Cul-de-sac

He said I was mentally…retiring or something like that.

Richard (Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran) were doing a job, as they say, but things didn’t go as planned.  They did their best, but Richard caught it in the arm and Albie took at least one in the stomach.   The car they stole to get away broke down and Richard has to push it as far as he can with Albie steering (rather poorly).  They come upon the castle of Sir Walter Scott bought recently by a retired businessman, George (Donald Pleasence) for he and his new young wife of the French persuasion, Teresa (Françoise Dorléac).  The first we see of Teresa is her lying topless on top of a young man, Christopher (Iain Quarrier), sleeping when she’s supposed to be looking for shrimp.  Richard hides until Christopher and his family (who had been entertaining George elsewhere) have gone and then takes the couple hostage.  Things aren’t perfect for the very meek George and the vivacious and trouble-making Teresa, but a surreal bond grows between them.  Things get rather complicated when friends (or possibly family) of George’s show up (including Jacqueline Bisset in her first credited role) and Richard has to pretend to be a servant.

Cul-de-sac (1966) is a quirky story from Roman Polanski (co-written with Gérard Brach) about three people with clashing personalities.  George is meek, Richard is overbearing, and Teresa is French.  The French-ness and woman-ness tells you that carnage is the only outcome.  Who will be at the receiving end is anybody’s guess.  It is a story that has been borrowed or stolen from in many later films, like The Ref (1994) (which is almost a remake) or The Hit (1984), where the hostages are basically on friendly terms with the hostage-taker.  Up to a point.  Cul-de-sac, which is the first of its kind that I’ve ever seen—Key Largo (1948) being close but not quite the same—takes a very honest, though comic approach to the film.  Think Dr. Strangelove (1964) but less fantastic.

It’s very entertaining.  Pleasence, who played the forger in The Great Escape  (1963), is excellent as the utterly pathetic and yet incredibly funny (when he loses his temper) man of the house.  He and Stander do fail on the realism fronts a few times, but the direction portrays the vast majority of events in such a modern fashion that it plays as farce.  Another thing that is apparent is there were no censors to satisfy with this movie.  Brief nudity, swearing, and violence are all very present.  That makes the whole thing feel ageless.

It’s also rather well made.  The budget must have been about $20 because the quality of the film is dreadful for 1966.  And yet, the camera work from cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (who had done Dr. Strangelove and would go on to do Star Wars (1977)) is exceptional.  The writing was very humorous.  At the end, things got a bit odd, but up until that point it felt genuine and fresh.  It played out like a kitchen sink short story (as I believe they’re called) with a bit of a caper thrown in.  Capturing ordinary people with their ordinary life troubles in a hostage situation.

There are considerable downsides, of course.  The music from Krzysztof Komeda is ludicrously dated and poorly mixed in.  The film quality, which is black and white, is like you’d see in an old Japanese movie.  If it were in color, it’d be a classic.  It’s not, so it’s in the Criterion Collection.

On Netflix or on Amazon for those who’d like to build a decent library.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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