However inspired and influential Roman Polanski’s remarkable body of work in the '60s was, there are a few duds. Cul de Sac, hot off Polanski’s two previous films (Knife in the Water and Repulsion), the story of an American gangster holding a meek faux-bourgeois couple hostage in northern Britain might suggest another psychological drama of domestic terror. Unfortunately, there’s a strong injection of swinging '60s comedy, a unique haphazard kind of rambunctious madcap tone that doesn’t really translate well to today.
Cul de Sac (1966) dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Lionel Stander, Françoise Dorléac
By Alan Bacchus
Think of the silliness of say Casino Royale or It’s a Mad Mad Mad World, a comedic randomness perhaps born from the psychedelic effects of the hallucinogenic drugs at the time. Ok, Cul de Sac is not Casino Royale by any means, but the uncontrolled zaniness is cut from the same cloth, a product of its time.
Like most of his famous pictures, Polanski keeps his production contained. Although in this case the environment of Cul de Sac is more in line with the open containment of his characters in Knife in the Water than walled in claustrophobic Catherine Deneuve’s apartment in Repulsion.
Lionel Stander plays Dickie, a grossly exaggerated American gangster injured from some kind of robbery, on the lam in a car with his partner, who is also injured. When the car breaks down he holes up in a castle, which happens to be inhabited by a young couple; George, a neurotic boob (Pleasance) and his sexually alluring French wife, Teresa (Dorleac). It's not your typical home invasion, as the three engage in numerous oddball activities and discussions. There's really only a hint of a threat from Dickie - partly due to Lionel Stander's gruff but high-pitched and affable voice.
There are a number of levels of theme and humour running through Polanski's surreal and often lunatic indulgences. The placement of these characters in the obscenely antiquated 11th century castle amid a near desolate part of Northern England perhaps forces the audience to reconcile the socio-political differences between three nations - France, America and England. The French (as played by Dorleac), flighty and flirty, America (Stander, pushy opportunists and movie heavies who like to get their own way, and the English (Pleasance), drunken dithering buffoons.
Polanski's superb visual eye is impressive, as always. The castle seems to be perpetually engulfed by ominous and beautifully photographed cumulus clouds in the sky and by an expansive beach tide on the ground, which has the power to isolate the castle entirely in water for large stretches of time.
The fun of Cul de Sac is finding connections across Polanski's body of work, like his penchant for wide-angle interior handheld camerawork placed mere inches away from his actors, as in Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby. The castle setting and the visual motifs of the changing tides remind us of his spectacular and often underappreciated work in his grisly version of Macbeth (1971).
Unfortunately, other than these connections there's not much to take home from Cul de Sac except for maybe Donald Pleasance's oddball performance, another kooky role from the always curious and off-kilter actor.