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Cul-de-Sac (1966)

Courtesy of EuroLondon Films Ltd

Main image of Cul-de-Sac (1966)
35mm, black and white, 113 mins
Directed byRoman Polanski
Production CompanyCompton-Tekli Film Productions
Produced byGene Gutowski
Screenplay byRoman Polanski
 Gérard Brach
PhotographyGilbert Taylor
Music byKrzysztof Komeda

Cast: Donald Pleasence (George); Françoise Dorléac (Teresa); Lionel Stander (Richard); Jack MacGowran (Albie); William Franklyn (Cecil); Robert Dorning (Fairweather)

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An eccentric couple living on a small island are terrorised by gangsters.

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Roman Polanski's second British feature was made on the back of the success of Repulsion (1965), which granted him a bigger budget and significantly more creative freedom. He and regular co-writer Gérard Brach decided to adapt a screenplay that they had written in Paris in 1963 called When Katelbach Comes, the title one of many nods to Samuel Beckett's plays about mismatched couples and their hopelessly misplaced expectations.

Another key inspiration was Polanski's own unhappy marriage to Polish film star Basia Kwiatkowska, which has unmistakable echoes in the often stormy relationship between bald businessman George (Donald Pleasence) and his much younger and more attractive French wife Teresa (Françoise Dorléac, older sister of Repulsion star Catherine Deneuve). Their lives are turned upside down when gangsters Richard (Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran) invade the eleventh-century island castle they live in. After Albie dies, Richard develops a bizarre relationship with both George and Teresa while waiting for the mysterious Katelbach to arrive.

It was a difficult shoot, with Polanski's perfectionism bringing him into frequent conflict with producers, crew and cast alike. He openly loathed Stander, disliked Dorléac's film-star airs and was taken aback when Pleasence turned up for the first day's shooting with a freshly-shaven head. A virtuoso set-piece, a continuous eight-minute shot in which George and Richard run through various blackly comic parodies of relationship stages on the beach while Teresa swims nude in the background, was initially created out of expediency (Polanski wanted to get back on schedule by filming fourteen script pages in one go) but ended up nearly killing his female lead, as the freezing water brought Dorléac close to hypothermia and the crew rebelled when he asked for a third take. Ironically, Dorléac would indeed die the following year, but in an unrelated car crash.

But this on-set tension gave Cul-de-sac its constant jolts of electricity, and it remains Polanski's most unclassifiable and unpredictable film, especially when the castle is invaded by George's friends in place of the expected Katelbach and Richard has to pretend to be a surly manservant to avoid provoking suspicion. At the time, absurdist black comedy reigned supreme in the theatre, with Beckett, Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco well established and Joe Orton recently emerged, but few British film-makers had even tried to pull off anything similar before Polanski showed them the way.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The odd couple (3:53)
2. The odder couple (5:16)
3. Dangerous child (2:48)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Repulsion (1965)
Bisset, Jacqueline (1944-)
Klinger, Michael (1921-1989)
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Polanski, Roman (1933-)
Taylor, Gilbert (1914-)
The Golden Bear