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Françoise Dorléac makes up Donald Pleasance.


Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray

Two wounded gangsters fleeing a botched job seek refuge in the home of a not-quite-happily married couple—it’s the sort of setup that has fueled any number of rote thrillers over the years. Polish director Roman Polanski was anything but rote in 1966. Working in English for the second time, he took that premise and made Cul-de-sac, a slightly absurd black comedy/deadpan farce that winds up less interesting than it should be.

The English title suggests a tale of the suburbs; the German title, which translates as When Katelbach Comes, fits better. Polanski’s third feature is set not on a leafy dead end, but on the tiny island of Lindisfarne, off the British coast, a treeless mound topped by an old monastery and periodically joined to and cut off from the mainland by the tide—a Beckett-inspired setting if there ever was one. And the two gangsters are a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of functionaries—hulking, American Richard (Lionel Stander, working his honking Bronx accent) and weedy, bespectacled Brit Albie (Jack MacGowarn)—hiding out until the boss can come get them. The married couple complicates the tidy symmetry, in any number of ways. George (a young Donald Pleasence) is a former British Army officer and industrialist who is, it is made painfully clear, an utter milquetoast. Hip younger French trophy wife Teresa (Françoise Dorléac, a ringer for her younger sister Catherine Deneuve) is introduced lolling topless in the dunes with another, younger man. The stage is thus set for psychosexual good times.

Polanski had already shown himself a keen observer of male/female tensions with Knife in the Water (1962) and adroit with building up implacable moods in Repulsion (1965). Cul-de-sac, by contrast, is all over the place. Polanski seems most interested/invested in Richard. The director introduces him as a bloodied, shirtless, almost Caliban-like beast man, slurping raw eggs and moving with animal grace (Polanski often cuts to Stander already in motion, as if he’s too quick to track clearly), but he becomes more “civilized” as the film goes on, even pretending to be George and Teresa’s butler during a surprise visit from old friends (including a baby Jacqueline Bisset). But the role reversals and plot turns never quite add up to anything. George never really shows the steel you hope and expect he must have in him somewhere, and Teresa is, in her own way, as passive as George. Richard proves wilier than anyone expects, but to little end. Whatever metaphor resolution or dramatic payoff you’re waiting for never really arrives. Gilbert Taylor’s black-and-white photography looks gorgeous in this new Criterion Collection transfer, and Krzysztof Komeda’s mod soundtrack is a delight, but Cul-de-sac feels like a period curio in ways that Knife in the Water and Repulsion never do.

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