep warm.

For Beurre Manie, Mr. Pleasence instructs: "Knead the flour and butter with fingers as though you were rubbing fine pastry. Form into small balls and add them to the reserved liquid, stirring well. It will thicken."

In another pan, sauté the mushroom caps in olive oil and lemon juice.

Pour Beurre Manie sauce over the sole and decorate with the Portabellas. Place under broiler for a few minutes to brown lightly and glaze. Remove the bouquet garni before serving.

This goes nicely with some roasted potatoes and steamed green vegetables.

Cul-de-Sac @ BFI Screen Online
Donald Pleasence Fan Site
National Trust: Lindisfarne Castle

Cul-de-sac DVD (Criterion Collection)
Roman by Polanski, by Roman Polanski
Polanski: A Biography, by Christopher Sandford
Roman Polanski: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers Series), edited by Paul Cronin
Roman Polanski (Contemporary Film Directors), by James Morrison
The New Food Lover's Companion, edited by Sharon Tyler Herbst
Celebrity Cooks Volume I, by Bruno Gerussi

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