Sigh....Polanski in the sixties. Knife in the Water(1962), Repulsion (1965), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Rosemary's Baby (1968) are all on that list. But so is the not oft remarked on Cul-de-sac (1966). Cul-de-sac trades effectively in Polanski's modern noir Gothic but amongst the elemental chills is a smart, heartbreaking, very funny, satire of failed aristocracy, would be intellectualism and decayed gangster myth. A pair of hoods on the lam descend on a remote and somewhat decrepit beach property castle inhabited by a decidedly eccentric couple. George (Donald Pleasance) is a scholar, his much younger wife, Teresa (Francoise Dorleac), is a flighty woman who may or may not be in love with him. They meet the intrusion into their home with equal parts moral outrage, humor and terror, as the thieves, one mortally injured and the other clearly beholden to his higher ups, desperately lash out, attempting to parlay their situation into some obscure advantage.
Soon all the participants in Polanski's dramedy find themselves switching roles. A thief becomes a butler, a temptress becomes an accomplice then a loyal wife. A scholar becomes a thug. Visitors complicate things, becoming an even bigger bother than the potentially lethal gangsters. This is claustrophobic stuff full of shadows and grey atmosphere but the dourness and stuffiness never overpowers the story or the performances which deliver taut suspense. The end result is not unlike a gangsterized version of Waiting for Godot though far more irreverent.
Veteran character actor Lionel Stander tears into the meaty role of Richard and it is a pure joy to watch him make the most of the opportunity. Stander played lovable and not so lovable rogues his whole career but here he's positively menacing, playing one that may or may not be a lot smarter than he looks. Pleasance is wonderfully odd and dangerously unpredictable as George. Those who haven't seen Pleasance outside of his iconic Sam Loomis role in the Halloween series should do themselves a favor. The man was never in anything, however ill-realized, that he didn't elevate with his presence. Slightly better utilized than Stander during his career, Pleasance still never got close to his due as one of the great character actors of his time.
The image and sound quality is dynamite. Sadly there are few extras here. A real shame considering the cast involved and the fact that, having been picked up by Criterion for BluRay, a better edition of the film is unlikely for quite some time. Want to get that film lover something for Christmas that they likely won't have seen before or only have heard about? This would be a nice gift indeed.