CUL-DE-SAC (1966) Reviews and overview

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‘Sometimes there’s nothing left to do but laugh!’

Cul-de-sac is a 1966 British dark comedy thriller film about two gangsters on the run who take refuge in a feeble man’s secluded castle. However, under the point of a gun, nothing is what it seems.

Directed by Roman Polanski (The Ninth Gate; The Tenant; Rosemary’s Baby; Repulsion) from a screenplay co-written with Gérard Brach, the movie stars Donald Pleasence, Françoise Dorléac, Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran.

“The problem with movies like Cul-de-sac is that all the characters are so damn dislikeable; totally self-absorbed, and seemingly intent on making life as unpleasant as possible for those around them, they leave the average viewer with nobody to identify with on any level, thereby making it impossible to become emotionally involved in their predicament.” 20/20 Movie Reviews

“The fact that there isn’t a single likeable character in Cul-de-sac does not diminish its artistic value in the least […] Drawing upon two of Polanski’s favorite themes-isolation and latent insanity — Cul-de-sac actually improves upon each viewing, assuming that the viewer has the intestinal fortitude to sit through it once.” AllMovie

“Lindisfarne is a beautifully austere setting for the rather unconventional and edgy proceedings. Both Pleasence and Stander are brilliant in their manic wide-eyed spontaneity. It’s tense and dirty, with horrible characters and rabid self-recriminations. It’s a striking and brave, with astute editing and a range of shots which awe and inspire.” Backseat Mafia

“It’s a most unusual, rambling farce, which I didn’t always know what to make of, but enjoyed nonetheless. With its dark and quirky sense of humour, Polanski’s keen eye for memorable and often amusing imagery, and anchored by enjoyable performances, it’s certainly on the ‘hit’ side of my relationship with Polanski’s films.” Blueprint: Review

“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.” Cine Vue

“Funny in a perverse way, as Polanski creates a maddening claustrophobic atmosphere for his unlikable characters to make living in the ideal castle a nightmare. It’s an actor’s pic, where plot is insignificant. I thoroughly enjoyed Pleasence’s over-the-top performance and he was matched by Stander’s entertaining flamboyant one.” Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews

“I would contend that the conflicts portrayed in Polanski movies also extend to his aesthetic approach. His movies are at once meticulous and sloppy, tightly wound but also fraying at the edges. Cul-de-sac is a smartly planned drama, with an elegant plot structure and carefully arranged framing, but there is always a little bit of anarchy…” DVD Talk

“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 Deneuve, but whose career was cut short by a tragic car accident. Lionel Stander is also great.” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

“Approaching it as a comedy works best Polanski has not always had great success in that area and some of his comedies in particular the ill-advised Pirates have been complete disasters, but this one works. The best scene is when some of George’s old friends come to visit and bring along their bratty son who becomes an absolute terror to everyone.” Scopophilia

“This (semi-improvised) comedy would come across as an actor’s workshop if it weren’t for the excellent performances of Stander and Pleasence, and to some extent, the selfish, petulant portrayal from Dorleac. Although certain scenes have a definite tendency to ramble on, the banter between whiny George and tough yet sentimental Dickie can make you laugh out loud as they get one up on each other.” The Spinning Image

“If the subject matter is bleak and bitterly serious, the tone throughout is darkly comic, while the precise imagery effortlessly conveys the tension, the claustrophobia, and the madness of the situation.” Time Out (London)

” …the director exhibits such style in his writing and direction that one can forgive the excesses. Cul-de-sac is exaggerated, sinister, bleak, and spine-tingling. It is also somewhat thick in the middle and could have used a serious editor to whack away at it. Still, it’s well worth seeing for the radiance of Dorleac…” TV Guide

Choice dialogue:

Richard [Lionel Stander]: “I’ll stay here as long as I have to. Believe me, it ain’t no fun.”

Cast and characters:
Donald Pleasence … George
Françoise Dorléac … Teresa
Lionel Stander … Richard
Jack MacGowran … Albie
Iain Quarrier … Christopher
Geoffrey Sumner … Christopher’s Father
Renee Houston … Christopher’s Mother
Robert Dorning … Philip Fairweather
Marie Kean … Marion Fairweather
William Franklyn … Cecil
Jacqueline Bisset … Jacqueline (as Jackie Bisset)
Trevor Delaney … Horace

Filming locations:
Holy Island, Lindisfarne, Northumberland, England

Fun facts:
Has one of the longest continuous sequences in cinematic history (at the time of release) at 7 mins 28 secs (the beach scene).

Roman Polanski insisted on sixteen takes of the scene in which Lionel Stander drinks a pint of milk.

The relationships between Roman Polanski and the cast and crew during filming were so fraught that Donald Pleasence was elected the head of a delegation who went to Polanski and told him to sort out his dictatorial behaviour. Pleasence later said, “It had to be done. Polanski was the only prima donna on that film.”

No fun facts:
Roman Polanski is a fugitive from the U.S. criminal justice system; he fled the country in 1977 while awaiting sentencing for unlawful intercourse with a thirteen-year-old girl. Nevertheless, we have posted Cul-de-sac despite Polanski’s criminal actions because this does not diminish the artistic value of his cinematic work and the contributions of all else involved in this film.


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