When I was about 14 or so, I finally noticed that the local public television station had been showing a load of old foreign and domestic films from the late evening into the early morning hours. While I can’t recall the exact date they started, I can remember seeing classics like Seven Samurai, Metropolis, a few Godard films and the occasional silent movie, usually to the effect of me falling asleep on the sofa (hey, not too many kids start out liking everything they watch). It was definitely an eye-opening experience except for me occasionally falling asleep, not really from boredom, but from the films all starting well past my normal bedtime. At least back then, school nights were unaffected by this new hobby although I was pretty useless when I stayed up too late watching all those movies.
Anyway, one evening I turned the TV on and just missed the opening credits to one film, so all I recall before I passed out about 15 minutes later was a burly guy with a bandaged hand pushing a car down a long road with a seemingly sick or injured passenger inside. The man ends up leaving his passenger alone while he checks out a small castle-like house atop a hill, sneaks in and helps himself to whatever food he can scrounge, including a raw egg. A few years later, I found out that was Roman Polanski’s 1966 film Cul-De-Sac and I ended up tracking the film down at a rental shop here that specialized in obscure films. I also discovered Donald Pleasence in a really quirky role, no truly likeable characters among the main cast and a plot that was a mix of dark comedy and psychological drama which is, of course, better appreciated at an older age.
George (Donald Pleasence) and Teresa (Françoise Dorléac) are a married couple living in a remote island area well off the beaten path (Lindisfarne in Northumberland, according to Wikipedia). As George is entertaining some annoying guests, Teresa is doing her fling with a man who’s not her husband. The odd thing is, George seems a bit intentionally oblivious to this for some reason, but things are about to be shaken up somewhat after his guests leave. That man pushing the car is a gangster named Dickie (Lionel Stander) and he’s come to George’s home just to make a long distance call. It’s a home invasion film of sorts, with Dickie locking the couple in their room while he waits for aid to arrive from a mysterious Mr. Katelbach, who seems to be Dickie’s employer.
The next order of business is retrieving Albie (Jack MacGowran), Dickie’s literal partner in crime, before he drowns in the stolen car he’s trapped in. This surprises Dickie as well as Albie, as they doesn’t realize they’re on a small island where the tide isolates the area for a few hours each night. We also learn the unseen crime they were paired up for went south quickly before the film begins. Dickie gets wounded in the wrist, while Albie was shot in the stomach and spends his remaining time in the film hallucinating (he thinks George in makeup is his wife at one point) and later, dies from his wound. Dickie initially starts digging a makeshift grave, but Teresa escapes from the room she’s locked in with George and ends up digging willingly for Dickie after offering him some of her homemade vodka. George eventually wakes up to find Teresa free and Dickie forces him to finish the job. George soon ends up as Dickie’s drinking buddy after he’s coerced into a few drinks (and he doesn’t drink at all, which makes him a bit of a mess when he does imbibe).
Just as you’re getting the idea that this odd and temporary friendship may be a way out of sorts for everyone, things go completely awry (even more so than you’d prefer).
To add to the madness, a surprise arrival shakes things up when the expected guests aren’t expected at all (or: hell is indeed other people) and Dickie needs to play servant to the couple to keep a ruse going. Jacqueline Bisset gets a tiny cameo, but an increasingly more unhinged George kicks his new guests out and Dickie gets some more bad news after he fixes the telephone and attacks Teresa after she plays a trick on him. George, now nearly completely out of his mind, gets to prove some sort of manhood to his wife as the film takes itself to its bleak conclusion, but you’re treated to an ending that adds at least one final question if you look carefully, guess that a mind was changed and yes, George probably is in for a even ruder awakening than even his now destroyed mind can imagine. I’m not one to rate a film with a proper score these days, but for it’s unusual plot presentation, Gil Taylor’s great black and white cinematography and Krzysztof Komeda’s jazzy score, this one gets a Recommended mention from this end.
In case you haven’t guessed, this post is part of The Devilishly Delightful Donald Pleasence Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews and other entries can be found at both links starting on October 28, I’m posting a bit early due to some medical stuff coming up ths month, so enjoy my scribbling and please poke at the other posts!
Nice review! This sounds like a fascinating character study. Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention, and for participating in the blogathon! 🙂
It’s certainly an odd film, but in a good way. Didn’t realize Donald shaved his head after he was cast, which surprised the director but rally
Hi Greg, hope you’re doing okay…I’m WAY late getting caught up on posts, so by now your medical situation should be (I hope) over and done with. As for the movie…I’d never heard of it until now, but it sounds…interesting. And just a bit screwy. But if I stumble across it someday, I’ll give it a look!
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This looks absolutely wild, with Pleasence at his oddball best. And I’ve always liked Lionel Stander (Dickie), who with his gravelly voice and doughy face is the ultimate stereotype of a mobster or henchman. I’ve never seen this one, but it’s currently available on Amazon Prime. Is streaming too convenient? Are we missing something by not having to stay up to the wee hours, propping our eyelids open to watch that obscure movie we’ve been dying to see?
Great review of one of Polanski’s early films…very atmospheric. Have not seen in years and forgot Mr. Pleasance was in it, as well as the great Lionel Stander. Roman Polanski is a master of casting, in addition to his many other storytelling talents.
I must confess I was completely unaware of this film. But, of course, discovering films you were not familiar with is what makes blogathons so great. Thanks for bringing Cul-De-Sac to my attention and an entertaining read.
You’re welcome! It does have a way of sticking with you, that’s for sure!
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Great review of this much unappreciated Polanski movie. The cast seems to be having a blast, especially Pleasence. P.S. I hope you feel better soon!
Thanks much! Also, rumors of my demise, et cetera… I’m feeling much better these days!
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