Stars: Donald Pleasence, Lionel Stander, Françoise Dorléac, Jack MacGowran, Iain Quarrier | Written by Roman Polanski, Gerard Brach | Directed by Roman Polanski
Roman Polanski’s taste for dark absurdist comedy is in full swing in 1966 comedy-thriller Cul-De-Sac. It’s his second English-language film, sandwiched between Repulsion and Fearless Vampire Killers. Compared with his towering classics (and there are a few) it is slight, but even minor Polanski is a joy to watch.
Especially with a setup like this. We open with Dickey (Lionel Stander, the spit of Ernest Borgnine) and Albie (Jack MacGowran), their car sputtering along the Northumberland coast. Albie is dying from a gunshot wound, so Dickey heads off for help, and finds himself on a coastal island, in a castle owned by George (Donald Pleasence) and his glamorous wife Teresa (Françoise Dorléac).
So begins a strange semi-hostage relationship between the very American gangsters and the gentle married couple. As Dickey awaits his boss’s instructions, George is too meek and Teresa too playful to force him away. The following is a kind of madcap character study, part Key Largo and part Straw Dogs, ridiculous and tender, but mostly ridiculous.
The arc of George is perhaps the most interesting. Literally feminised when we first meet him (Teresa has mockingly dressed him in women’s clothes and makeup), his seething frustration over his boring early retirement and his promiscuous wife gradually bubbles up and spills over, thanks in large part to the snarling primal confidence of Dickey. The two males’ near-friendship is toxic and almost tender.
Stander plays Dickey as an outrageous oaf, spitting and swearing and even at one point spanking. During one drunken encounter on the sand, as George waxes poetic about his love for Teresa, Dickey dismisses women as “whores”, and we catch a glimpse of a broken man sealed in concrete by the crime world that’s carved him. We feel no sympathy because he’s grotesque, but we cannot deny there’s a big sad bear sat on that beach.
Polanski doesn’t help much to refute Dickey’s attitude to women, it must be said. True, Teresa is no whore, but she is a manic pixie and a dreadful nag, constantly demeaning her husband, and reckless in her provoking of Dickey, treating him as a naughty niece would taunt a grumpy uncle. She pushes the narrative by pushing Dickey’s buttons.
The pick of the comedic setups is when George’s snobbish family arrives on the island for a surprise visit, and Dickey must pretend to be George’s and Teresa’s gardener. Briefly the relationship between captor and captives switches, with hilarious results as the mischievous Teresa makes the most of her temporary new role, and the unravelling of George’s mind begins in earnest.
With its hard-boiled swagger, oddball characters, narrative looseness and its location photography, the film carries something of a French New Wave energy – with all of the enthralling unpredictability and pacing inconsistencies that go with that. It’s a story that’s all about setup, full of amusing incident but with nowhere to go for large sections.
But then the final scenes arrive and we grasp what Polanski’s getting at, striking at the heart of George’s quaint English Dream: the gentleman’s castle and the upper-middle-class complacency within. Polanski – through Dickey – tears down the whimsical exterior to reveal the vulnerability and hypocrisy beneath. In the final shot the veneer of respectability has been torn away entirely. It’s kind of poignant and kind of silly, like the film as a whole.
Extras are limited to a making-of documentary from 2003 and a 1967 interview with Polanski from BBC’s “The Movies” programme, along with two trailers.
Cul-De-Sac is out on Blu-ray on February 27th from Criterion.