Cul-de-sac (1966)

CUL-DE-SAC (1966)
Article 3274 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 6-6-2010
Posting Date: 8-1-2010
Directed by Roman Polanski
Featuring Donald Pleasence, Francoise Dorelac, Lionel Stander
Country: UK
What it is: Darkly comic crime drama

A meek artist and his philandering wife live at a castle on a stretch of land that is cut off from the rest of the world when the tide comes in. Two wounded criminals, one near death, take refuge in the castle when their car breaks down. Strange relationships develop between the surviving gangster and the couple.

I’m covering this title because it is included in Lentz’s “Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film and Television Credit Volume One”, and, like some of the others in the book, it’s a false alarm. I suppose if one squints real hard, you may see it as a borderline horror story; given that one character is a basket case by the end of the movie, it touches on the theme of madness a little. Still, that’s quite a stretch, and despite the fact that both Polanski and Pleasence both have prominent fantastic film credits, this one really doesn’t qualify.

It is, however, a fascinating movie in its own right. The set-up points the way to a crime thriller, with the basic premise of a desperate criminal holding two people captive until his boss can rescue him. However, the various character relationships don’t play out as simply as that. The criminal may be desperate, but he’s not sadistic nor sociopathic; if he could get out of his situation without hurting anybody, he would. He’s also not a particularly smart or competent criminal, which also makes him a little less threatening. The couple would probably be all right if they didn’t already have issues of their own. The thing that really drives the plot is the wife’s desire that her meek husband prove her love for her by standing up to criminal; to that end, she constantly sets up situations intending to force her husband’s hand, putting them all in danger that could have been avoided. The performances are stellar. Donald Pleasence is perfectly cast as the meek husband, especially as the movie progresses and he finds himself forced more and more to act out of character. Francoise Dorleac is also wonderful as the wife; she is the sister of Catherine Denueve, but whose career was cut short by a tragic car accident. Lionel Stander is also great. I’ve seen him many times before, or course, and generally found his characters enjoyable if a tad mannered. Here he comes across as extremely natural while retaining his charm; his criminal is perhaps the most likable character in the cast. The relationships are complex and fun; I particularly enjoy the sequence where the criminal has to pretend to be the couple’s gardener/servant when relatives of the husband show up out of the blue.

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