Directed by Roman Polanski and written by Polanski and Gerard Brach, Cul-de-Sac is the story of a couple’s home that is invaded by an American gangster who is hiding as his presence would cause chaos at the house. The film is an exploration of a couple living in isolation as they deal with an outsider who invades their home where a lot of things unravel. Starring Donald Pleasence, Francoise Dorleac, Lionel Stander, William Franklyn, Robert Dorning, Marie Kean, Geoffrey Sumner, Renee Houston, Iain Quarrier, Jacqueline Bisset, Trevor Delaney, and Jack MacGowran. Cul-de-Sac is a riveting and exhilarating film from Roman Polanski.
Set in a remote island castle in Britain, the film revolves around an American gangster who is on the run with his ailing Irish partner as he hides in the castle home of a British man and his young French wife where things become chaotic in the course of a few days. It is a film that is sort of a home invasion film yet it is an exploration of three people in isolation as they deal with bad weather, sexual tension, visitors, and other things that makes these few days chaotic. The film’s screenplay by Roman Polanski and Gerard Bach is largely straightforward in its narrative yet it is their approach to the three main characters is what makes it unique as the American gangster Dickie (Lionel Stander) is trying to escape with his partner Albie (Jack MacGowran) who is injured following a botched robbery as they drive towards a causeway that is being submerged by the rising tide. Dickie walks through the tide to get help as he finds a castle that is owned by the middle-aged George (Donald Pleasance) and his young French wife Teresa (Francoise Dorleac) who spends her time messing around with a young neighbor.
Upon discovering Dickie at their home, George and Teresa are frightened by his presence though Dickie is someone that just needs help as he’s trying to contact his boss over what happened as George and Teresa do help him retrieve the ailing Albie. Yet, things however don’t go well as it leads to chaos but also moments of the couple getting to know Dickie with him and George hitting it off on their views on life despite the former’s rudeness and the latter’s own lack of masculine rage. Things get complicated when the three learn some friends of George are about to visit to see the castle as Dickie plays along as a servant though he gets annoyed by a child who ends up being more trouble for everyone making both George and Teresa upset as well.
Polanski’s direction is stylish as it is shot on location at Lindisfarne with the island’s actual castle being the home where George and Teresa live in with the exception of a few rooms in the castle that are used. The film opens with this wide shot of a car coming into a causeway and then crashing onto a marker and then to a medium shot of Dickie and Albie talking with the former leaving to get help. Polanski’s compositions and direction are filled with dazzling imagery as well as long shots that goes on for minutes including a beachside conversation between George and Dickie as they’re both drunk and lament over things in their lives while Teresa is in the background swimming naked on the beach. It is among some of the images that Polanski uses to play into this sense of isolation in this island with these rising tides but also this sense of uncertainty as it relates to Dickie’s boss whom he is waiting for. It is among the things that play into the dramatic tension with Teresa not being comfortable with Dickie’s presence though she is sympathetic to his situation as well as his sense of loyalty towards Albie.
Polanski also brings in bits of humor from a scene early in the film where George puts on some makeup as a way to express his lack of masculinity while wearing one of his wife’s nightgowns as it only brings trouble upon meeting Dickie for the first time. Even as the humor would play into the sequence where George’s friends arrive to see the castle and have lunch as they expect to have a big feast. Yet, things don’t go well as a child is wreaking havoc angering Dickie and Teresa as things would intensify due to the fact that a guest brought a double-barrel rifle as it would ultimately push George to the edge. Even as Teresa starts to act out as she feels suffocated by the presence of these two middle-aged men where the tension ultimately boils over as it also play into Dickie’s desire to leave but is unsure about the fates of George and Teresa and whether he has to kill them so that they don’t know anything only for things to go wrong as it relates to other desires and such. Overall, Polanski crafts a chilling yet offbeat film about an American criminal hiding and taking control at the castle home of a middle-aged Englishmen and his young French wife.
Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor does brilliant work with the film’s black-and-white photography as it help set a mood for some of the scenes at night as well as some of the daytime interior scenes as well as some of the scenes during the morning. Editor Alastair McIntyre does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with some rhythmic cuts to play into the suspense and drama. Production designer Voytek and art director George Lack do fantastic work with the interiors for the scenes in the castle including Teresa’s chicken house where she houses all of her chickens until it becomes a makeshift garage.
The special effects work of Les Bowie is terrific for a scene on the causeway where the tide is rising where Albie is being trapped in the car along with a few bits in the film’s climax. The sound work of Stephen Dalby is superb for the natural elements of the sound that is captured on location as well as how music is sound from a record player from another room. The film’s music by Krzysztof Komeda is incredible for its jazzy score with elements of piano and trumpets to play into the film’s offbeat tone as well as some of its suspenseful moments with a music soundtrack that is also filled with jazz music.
The film’s wonderful ensemble cast feature some notable small roles as Jacqueline Bisset as a young guest that is part of George’s circle of friends, Trevor Delaney as a young boy named Horace who is the son of one of the guests who causes a lot of trouble and panic, William Franklyn as another guest in Cecil whom Teresa takes a liking to, Iain Quarrier as a young man named Christopher whom Teresa was with as they try to find shrimp and their own naked bodies, Geoffrey Sumner and Renee` Houston as Christopher’s parents who live nearby, and the duo of Robert Dorning and Marie Kean in their respective roles in Philip and Marion Mayweather as two of George’s friends who are also Horace’s parents as they often say unkind things to the point that they push George to the edge.
Jack MacGowran is excellent as Albie as an ailing gangster who is dealing with his wounds while he is waiting in a car as he deals with a rising tide and later the severity of his wounds. Francoise Dorleac is brilliant as Teresa as a young Frenchwoman who is married to the middle-aged George as she deals with his lack of masculinity as she often gets sexual satisfaction from other men while she also finds herself disgusted by Dickie despite his own views on the world. Lionel Stander is amazing as Dickie as an American gangster dealing with an ailing partner, a botched robbery, and other things as he tries to get some news from his boss but also deal with his injury and his own fate while trying to do his own thing while befriending George. Finally, there’s Donald Pleasence in a fantastic performance as George as a middle-aged man who is just trying to enjoy retirement as he endures the presence of Dickie whom he would befriend while dealing with all sorts of things including his own lack of masculinity and the pain he’s carrying as it relates to loss.
Cul-de-Sac is a phenomenal film from Roman Polanski. Featuring great performances from Donald Pleasence, Francoise Dorleac, and Lionel Stander as well as gorgeous visuals, chilling suspense, a minimalist premise, and Krzysztof Komeda’s sumptuous score. It is a film that explore a couple dealing with a criminal in a castle on an isolated island as they deal with their surroundings and all sorts of things that would eventually bring chaos. In the end, Cul-de-Sac is a sensational film from Roman Polanski.
Roman Polanski Films: Knife in the Water - Repulsion - The Fearless Vampire Killers - Rosemary's Baby - Macbeth (1971 film) - (What?) – Chinatown - The Tenant – Tess (1979 film) - (Pirates) – Frantic - Bitter Moon - Death and the Maiden - The Ninth Gate - The Pianist - Oliver Twist (2005 film) - The Ghost Writer - Carnage (2011 film) - (Venus in Fur) – (Based on a True Story) – (An Officer and a Spy) – (The Palace)
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