Plot: On a lush beachfront estate lives George (Donald Pleasence), who shares the home with his young wife Teresa (Francoise Dorleac), but the couple’s relationship isn’t as idyllic as the locale. He has recently retired to pursue artistic endeavors and she has grown tired of his presence, though George is too self involved to notice his wife’s unhappiness. Meanwhile, Richard (Lionel Stander) is in the area, a hard nosed criminal who has just pulled a job and needs to lay low, while his partner is injured and in need of care. Richard winds up at George’s estate and senses the division within the couple, so he assumes control from the second he arrives. He humiliates George in front of his wife and while he insists no one will get hurt if they cooperate, Teresa is disappointed that her husband isn’t more assertive. As time passes, tensions rise and Richard’s patience wears thin, between his partner’s woes, his boss’ threats, and the problems keeping the couple under control. Will things remain calm enough to keep everyone safe until Richard leaves, or will the situation spiral out of control?
Entertainment Value: The narrative here is drenched in darker elements, as we have the frayed threads of a relationship exposed, George’s nearly constant emasculation, and some brutal undercurrents. This kind of home invasion premise opens all kinds of nasty doors, but Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac also weaves in some pitch black humor, as well as almost surreal moments. The tone shifts between disturbing, sometimes harrowing moments and more absurd or darkly comic ones, which is odd to be sure, but Polanski keeps it all wrangled in and it works. The movie rarely takes either the serious or the absurd to extremes, but there is palpable tension and numerous outlandish touches, so the balance is on point, I think. The arrival scene has almost slapstick feel at times, then the movie takes a more dark, intimate approach, only to shift back into the absurd when the visitors show up. This isn’t going to spark everyone’s interest, as it is quite a dark experience, but I think it is a great film and takes some bold risks, though I wish Polanski would have pushed a little further in places. In any case, fans of Polanski’s work or dark, offbeat cinema in general will want to have Cul-de-sac in their collections, as it more than delivers.
The performances here are excellent, but the shifts between the dramatic and the absurd could throw some viewers off. Donald Pleasence and Francoise Dorleac have an odd, effective dynamic that suits the troubled relationship of their characters well, giving them an unsettling energy at times. The two rarely bolster each other, especially in the case of Dorleac’s Teresa, who is ashamed and disappointed that her husband is so passive in the face of a threat. Pleasence handles the needs of his role, bringing the neurotic, flustered George to life in interesting fashion. He does dial things up when called on, but his effort feels authentic, even when the material steers toward more over the top elements. Lionel Stander is a crucial part of Cul-de-sac as well, as the gruff, aggressive Richard. He has such an old school bad ass gangster vibe, with a confidence and presence that commands the screen. The cast also includes Jacqueline Bisset, Jack MacGrowran, and Renee Houston.