If you put together the very British and mild-mannered Donald Pleasence, the brutish and gravelly-voiced American Lionel Stander and the sexy French Françoise Dorléac on the some remote English island, you get an explosive, unique, offbeat and hilarious cocktail called Cul-De-Sac (1966).
The Roman Polanski’s zany dramedy released in 1966, based on an original script he co-wrote with his longtime writing partner Gérard Brach, has stood the test of time and remains a breath of fresh air when looking at a modern film landscape dominated by formula filmmaking. The tale of a wounded criminal taking refuge at a couple’s mansion (or castle), holding them hostage while opening their eyes on their own weaknesses, has inspired many films ever since, including the Denis Leary-Kevin Spacey-Judy Davis conventional comedy The Ref, released in 1994.
What makes Cul-De-Sac a fascinating viewing experience is its eclectic cast, unique location and absurd situations in which a couple’s offbeat relationship is put to the test by an intruder. The husband, George (Donald Pleasence), a forty-something ex-businessman, seems to have fled civilization in order to be able to keep his promiscuous young French wife Teresa (Dorléac) for himself. Their fragile little world collapses when Dickey (Lionel Stander), a gangster on the run, hides in their castle and takes control of their lives. One of the central scenes, in which George is forced to entertain some of his obnoxious friends who show up unannounced (featuring an early appearance by beautiful Jacqueline Bisset) and Dickey has to pose as a servant while Teresa flirts with one of the guests, symbolizes this original incursion into the absurd.
The making of the film was reportedly as chaotic as the situations it depicts. Notwithstanding the freezing temperatures on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in England, where the project was entirely shot (no soundstages), Lionel Stander’s erratic behavior on set made it extremely difficult for the director to bring in his second English-language film on budget and on schedule. Nonetheless, the blacklisted actor (best remembered for playing Max on TV’s Hart to Hart more than a decade later) delivered a stellar performance and infused his character with a vigorous authenticity.
Cul-De-Sac has acquired a cult status over the years and remains one of Polanski’s most personal films. It opened the door to his career in Hollywood with blockbusters such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), eventually leading him back to more personal projects such as his Oscar-winning film, The Pianist (2002).