Like the two films that preceded it, Roman Polanski’s third feature, Cul-de-sac, thrives on mood and tone in a claustrophobic setting. In some ways, it plays out similarly to Polanski’s debut — Knife in the Water — with a couple’s emotional balance upset by the appearance of a stranger inside a confined space. But this time, Polanski throws in an undercurrent of black humor to the mix, ratcheting up the absurdity just as much as he cranks up the tension.
Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorléac star as George and Teresa, newlyweds living in an English castle on an isolated island — cut off from the rest of the world for hours every day by the tides. He’s an effeminate Englishman; she’s a lusty Frenchwoman with a penchant for screwing the neighbor boy. Their distinctly odd relationship is lent an added wrinkle with the appearance of Richard (Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran), a pair of gangsters on the run after a botched job. Albie soon dies from the gunshot wound he’s sustained, leaving the married couple to contend with a dead body and a bombastic, unwanted houseguest.
Initially, the power hierarchy seems obvious, with the brash American gangster running roughshod over his unwilling hosts and basically camping out while waiting for the arrival of his boss, Mr. Katelbach. Richard is almost unbelievably boisterous, but for all of his buffoonery, there’s a real sense of menace underneath. And yet, a power struggle begins to play out in bizarre ways, and the dynamics of the trio begin to shift. Some of this is brought about by external factors, like a surprise visit from a group of George’s obnoxious bourgeois friends. Some of it seems to arise from cabin fever madness overtaking the castle’s occupants.
Cul-de-sac is a strange little film through and through. It feels slighter than its Polanski predecessors Knife in the Water and Repulsion, but it’s certainly the most idiosyncratic of the three. Its morbid humor and absurd theatrics show Polanski eminently capable of evoking a specific mood with his imagery, and for that reason alone, it’s a weird highlight of his filmography.