Classic Film Review: Three’s a crowd — again — in Polanski’s “Cul-de-sac” (1966)

It’s entirely-too-tempting to try and psychoanalyze the Perversity of Polanski when dipping into the cinema of the Franco-Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski.

After all, we’re welcome to interpret his gory “Macbeth” as a reaction to the Manson Family’s murders of his wife Sharon Tate, and others. So it’s hard to not take the hints of his earliest films and earliest on-screen obsessions as “clues.”

“Cul-de-sac,” his third feature, revisits the dynamics of his debut, “Knife in the Water.” It’s a darkly comic thriller about what appears to be an “open marriage” and what happens when a guy with guns shows up to test it.

It’s a movie about masculinity and feminine manipulation of it, this time filtered through a Brit who doesn’t mind donning lady’s clothes and who can’t take offense when the guy with a gun refers to him as a “little fairy.”

The “darkly comic” interpretation stems from casting the fresh-off-the-Hollywood-Blacklist mug Lionel Stander as a mobster, on the run and stranded in the cliffside castle of George (Donald Pleasance, already “Blofeld” and “Night of the Generals” bald) and his younger “Continental” wife Teresa (Françoise Dorléac of “Billion Dollar Brain” and “Where the Spies Are”).

It was impossible for Stander to open his mouth and not get a laugh. From “Mr. Dees Goes to Town” to “Hart to Hart,” the guy sent up the “growling tough guy” who might be a pussycat “type.”

We meet the wounded mobster Richard or “Dickie” as he’s pushing his gut-shot partner (Jack McGowran) in their stolen driving school Morris Minor. Whatever “job” they were on went wrong. Now, they’re stranded on the North Sea coast. A search for help reveals a small, semi-restored and inhabited cliffside castle (Lindisfarne Island, Northumberland), and that the lady of the house enjoys a good nude roll in the sand dunes with a younger “friend of the family” (Iaian Quarrier).

Richard scavenges for food and drink, and hides out until the visitors motorboat away. He calls whoever hired him and Albie, and when that awakens the role-playing “lord” and lady of the house, he takes them hostage.

“One doesn’t choose the time one gets into trouble.”

The “not exactly Anglo-Saxon” Richard grates up against the effete, “snotty” old money George and insults George’s provocative “Let’s you and him fight” wife. She might be cunning enough to figure out a way out of this, but her “bravery” is almost entirely limited to trying to goad George into action.

Time and again we see escape routes — not literally, as the island’s causeway is under water for long stretches — or at least moments when they might get the better of their oafish captor. They end up cowering instead.

Polanski plays up the class conflict and plays down the sexual tension, despite having Dorléac nude in a few scenes. Veteran character actor Stander, with his boxer’s mug and foghorn-through-gravel voice, is good at suggesting native cunning in a man who can’t really get himself and his partner out of this fix without help from higher ups, and maybe a little divine intervention.

The stark, grey (black and white) sun-washed location can feel like the set for a Beckett play, moved out of doors.

The dynamics may be as simply laid-out as in “Knife in the Water,” two men, a woman seemingly manipulating and shifting allegiances as the power struggle plays out. But there’s little power struggle to this. It’s just “The Desperate Hours” in a northern English location, with visitors (including a very young Jacqueline Bisset) to chase off via insults and incidents as Richard poses as the rudest cook/”gardener” ever.

As a thriller, the film is at its most nerve-wracking in its score. Frequent Polanski collaborator Krzysztof Komeda serves up jazz-pop with a keening screech (Theremin? Synthesizer?) as the lead instrument. It gave me chest pains.

The setting lends “Cul-de-sac” a timelessness that holds up better than the plot or sexual trappings that decorate it. The “comedy” is dry, but dated.

And psychologically, all one can say about this, “Knife in the Water” and “Repulsion,” the movies that led up to “Fearless Vampire Killers” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” is that there was something decidedly off in the insecurities Polanski put on screen. It might have given direction to whatever therapy he got into, before or after the Manson murders — as in “not just strange” but “warrants keeping an eye on.”

Rating: unrated, violence, nudity, profanity

Cast: Donald Pleasance, Françoise Dorléac, Lionel Stander, Jack McGowran, Iain Quarrier, Marie Kean, Robert Dorning and Jaqueline Bisset

Credits: Directed by Roman Polanski, scripted by Roman Polanski and Gérard Brach. An MGM release on Tubi, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 1:52

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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