This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Roman Polanski’s third feature, Cul-de-Sac (1966), is like The Desperate Hours--as reimagined, perhaps, by Samuel Beckett in collaboration with Edward Albee and Harold Pinter. An American gangster in England (Lionel Stander), fleeing a botched robbery, hides out in the beachfront castle home of a retired factory owner (Donald Pleasance) and his young French wife (Françoise Dorléac). The gangster holds the couple captive while waiting for his confrères to pick him up. The film doesn’t play this scenario for melodramatic suspense. The story is simply the pretext for a series of comic dialogues and confrontations between the gangster, the couple, and at one point, friends of the couple who pay an unannounced visit. The script, by Polanski and Gérard Brach, hilariously pastiches the absurdism of Beckett, the passive-aggressive portent of Pinter, and the farcical hostilities of Albee. As a director, Polanski is in peak form: the tempo of the scenes is masterful, and the dark, humorous tone is beautifully sustained throughout. In some scenes, such as the single-take beach confrontation between the gangster and the factory owner, or the mad slapstick finale, Polanski’s virtuosity is all but astonishing. Stander and Pleasance, generally erratic actors, rise to the occasion here; they both deliver first-rate comic performances. Dorléac (Catherine Deneuve’s older sister) isn’t as entertaining, but her ugly eye make-up notwithstanding, she’s at least pleasant to look at. Gilbert Taylor provides the fine black-and-white cinematography. The jazz score, with its unsettling electronic touches, is by Krzysztof Komeda.