CUL-DE-SAC [1966] 9/10

UK 1966 : Roman POLANSKI : 111 mins (alternate versions run 108-113mins)

Polanski’s comedy of (very bad) manners shows life a series of scenic, absurdist jokes. And the butt of most of them is the hapless George (Donald Pleasence), a nervy, well-spoken former businessman who sold his factory, left his wife Agnes and retreated from modern life by buying the castle on Holy Island, off the rugged Northumberland coast. He’s been living here for ten months with his attractive, conspicuously younger French wife Theresa (Francoise Dorleac) when a pair of wounded gangsters turn up in a stolen car after some kind of bungled robbery on the mainland. While the frail Albie (Jack MacGowran) ebbs towards death, the gruff, no-nonsense, brutal Dickie (Lionel Stander) is much more active, and contacts their boss – a Mr Katelbach – who tells them to lie low until he can have them picked up. As the hours pass and Dickie delights in tormenting his hosts, the relationship between the flirtatious Theresa and the jealous, inadequate George approaches crisis point…

Cul-de-Sac can be interpreted on countless different levels, packed as it is with clues, signs and creative ambiguities. Polanski and his screenwriting collaborator Gerard Brach endow their simple story with the quality of a fable, one populated by a range of characters who are all at least mildly stylised. The dazzlingly precise use of language (no film has so much terrific dialogue) dramatises how the films situations rely on the interplay of people differentiated by nationality (George is very English, his wife very French, Dickie American, Albie Irish) and by class.

The aggressively unsophisticated Dickie takes particular pleasure in mocking George’s airs and graces: “Oh I see his lordship wishes to split hairs? Quit gabbin! ” Theresa – whose own past and motivations are, at the very least, suspect – may sound chic, but her vocabulary is full of British working-class slang: during the film’s classic “Felix Bee” exchange, Dickie’s claim to have “borrowed” his getaway car is greeted with a derisory “Borrowed? My arse!” from the demure Theresa.

We also soon realise that George, for all his cut-glass vowels, isn’t quite what he appears — when his snooty neighbours come a-calling, he’s as unnerved by his social inferiority and his general cuckold’s insecurities (alongside the silky-suave William Franklyn, especially) as he is by “servant” Dickie’s glowering presence. It’s no surprise that, in the film’s final shot, the one-time King of the Castle has seen his dominion reduced from an island to a sea-lapped sand-dune. “Agnes!” he cries, one of the film’s many key references to prominent characters who are no less vivid for the fact that they never actually appear on-screen.

There’s Albies late wife Doris (who can’t have been much to look at, as the delirious Albie thinks he’s seeing her again when he glimpses George in garish make-up and drag), plus the enigmatic Katelbach – a truly Beckettian non-presence as Dickie and Albies capo: not for nothing was this film called When Katelbach Comes in Germany. “He doesn’t love us any more,” opines Albie on his deathbed, and the boss’s final message to Dickie: “You’re on your own, count me out” confirms Katelbach as the harsh God of Cul-de-Sac’s world, abandoning mankind to his own devices. Polanski’s triumph is to present this existential despair in terms of comedy — life as a cosmic prank at our expense.

“I lost it,” wails Albie, staring up at the night sky. “What have you lost?” asks Dickie urgently. “The Little Bear. I can’t find it any more…”

7th March, 2003
(seen 4th March, Filmworks, Manchester)

click here for my original review of Cul-de-Sac, based on a VHS viewing

click here for Clives Cul-de-Sac tribute website

by Neil Young