Rates: * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Classic film club watch.
In a castle on a stark, lonely island, an unhappily married couple circle each other. Their dreary routine is broken by the arrival of two strangers; a loutish pair of criminals on the the run from a job gone wrong. While the crims wait for their boss, the mysterious ‘Katelbach’, to arrive, the characters probe and snipe at each other; revealing secrets, playing psychological games, and behaving very oddly.
Roman Polanski’s black comedy/satire borrows the basic set up from the Beckett play ‘Waiting for Godot’: Katelbach tells his underlings he will come to their rescue, then never appears, placing them under escalating mental strain. If the outlaws are in a kindof limbo, so are the married couple. Their boredom and apathy might be of their own devising, but it is no more tolerable; if the strangers hadn’t provided a disruption, one of them would have done it themselves, eventually. The human psyche cannot exist for long in a vacuum.
Polanksi also uses his scenario as a class critique, a favourite theme from his early films. The married couple are part of a wealthly elite; various equally well off friends come and go, and are revealed to be boorish, ignorant prats. It is suggested that their comfortable economic straits are more the product of good luck than anything else; an unremarkable, unlikable group, gifted with wealth. While the earthy Stander, the principal heavy, is not very cultured either, the difference between the have and have nots in this movie is on the surface. They are all garbage people.
Donald Pleasance gives a totally off the wall performance as the effete George, a man emasculated by his wife, mocked by Stander, and humiliated by both. While I am not sure how good this performance is, it is so bizarreo it is hard to assess, he is definitely going for SOMETHING. His strange pronouncements and weird, ungainly movements, do convey the sense of a man crumbling under pressure… in the weirdest way imaginable.
The film is also funny. An impromptu lunch where Stander has to pretend to be the couple’s servant is a low key riot, and there are a number of funny, barbed lines. These sit alongside scenes where Stander threatens the couple with a gun, or where he physically manhandles George; at other times, the chararcters confide in each other, and seem to be trying to connect. Lost souls, trapped in the dead end of the title, flailing about.
Polanksi said this was, in his view, the best of his movies. And while it doesn’t all track, and seems more like a collection of concepts and thematic ideas, than a depiction of actual people talking and interacting, it is a bold assembly. A bit like a Bergman film, only more theatrical, and played for laughs; a strange mixture, but one that is weirdly captivating.