It’s difficult to remain objective in assessing the films of Roman Polanski, whose accomplishments in cinema have been rightly overshadowed by the fact that he drugged and raped a child in 1977 before fleeing to Europe, continuing to work in exile. Despite this, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and The Tenant remain some of the great works in twentieth-century cinema. Sadly, though, the 1966 Cul-de-sac does not quite belong in this rarefied atmosphere. The decent premise, great cast and stark cinematography do little to elevate this black comedy which is all too often baggy, ponderous and at just under two hours, still too long.
Donald Pleasance is Dickie, a neurotic writer living in a Lindisfarne castle with his bored young wife, Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), periodically entertaining a string of insufferable guests. Enter Richard (Lionel Stander), a volatile gangster on the lamb who, finding himself unexpectedly stranded on the island, decides to use Dickie’s castle as a hideout until his boss can rescue him. Stander steals the show with a performance as funny as it is brimming with menace, made all the more sympathetic by the relentlessly objectionable entitlement of the other characters.
Richard is a force of disruption, shaking up the enclave of privelege that Dickie and his associates have built up around themselves and exposing the latent tensions between an entropic Dickie and a mischievously libidinous Teresa. Gilbert Taylor’s terrific black and white cinematography is starkly beautiful: Dickie’s Northumbrian castle often looks more like the medieval fortress of a warlord than the country pile of a middle-aged writer: an irony surely lost on neither Taylor and Polanski who would later collaborate on Macbeth.
‘s greatest strength is that while its script resembles a bourgeois comedy of errors, its visuals are more in tune with existential horror. Where it falters is in bringing its disparate elements together – there are hints at greatness but the whole somehow feels like less than the sum of its parts. There’s a lack of depth to the characters – Richard is short tempered and volatile; Dickie vain and possessive; Teresa bored and capricious – and the film often feels like it’s trying to join in with the middle-class satires of Luis Buñuel or Federico Fellini but without the nuance of those directors’ works. Nevertheless, there remains much to recommend Cul-de-sac
, a flawed film to be sure, but one with flashes of inspiration, occasionally stunning visuals and a Shakespearean sense of claustrophobia.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell